It irritates me how often leaders tell reports that they have a bad attitude. This is an easy enough statement to make, but what are employees supposed to do about it? Regardless of your level, if your attitude could use a little adjustment in 2011, read on for some strategies you can use today.
The business world can no doubt produce anger, frustration, and negativity. After all, policies don’t always make sense and the environment is often out of our control. Developing a bad attitude is a natural consequence when we believe that someone or something is keeping us from succeeding or doing our best work. However, it’s important to realize that in the end, negativity only makes you look bad, and it’s a career killer because other people will avoid working with you no matter how smart and talented you are.
Staying positive when it feels like the universe is conspiring against you isn’t easy, and a part of you may even think it’s impossible. Except it isn’t. I’ll never forget learning in a college psychology class that we can choose our response to individual situations by focusing our thoughts instead of allowing them to run amuck.
I’m a glass-half-empty person, so when I encounter an unpleasant situation that disrupts my day, the first thoughts that pop into my head relate to the worst-case scenario. For instance, if someone cancels a meeting with me at the last minute, the first thing I think is that the person has blown me off because he is inconsiderate of my time and doesn’t think my work is important. What I’ve learned to do, though, is move on from this initial negative reaction by first letting go of assumptions and then analyzing whether the situation is objectively as bad as it seems.
Jumping to conclusions is a natural reaction in a situation like the one in which I was canceled on without an explanation. It’s very tempting to assume that I should take the brush off personally. But thinking this way doesn’t make me feel better, and it may not even be accurate. Who’s to say that the person didn’t get stuck in unexpected traffic? What if he lost his iPhone and consequently his calendar? Maybe he got sick or caught up in another meeting. It’s quite possible that the situation had nothing to do with me, and I have to adjust my thinking accordingly.
Sometimes I have to argue with myself, and I do this in the form of a piece of paper that I divide into five columns.
In the first column, I write exactly what occurred (e.g. the contact canceled on me at the last minute).
In the second, I describe the negative thoughts that instantly appeared (e.g. he doesn’t think my work is important).
In the third, I write out evidence that supports the negative thought (e.g. the contact didn’t call me to reschedule), and in the fourth, evidence that disproves it (e.g. he agreed to the meeting in the first place even though his schedule was booked solid).
In most cases, I’ll see that the evidence disproving the automatic, negative thoughts far outweighs the evidence supporting it, and I’ll have no rational choice but to give some credence to alternative explanations that don’t hurt quite so much. I write out these alternative explanations (e.g. transportation snafu, lost calendar) in the fifth column.
I might also turn the paper over and write out the worst-case scenario if the meeting never takes place (e.g. I’ll lose a valuable piece of business). Then, I’d jot down all the things I could do to keep this worst-case from becoming a reality (e.g. try re-connect with the contact, find another contact at the company). Generating these additional solutions helps me see that the worst-case scenario is not inevitable or likely, and I’m able to change my thinking and attitude about the situation as a whole.
Now, it’s your turn to analyze a recent negative event. Take a blank sheet of paper and divide it into five columns. Label the columns as follows:
On the back side of the paper, write down what will happen if one of your negative thoughts comes to fruition. How will you handle it?
If you are someone who’s accustomed to dwelling on negative thoughts, this exercise will probably feel ridiculous at first. And this sentiment won’t go away overnight. Sometimes I’ll be writing out alternative thoughts and explanations and I’ll still say to myself, “I don’t buy it.” Just remember that discomfort is a good thing because it means change is underway.
It’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll be able to transform every difficult situation into a fortuitous one with a few strokes of the pen. But if you get into the habit of paying attention to and challenging how you perceive the events in the work world, you’ll find that in general you can do away with negative thoughts and get past the hurdles of professional life much more quickly, and can ultimately improve your attitude.