The Cost of Negativity

Several years ago, at my first post-college job, I worked in a small office with three other people. One of them (who I’ll call Campbell) was probably the best co-worker I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. The other (who I’ll call Kathy) made the office environment so poisonous through her constant negativity that I considered quitting after six months.

Every day, Campbell and I were faced with criticisms without suggestions for improvement. We also were tasked on a nearly-daily basis with dealing with perceived quality faults in her work environment. During our weekly meetings with our supervisor, she would announce that she hadn’t completed tasks for the week because of her “unhospitable” coworkers, blaming us for nearly everything under the sun.

Eventually, Campbell and I came to an understanding that we would tackle the project as a two person team. At our weekly meetings, one of the two of us volunteered for every task that needed to be done. We began to ignore her complaints and criticisms.

In the final three months of our nine month “startup” period, our two person team completed an order of magnitude more progress on the overall project than the three person team had completed in the first six months of the project.

Campbell and I often criticized each other’s work. But with that criticism came a reason for why it was a problem and a suggestion or an idea for how to improve things.

Campbell and I were often extremely disgruntled at Kathy but we learned quickly that it was a waste of our time to dwell on those negative thoughts. Rather than “venting” or pouring out negative feelings onto each other or onto society in general, we made it a point of pride to channel those sentiments into our work.

The best “revenge” I ever got on Kathy was presenting a great project at the end of the nine month period with her name slapped right on the cover along with mine. All negativity would have done was make the project worse and that would have reflected poorly on me.

What happened? Follow-up discussions on the project demonstrated very quickly that Kathy had no idea whatsoever what was going on with our project. She was let go within a week and several months later, Kathy had been replaced with perhaps the second best coworker I’ve ever had.

I learned a few huge lessons from this.

Dwelling on negative thoughts is a waste of time and energy that makes your performance worse. Every moment you spend thinking negatively about someone, making negative comments about someone, writing negative emails or forum posts, and so on, you’re wholly wasting your own energy. They don’t improve you, your own performance, or your own success in any way.

The negative impact of others will eventually be discovered if you maximize your own competence. If you do the best job you can possibly do, the incompetence of those around you will eventually become clear on its own. Patience and persistence is the key here. You have to simply stop dwelling on your negative feelings towards others.

Spreading negative thoughts around usually just reflects poorly on you, not on the person you’re deriding. Almost always, the person who spreads caustic thoughts about someone else looks bad, particularly when the person in question is obviously working hard in a positive, friendly fashion. Thus, the best antidote to negativity is to work as positively and effectively as possible.

The best “revenge” is succeeding on your own merits regardless of the source of negativity. If you truly want to seek some form of “revenge” on someone else, use that feeling as a motivator for your own success. Rather than spreading around caustic comments and behavior, channel that feeling into your own productivity, making it so that your own success outshines them.

Channel short term negativity into something else. If I’m feeling very negative to the point that it’s affecting my work, I channel it into something personal. I’ll go exercise vigorously. I’ll play an action video game. I’ll go shopping for groceries (weirdly, this is really therapeutic for me when I’m upset). If your short term emotional rush is making it difficult for you to do what you need to be doing, channel it into something private and physical – exercise is perhaps the best overall solution.

Negativity doesn’t help you and it doesn’t help those around you. The best use for negative feelings is to burn them as the fuel for something positive without dumping that negativity out onto others.