Positivity is often highly valued in the workplace. But negativity has its place.
We are naturally drawn to those who are outgoing, positive and optimistic, and they are important people to have in a workplace. But a little negativity doesn’t go astray. In fact, people who are withdrawn, negative and pessimistic have qualities that are just as necessary.
Research shows that negative moods are associated with a range of things organisations benefit from. In his report Don’t Worry, Be Sad!, Joseph P. Forgas, from the University of NSW’s School of Psychology, says that ‘negative affect’ (moods) can improve memory function and judgmental accuracy, and reduce gullibility.
He cites several studies conducted over multiple decades to back up these claims. Memory, for example, can be compromised by misleading information that seeps into the original memory trace. In an experiment to test memory accuracy, participants were party to an orchestrated argument. After a week, they were brought back into the fold and fed information about the altercation. Those in a negative mood were less likely to accept the incorrect information and had a more accurate memory of the sequence of events than those who were in a positive mood.
“People who think negatively or are in a negative frame of mind may display better attention to detail than their optimistic colleagues,” says James Adonis, author and employee engagement and team leadership educator. “When you’re in such a state of mind, you pay closer attention to your surroundings.”
This doesn’t mean that positivity isn’t valuable, he says, or that negative thinking is necessarily good – just that the “trend to denigrate negative people in the workplace should stop, because they are often skilled in identifying things that could go wrong that everyone else has missed”.
Categorising people too strictly as either negative or positive is as risky as labelling everybody as either extraverted or introverted.
It removes nuance and doesn’t account for different opinions. One person’s pessimist is another person’s realist. But, although nobody’s mood is constant, most would agree that individuals tend to be prone to certain moods. And there are proven links between extraversion and optimism, and introversion and pessimism.
Adonis says that, in an attempt to create vibrant work cultures, there is an explicit bias towards optimists when it comes to recruitment and career advancement. But such a bias is risky, he warns. If an organisation hires and promotes only the one type of person, it could be harmful in the long run.
Grevis Beard, co-founder and director of Australian workplace consultancy Worklogic, agrees. He says it’s important for employers to ensure they are looking at the different range of qualities and working styles that people can bring to an organisation.
“But someone thinking negatively can challenge consensus to good effect. They aren’t trying to sabotage; they are being critical and rational.”
“You may have someone who’s the cynic, or someone else who’s the can-do type. A person who’s technically focused, and a person who’s the social facilitator. There is usually a blend of individuals who are outward or inward-facing, to represent our society in its full entirety.”
Moods and behaviours
It’s important to recognise that negative behaviours are not the same as negative moods. Someone who regularly acts in a negative fashion can drain morale, says Adonis. They can be quite toxic and are often conflict-prone.
But someone thinking negatively can challenge consensus to good effect. They aren’t trying to sabotage; they are being critical and rational. These people will put forward objections and poke holes in strategies – which isn’t always something everyone welcomes.
“All leaders should be comfortable with people who are willing to challenge us,” says Adonis. Sometimes, if we have come up with an idea, we can view it through rose-tinted glasses. We become attached to it and are sensitive to people criticising it. But this is something we need to drop.”
People with more negative moods are especially valuable when working in a team organised to complete a specific project. Such teams are more likely to achieve success if, during the planning stage, the individual members are able to identify what may go wrong. If you’re an optimist, says Adonis, that’s a challenging task to embark on. But if you’re naturally cynical, it’s much easier to identify these risks.
“Every project team needs to have at least one person like this, to be able to calm the over-excitedness that often occurs.”
It may well be that they are voicing an opinion other people are thinking but not addressing, says Beard.
“It’s natural for many of us to be won over by charismatic people. So if you’re interviewing someone and feel yourself falling for their charm, it’s worth analysing why you feel so strongly about this person.”
“Those types of data points are gold. These people may have some really fantastic intel if they’re cynical about something or don’t think it’s realistic.”
It may seem obvious, but teams and organisations both benefit from a diversity of personalities. As Forgas says of his report’s data: “The results are consistent with evolutionary theories that suggest all of our affective states – including the unpleasant ones – function as ‘mind modules’ that produce adaptive benefits in some circumstances.”
In other words, even negative moods have their uses. “It is now increasingly recognised that a positive affect, despite some advantages, is not universally desirable,” writes Forgas.
To avoid a bias towards positive candidates, interviewers should be conscious of the questions asked at the interview stage, says Adonis. Many lines of enquiry, such as those about energy or interpersonal skills, are geared towards people who are more extraverted.
He adds that it’s important to be mindful of intuition. “It’s natural for many of us to be won over by charismatic people. So if you’re interviewing someone and feel yourself falling for their charm, it’s worth analysing why you feel so strongly about this person. It could be that the least charismatic candidate, the one that really bored you in an interview, is actually the best person for the job.”
Beard suggests the following if you’re recruiting for a role that requires critical thinking: “Ask questions of the candidate that bring out the KPIs of the role. If you want to identify critical thinking in an individual, spell it out in the KPI and make sure you’re providing relevant activities in the interview that demonstrate their critical faculties.”
It’s also important to engage and encourage individuals to be comfortable with who they are, he says. “If the interview is a panel discussion, it’s about ensuring there’s a range of personalities to reflect society.”
There are two important questions managers should be mindful of when it comes to negative-leaning employees, says Adonis.
Firstly, is the negativity becoming contagious? If so, performance management may be required. While you might want to value someone’s negativity, it shouldn’t damage the morale of those who are usually positive.
Secondly, is the negativity actually being harnessed – are they being specifically asked for their feedback on projects, decisions or ideas? If the answer is yes, then they are being engaged in the right way, while being granted the space to be themselves without a contagious effect.
“But if you’re not asking them for input and they are negatively affecting others, it’s possible the unhealthy variety of negative person is in your team and you should be having a conversation with them about their attitude.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 edition of HRM Magazine.
Find out how to attract – and retain– good talent in your organisation with AHRI’s in-house course ‘Attracting and Retaining Talent’.