Have you ever gone into a meeting feeling happy and come out feeling like the joy has been sucked out of your world? Then you had a brush with someone whose toxic negativity has turned them into an energy vampire.
We can all think of examples of people in our lives who struggle with this – who have the innate ability to kill ideas and quash enthusiasm, often without realising – who we wish we could avoid.
Sometimes people are going through challenges in life and can become more negative than they would usually be, but there’s something different about toxic negativity: it quickly becomes contagious and can destroy previously happy teams in just a few short months. Anyone else who is struggling to feel positive will be magnetised to the toxic negativity team member and they will drag each other down.
This can quickly spread throughout a team, because the toxic negativity people, by that point, can’t handle being around happy people and will subconsciously work to make sure everyone feels as bad as they do.
Toxic negativity can cause you to lose your star performers. Yet few leaders are trained in how to identify and handle it. Find out five essential warning signs:Click To Tweet
In fact, in exit interviews, Heads of Talent regularly report that the reason a brilliant employee felt they ‘had’ to leave was because someone they had to work with had become unbearable. That’s toxic negativity in action: triggering you losing your star performers.
When someone in a team is spreading toxic negativity, those who are working with them may start by tying to help them, but this makes it worse, because one of the warning signs is that:
1. They are unaware that they are behaving this way
So when a friendly colleague offers to help or support them, they are often rudely rejected or even criticised. This can cause team members to start to avoid them. The toxic negativity employee senses this rejection, but doesn’t understand why, because they have no idea that their negativity is affecting others – and it makes their behaviour worse.
And pessimism has become their only way of seeing the world. So even if someone tries to help them, they are unlikely to believe it might actually work.
One of the key behavioural warning signs is:
2. The live and breathe their inner drama queen.
They feed on the sympathy their negativity gets them – it is an addiction at a mental, emotional and physiological level (emotions fire off biochemical reactions in your body to which your cells can become addicted).
They don’t actually want to be helped, because they would then lose out on the sympathy, which helps them to feel loved and accepted. And the way they get this is through telling drama-stories that get them the sympathy they subconsciously crave.
Sympathy is where you drag someone into your pain and feel it together, creating validation for the toxic negativity person’s inner drama.
If the person senses this sympathy is waning – as it will when people start to avoid them – they will often provoke drama situations within the team to allow themselves to reclaim their position as the innocent victim.
This may be in the form of attacking another team member or sharing exaggerated or untrue gossip and rumours in quiet corners. It spreads the energy of fear and distrust through a team, as those stories attract others who are feeling less than positive to the toxic negativity person, to feed and further spread those stories.
I have seen countless examples of where people who were ‘wobbling’ and feeling general self-doubt would be magnetised to the toxic negativity, causing them to start behaving in toxic ways, too, until the toxic negativity person has attracted a tribe of fellow complainers and sympathy-feeders.
The toxic negativity person doesn’t want to be rejected, they want to be accepted, and the third warning sign is:
3. They don’t understand why people are avoiding them
They don’t see themselves as negative, let alone toxic, even if everyone else secretly does. Someone who is struggling with toxic negativity will often see themselves as a kind and helpful person and they don’t understand why others reject them, which makes their sense of being an innocent victim even stronger.
They will blame the team and spread stories about others being unsupportive and even unkind, because they have no awareness of the fact it is their behaviour that is triggering others’ responses.
This can lead to warning sign number four:
4. Blaming and criticising
The person who is struggling with toxic negativity and who is spreading that around a team is not taking personal responsibility for their behaviour and they will single out those who stand up to them for personal criticism and blame. Looking in the mirror when you are filled with that level of pain takes courage, which they cannot access at that time.
As the Native Americans say: “All criticism is borne of someone else’s pain.”
Happy people don’t intentionally hurt others.
So the toxic negativity person will regularly criticise others, either to their face, but more commonly behind their back to other members of their negativity-tribe. If they’re late on a project, it’s never their fault: it’s either down to someone else in the team or failures in the process. There will always be an external factor or person that they blame for their lack of performance.
Their motivation is to position themselves as the victim, to trigger the sympathy to which they have become addicted.
They perfect the technique of the passive-aggressive put-down, which soon leads to others in the team shutting down in order to stay safe: not speaking up with ideas or taking risks if the toxic negativity person might criticise them. If toxic negativity person is someone’s boss, it can soon lead to mental and emotional health problems for their team, damaging creativity and affecting performance.
And in the early stages of toxic negativity, you will be able to see warning sign number five:
5. Sudden Changes In Personality
Someone running this pattern is feeling inner pain. It is often grounded in self-doubt and even self-loathing.
One of the classic signs for someone who is in the early stages of toxic negativity is that they will have what feels like a personality transplant, often multiple times a day. They will yo-yo between happy and helpful and then become destructive, as soon as one of their trigger buttons has been pressed.
These buttons are like autopilots in their brain, that kick off the toxic behaviour in a Jeckyll and Hyde dance, leaving others confused and frustrated in the wave of damage they leave in their wake.'Surely it will just go away?' and other problems with toxic negativity - discover how easily it can trash a team plus five early warning signs every leader needs to know:Click To Tweet
How Can You Deal With Toxic Negativity?
A good leader needs to be able to spot toxic negativity before it becomes contagious and drags down the entire team.
The key is to nip it in the bud, before it spreads and hurts others or even causes you to lose your star performers, when they can no longer tolerate working in the environment that the negativity has created. When you catch it early, it is easier for the person to see what has triggered it and to turn their behaviour around.
Once it becomes more entrenched, those who are creating that atmosphere tend to lack self-awareness and will have trained the filters in their brain to spot examples of how others are unkind to them and they are the victim.
When faced with examples of how their behaviour is inappropriate or even damaging to others, they are likely to initially attack and justify their actions, but may then show remorse and promise that their behaviour will change. However, unless they have released the triggers that caused them to behave that way, they will soon revert to their previous toxic ways.
Performance management and disciplinary processes will not work until they have accepted their role in the negativity and have made a commitment to change. At that point, if it ever comes, professional interventions from someone outside of the field of people they are blaming may help them to turn this around.
Bear in mind that the ‘secondary gain’ (what they are getting from that behaviour) is huge: the sympathy from others and their sense of being a victim meaning they can blame others instead of taking personal responsibility for their actions. That’s why they’re unlikely to suddenly wake up one morning and decide to be happy.
The root causes are often personal life traumas that need to be resolved, accepted and healed, to allow them to move forward in a positive, healthy way. This goes beyond the realms of standard coaching.
However, if the person is not yet ready to clear those triggers, performance management may be the only option. They will often self-select to leave, once the ‘sympathy tap’ is turned off, especially if the team, as a whole, makes it clear that they will only accept positive, open-hearted behaviour.
But if they’re still in victim-and-blame mode, bear in mind they are likely to go public on their perceived injustices and will do as much damage as they can as they leave. You will need to have plans in place to limit this.
Fortunately toxic negativity is not common. But its effects can be hugely damaging for teams and businesses, if it goes unnoticed, in as little as a few weeks. That is why all business leaders need to be trained in how to spot it early and how to handle it.Toxic negativity isn't common. But its effects can be hugely damaging for teams and businesses, if it goes unnoticed, in as little as a few weeks. That is why all business leaders need to be trained in how to spot it early and how to handle it.Click To Tweet
What To Do If You Have To Work With Someone With Toxic Negativity
Firstly, it’s incredibly important to realise that this is not about you; it’s not personal.
Toxic negativity is about someone projecting their inner pain, even though they might strongly deny that. There’s no need to walk on eggshells around them, because that means that – at some level – you’re taking personal responsibility for their pain and emotions.
Treat them as you would any other professional colleague and don’t allow them to affect your behaviour.
Then you need to make sure you are not diving into your monkey mind’s drama stories. It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting that person live in our head, rent free. I’ve worked with clients in the past where trying to second-guess how to handle someone with toxic negativity has even affected their confidence.
If you catch yourself diving into the drama and emotions, take a deep breath in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth with an ‘ahhh’ sound (assuming you’re not in a meeting!) This helps to reset your body’s nervous system, which will have gone into fight-flight-freeze stress-mode as soon as you tell yourself those stories.
And here are two practical strategies to help you:
- You can use my ABC technique to press ‘pause’ on those thoughts, if they’re an issue for you – here’s a podcast episode that covers how to do it: http://www.clarejosa.com/podcast/episode051/
- And you may find that my ‘mirror ball‘ strategy really helps, too.
With regards to working together, the key is to keep it professional and not indulge their need for drama or negativity. By all means show them compassion – honouring that they are feeling in a negative space – but don’t do anything that will keep them stuck there. It isn’t your job to ‘fix’ them and, once in that place of toxic negativity, they’re unlikely to want your help. So stick to practical discussions that move the team and the project forwards.
And finally, if this toxic negativity looks like something that could become entrenched, then you do need to consider having a discussion with their boss or someone in HR who might be able to help them. The one thing that’s guaranteed with negativity that has reached toxic levels is that it isn’t going to go away, unless the person gets the support they need to change. Remember: if you’re struggling with their behaviour, plenty of other people will be, too.
Learning how to identify and handle toxic negativity – and even prevent it – is part of my ground-breaking programme Leading With Your Heart In A Head-Based World. If you’d like to speak with me about how I might be able to help you with leadership development, please contact me here to arrange a call.