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Managing Difficult People: The Wet Blanket Negativist

Posted by Louellen Essex on November 7, 2013 in Managing Difficult Situations

Difficult people can make your work life miserable. Unless you have mastered a set of strategies to disarm them and gain some control, you may find yourself constantly stressed by the disruption a difficult person can cause. Most trouble makers have learned that their behaviors trigger a predictable set of responses in other people. Those reactions allow them to get the upper hand and, so, their behavior is reinforced and sustained. They set you up to fall into their trap and, before you know it, you may fall victim to the web they weave.

Consider the following scenario: Terrence Brown, one of your recent hires, is making the work environment difficult for everyone. He seems to be always in a bad mood, continually complaining about everything. When his co-workers come up with new ideas, he is quick to point out why they won’t work. When you want to make a change in the way something is done, he immediately focuses on why the change won’t work. His “wet blanket” approach is taking a toll on everyone because Terrence dampens their enthusiasm and drains their energy.

Terrence is displaying the traits of a Wet Blanket Negativist. He focuses on what is wrong, rarely stopping to see what might be going well. He counters positive comments with negative ones. Terrence seems to believe that most ideas won’t work and has difficulty accepting potential solutions to problems. To him, the glass is half empty, never half full.

In dealing with Negativists, follow these guidelines:

Don’t try to talk them out of their pessimism. Attempting to persuade them things aren’t so bad just makes them dig a deeper hole of gloom and doom.

Reframe the negative comments as helpful feedback. For example, if a negativist says “That will never work. We’ve tried it before and it was a disaster,” respond by asking “What would have to be different this time if we were to implement a similar idea?” That way the criticism can be used constructively without dampening the spirit of the work group. If the Negativist makes cynical remarks in casual conversation, say, “I appreciate your perspective and think we can work with it as we try to implement this approach.” Respond as if there was something valuable (which often there is) in what they have to say. Most Negativists are unaccustomed to hearing a positive response to their negativism.

Try jumping the gun, by being the first to bring up the down side of an idea as you propose it. Often that will diffuse the wet blanketing effect of the Negativists remarks. Or, another approach you might try, is to ask, “What is the worst that can happen if we do this?Can we live with that?” If the answer is “yes,” than the Negativist’s argument may be silenced and the impact significantly reduced.

As the popular saying goes, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” Stay looking up when the Negativists strike and you will find you can create a happy workplace, in spite of them, and maybe even win with their cooperation.

What strategies have you used to deal with the Wet Blanket Negativists in your workplace? What has been most successful?

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In these times of rapid change, leaders can never stop learning.”

Dr. Louellen Essex