9 minute read

Check Your Attitude at the Door

Combating Negativity

A week before one of our training seminars, our Group Manager announced that he was changing the curriculum. With one arbitrary decision, weeks of work were flushed down the toilet, and we were left scrambling. When my boss told me the news, I thought I could actually feel my blood boiling. I should have gone outside to get some air, but instead I followed my boss into the Group Manager's emergency planning meeting. I was so pissed off at the guy for screwing everything up that I couldn't help showing some attitude. The Group Manager didn't say anything about it—he just kind of frowned. But afterwards, my boss had some words for me. He said that he thought I was more mature than that, and that I needed to learn some emotional control. So much for all the great work I did on the seminar.

Donovan, 27, Michigan

When one of the corporate world's realities frustrates you, you might want to stomp your foot and scream, “It's not fair! It doesn't make any sense! It's wrong!” Incident after incident convinces you that your managers are a bunch of crazy lunatics, and that every time you turn around, someone or something is keeping you from succeeding at work. You quickly develop a bad attitude without considering the consequences.

I fell into this trap at the beginning of my career. I had a clear mental picture of how the business world should operate, and I considered my company's inefficiencies to be a personal tragedy. Every time my progress toward my goals was blocked, my resentment grew (and I'm the type of person who wears my emotions on my sleeve). Pretty soon my managers didn't want to give me bad news, because they were afraid of my reaction. I was probably one of the most capable people in my group at the time, but did I get promoted? No sir. I stayed exactly where I was and watched as coworkers with half my skills moved ahead of me. Eventually I quit, believing my company was the problem. Two jobs later, I realized that corporate business is the same everywhere, and that the problem was not my job, but rather my attitude.

Negativity might be a natural reaction to frustration, but that doesn't mean it's the right one. Pessimistic twenty-somethings waste a lot of energy being unhappy. They're unpopular with their colleagues because they suck the life out of everyone around them, and their corporate personas suffer because they are perceived as immature. One of my first managers used to say that a bad attitude is like cholera: The person who catches it is vocal in his misery and gives the plague to everyone around him before finally kicking the bucket. Unless you want your career to end prematurely, your strategy must be to kill negativity before it kills you.

Maintaining a positive attitude when faced with de-motivating situations is not easy, but it is under your control. I'm not suggesting that you suppress your bad feelings and walk around smiling when you think something is wrong. In fact, if you pay close attention to the suggestions in this chapter, you won't have to fake it at all. By learning to adjust your thoughts, let go of irrational expectations, and manage your emotions to banish anger, worry, and stress, you will genuinely become a happier and more peaceful person.

You Are What You Think

The Parable of the Three Neighbors

Three neighbors were standing in the road, talking about their possessions.

“I own a huge villa!” one said proudly.

“Oh yeah?” scoffed the second. “Well, I own a successful farm!”

“I don't have a villa or a big farm,” the third said quietly. “But I do have optimism.”

His two neighbors laughed at him. Optimism was hardly something to boast about, for what good is a possession that can't be seen or touched? Late that evening, the neighborhood experienced a violent storm. The rain destroyed the first neighbor's house. “What am I to do?” he cried, wringing his hands.

The wind ruined the second neighbor's crops. “I am finished!” he lamented.

The storm also destroyed the third neighbor's home and crops. “Well then, what should I do first?” he asked himself. After only a few minutes of consideration, he began rebuilding his home and replanting his crops. The next day, he whistled to himself as he went into his yard with some tomato seeds. His neighbors were still standing in the road feeling sorry for themselves. “We don't understand why you walk with a spring in your step,” said the first neighbor. “All of your possessions have been destroyed.”

“Yes,” said the second. “What is your secret?”

“It is no secret,” the man said. “The only thing I own is what I think.”

If you take away one thing from this chapter, let it be that your thoughts control your feelings and make you who you are. As a human being, you are responsible for your own life, and you have the ability to choose your response to your environment. Have you ever stayed late at work and noticed that at least half of the janitors are smiling and whistling as they go about their cleaning? Now, objectively, these folks might not have the most stimulating job in the world, but some of them make the decision to begin each day with a positive outlook. Fulfillment, my friend, is not about the job itself—it's about one's attitude toward the job. Nothing—and no one—controls your attitude but you.

You can change your attitude for the better by recognizing that you create your feelings with the thoughts you choose to concentrate on. Let's look at a few examples of how a person might react differently in a given situation, depending on if they choose to be negative or if they choose to be positive and productive:

Situation #1: A less competent coworker receives a promotion over you.

  • Negative Reaction: “My boss is such a jerk. He doesn't know good work when he sees it.”
  • Positive Reaction: “I need to find out what I can do to receive the promotion next time.”

Situation #2: It's 5 p.m. on Friday, and you were just given a difficult assignment that's due Monday morning.

  • Negative Reaction: “There's no way I can do this. I can't believe they didn't give me more notice.”
  • Positive Reaction: “Let me think about what resources I can call on to get this done tonight, so that I can still enjoy my weekend.”

Situation #3: You're given a task that doesn't exactly fit your job description.

  • Negative Reaction: “I didn't sign up for this. I'm totally underqualified, and they're not paying me enough.”
  • Positive Reaction: “Maybe I can learn something new, and impress my boss in the process.”

Situation #4: You just found out that your company is only giving 2 percent raises this year.

  • Negative Reaction: “This is how they repay all of my hard work? They can afford an expensive holiday party, but they can't reward their best employees? This company sucks.”
  • Positive Reaction: “The economy is pretty bad right now. At least I have a job I enjoy.”

Notice that in all of these hypothetical situations, the negative reactions have some truth to them. Every situation has pluses and minuses. However, it's hazardous to your well-being to focus only on the minuses, even though they may be first to pop into your mind. Now don't get me wrong: short-lived negative reactions such as concern, regret, disappointment, annoyance, and frustration are normal and often understandable. Rather, it's the negative reactions we hold onto—rage, panic, depression, self-pity—that wreak havoc over time, and eventually result in a bad attitude. To maintain a positive attitude over time, you have to make a conscious effort to throw constructive thoughts into the mix. You'll be happier, more productive, and more pleasant to be around.

The SHOULD Patrol

Like negative thoughts, irrational expectations can be an attitude-buster—not just in corporate business, but also in life in general. When we hold onto a belief that something should or must happen, we set ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. According to the prominent psychologists Marvin Goldfried and Gerald Davison, much of our emotional turmoil is, in fact, self-produced when we tell ourselves that our lives will be awful if a certain expectation is not fulfilled. Recognize any of the following?

I should be able to do A…

B should not happen to me…

My company should do C…

He should understand D…

Everyone in this place should E…

This project/campaign/event should be planned like F…

…or all hell will break loose!

If you catch yourself thinking or saying the word should, go directly to jail and do not collect $200! Should often signals that you're harboring an irrational expectation. As we've talked about, life does not always play out in a logical or fair way, and you do yourself a grave disservice when you hold on to a fantasy of what work or people should be like. A case of the shoulds can be downright dangerous if it leads you to freak out trying to correct a maddening situation that is beyond your control. You'll appear negative and panicky to your colleagues, and the situation won't turn out any better than it would have if you'd just stayed calm and dealt with the circumstances as best as you could.

Got a bad case of negativity? Remember that all hell breaking loose is in the eye of the beholder, and ask yourself if the world is really going to come to an end if things don't go exactly as you planned. Instead of thinking that something should happen, reframe it as something you would like to happen. You're still acknowledging your own opinions and preferences, but the element of expectation is gone, so you can't be disappointed.

Make a commitment to be more tolerant and flexible, and recognize that everyone has a different point of view. Instead of creating a whole bunch of rules and judgments based on your own ideals, walk into your office each day with an open mind. Whenever you can, think about how lucky you are to be educated, employed, and to most likely have a standard of living that is better than 97 percent of the world's population. You'll notice an improvement in your attitude overnight, without any changes in your work situation whatsoever!

The Positive Now

Most of us spend a great deal of time obsessing about the past, the future, and how we're going to use the people and things in our lives to get what we want. What if we recognized that every moment is potentially satisfying and inspiring in and of itself? After all, the most important moment in our lives is the one we're experiencing right now, for all others are either just a memory or don't yet exist. What if we could shut out negativity by becoming deeply involved in everything we do, every day?

Even if you start off the day with a positive frame of mind, your sense of well-being can fade as the hours wear on. Should you feel yourself slipping into unproductive modes of thinking, try the following:

  • • Consider how what you're doing relates to your big-picture goals.
  • • Get up from your desk and walk around or stretch.
  • • Think about ways to make a positive difference right now.

When you routinely exist in the moment, you become more conscious of how you behave around others and how certain situations affect you. This comes in handy for coping with negative emotions that rear their ugly heads at work. In the next section, I'll talk more about how you can develop your emotional intelligence to effectively fight attitude-busters such as anger, worry, and stress.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareer Advice: Career 101 for Recent Graduates, New Hires, and Would-be Corporate ClimbersCheck Your Attitude at the Door - No, You're Not Crazy, Combating Negativity, Reach Out And Touch Your Emotions