Why You’re Labeled as Negative (and What to Do about It)

They hired you for your experience and expertise, after all. You’re the one closest to the issue. You’ve been on this project for close to six months. You should be seen as the expert. Instead, you hear through the grapevine after the meeting that your director thinks you’re just negative. You’re “dragging down the team with your defeatist attitude.”

Your first impulse is to quit. Your second is to hide in the bathroom and cry for a few minutes (or throw something at a wall.) But your third impulse is to talk to a trusted mentor who will help you see things more clearly. Here’s what they might say.

Most of us are wired to see things from a negative point of view – to see danger all around us. It’s how our species survived for millennia – being able to spot a tiger’s eyes in the shadows. If there wasn’t really a tiger there, everyone had a good laugh around the campfire that night. If there actually was a tiger, he who took off running first was most likely to live to see the sunset.

There are very few tigers in the bushes these days. But some of us still have the survival instincts that served us so well thousands of years ago. We pride ourselves on being realistic, on being helpful to our teammates, on heading off problems before they happen. But our coworkers, our friends and family, and our bosses may see it differently. Here’s why.

One issue might be your timing. You may be jumping in to quash an idea just as it’s being explored. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re right or not – whether it’s a good idea or not – speaking up right away feels like an attack. Your coworker or boss may be an idea person who talks through concepts to make them better. Hearing what’s wrong before they have a chance to develop their thoughts feels like an attack. It might even feel like a personal attack.

That feeling can harm relationships and make coworkers less likely to include you in meetings, especially brainstorming sessions where important projects are born. Your helpful and realistic feedback may never be heard if you’re not given a seat at the table.

In addition to idea people, your feedback may be irritating to “Get it Done” people. I’ve written about this before; people who are focused on Getting it Done are often in conflict with those focused on Getting it Right.

We need to balance people who chew through the maze instead of running it. The Get it Doners benefit from the advice of people who can see problems and help avoid them. The conflict between the “Get it Done” and “Get it Right” people is mostly about speed. The Get it Doners have a bias toward action; they want to see progress on a goal as soon as they’ve decided on one. The Get it Righters don’t feel the same sense of urgency; they care more about quality than speed.

When the two types work well together, they learn to trust each other and how to moderate their natural tendencies. When they don’t trust each other or can’t communicate effectively, they become the proverbial irresistible force and the immovable object. The more the Get it Doner pushes, the more the Get it Righter digs in. It’s not a pretty sight.

When frustrated, the Get in Doner will lash out at whatever or whomever she considers to be an impediment to progress.  In her eyes, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem; there’s no middle ground. If you’re the unlucky obstacle, you feel like pavement in front of a steamroller.

So how can you change your reputation? First, you have to admit there might be a problem. Your goal, after all, is to be helpful; if your style is getting in the way of that, it’s worth the effort to change your approach.

One tactic that works almost every time is to slow down your feedback. Your advice will certainly benefit from a little time and thoughtful editing. Even if you’re asked directly in a meeting, you can request time to craft your answer. “I may have some thoughts on that based on the last couple of times we dealt with this issue. Can I send you an email tomorrow morning with my feedback?”

This approach lets your idea person and Get it Done person a chance to save face in the meeting and get the benefit of your advice in time to fix issues. Follow up with a concise – and neutrally worded – memo that outlines your most urgent concern. Sending a laundry list of possible problems will only test your coworker’s patience and attention span.

With some sincere effort, you can heal your rep as negative and transform yourself into a trusted advisor. Eventually, your coworkers will be glad you’re always the first to see the tiger and thank you for it.

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