By: John Mackenzie
How do you fight negativity among co-workers and why is negativity so contagious? Good news travels fast, but bad news travels at the speed of light through the walls of a firehouse.
Negativity manifests in the workplace in many ways. It can be directed at managers from workers, at workers from managers, or between workers (and managers). Maybe you feel like you’re not recognized enough for the effort you put in. Maybe you’re frustrated that Gary just isn’t as effective as he used to be. Or maybe you‘re flabbergasted that Karen got the promotion (even IF her husband DOES golf with Kyle every second weekend). At best, these kinds of thoughts are a distraction from the purpose and mission of the firehouse. At worst, they can metastasize and create a toxic work environment that has serious implications for health and safety.
It often seems like academics only talk about theory and offer little practical value, sometimes their work can be a happy surprise of utility. Writing on the topic of negativity in the workplace, Robert Sutton, PhD, offers valuable insight in his book titled, The No Asshole Rule – Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, which should be required reading for anyone setting foot in a firehouse. Here he equates negativity with being an asshole which many might think is a reasonable claim. The first question that comes to mind is: what exactly do we mean by ‘negativity’, and how can we tell?
Assessing for Negativity
Sutton responds by providing two tests. First, he says you can tell if someone is an asshole if after talking to them you feel “oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled.” If you feel generally worse about yourself in these ways or one like them, you might be dealing with an asshole. The second test has to do with how people treat others. If someone treats less powerful people poorly, they might be an asshole. Sutton is clear, however, to distinguish between people who might just be having a bad day, and “certified assholes” whose poor behaviour is consistent over time.
But what exactly is ‘poor behaviour’? Again, Sutton provides a useful answer in the “Dirty Dozen”, a list of behaviours he considers common to assholes and which contribute to a negative, toxic workplace environment.
These include personal insults, invading one’s personal territory, uninvited physical contact, threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal, sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult deliver systems, withering email flames, status slaps intended to humiliate their victims, public shaming or status degradation rituals, rude interruptions, two-faced attacks, dirty looks, and treating people as if they are invisible.
What About Your Workplace?
Now, think of your own workplace. Really think. Is it possible you have one or two assholes kicking around?
If so, it’s not all bad, Sutton insists. Steve Jobs of Apple was notoriously difficult but went on to lead a global technology empire. People that knew him suggested that he was one of the most imaginative, decisive, and persuasive people they’ve ever met. As such, Sutton suggests it’s naïve to assume that assholes always do more harm than good. Sometimes they can bring out qualities in people that wouldn’t have been apparent otherwise. But, of course, this doesn’t mean anyone should have to put up with an asshole.
So, how do we avoid becoming a firehouse asshole, and how do we deal with them? Sutton suggests useful strategies to avoid becoming a party to a negative workplace. A popular adage is that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now. In the context of the present topic, this means it’s best to assess potential employers for the concentration of assholes in its ranks. Too full? Consider keeping your distance. Failing that, the next best thing is to leave a toxic workplace as soon as possible or, if you can’t, avoid toxic people as much as you can. Further, although there is natural competition in workplaces, fostering a culture of commonality is useful. Sutton puts it this way:
“…adopt a frame that turns your attention to ways in which you are no better or worse than other people. Don’t focus on all the big and little ways that you are superior…or inferior. Think of all the ways that fellow human beings are just like you, such as the needs that we all have for love, comfort, happiness, and respect”. This seems like a powerfully simple way to defuse workplace negativity before it ignites.
Are You the Problem?
Lastly, consider being critical with yourself. Are you a workplace asshole? As Sutton suggests, admitting you’re an asshole is the first step. While it’s cheeky advice, it should be well-taken. How do others really perceive you? Is it possible you’re contributing to a negative workplace for others? If so, best to take steps to stop.
We all want the same thing which is the purpose and mission of the fire service writ large: to help people in times of crisis and need. As firefighters, we have unique knowledge, skills and qualities that enable us to carry this out in particular ways. Let’s not let a negative focus inward make us lose sight of the tasks that lie before us.