I was at a coaching group recently and the topic of staying positive in a negative environment was raised. As part of
this group we agree not to write about any specifics so as to maintain everyone’s trust and anonymity, so don’t expect
all the juicy details, instead I’ll be concentrating on the positives that can be found in a negative situation.
In many workplaces there can be a negative culture, maybe with a small group of people, maybe a team or department, or
maybe across the entire organisation. In an environment like this it can be hard to find the positives to latch on to
and it’s easy to get dragged into the negative spiral. What many don’t realise is that in a negative situation where
most people think everything is doomed to failure, it’s not possible for an individual to fail if they make some effort.
When a group of people see the failure of an initiative as a certainty there are two courses of action; the first course
of action is to accept it, do nothing, and let the failure manifest; the second is the winning strategy of trying to
prevent the failure, this is the focus of this article.
The acceptance by a team that something will fail suddenly grants you a lot of freedom. If you take actions to prevent
the failure one of three outcomes will occur: the failure will occur as expected; the cost of failure will be lessened;
or the failure will be prevented. In two of these situations you can be a winner, but only one of them leaves you where
For the sake of an example, I’m going to assume our main character (let’s call her Charity - thank you to an online name
generator for this name) works in a department that is working on a large project for a customer. Charity has come to
the party late, the entire department thinks the project is off-track, over budget and will inevitably fail. When
Charity first started, she felt really positive and full of hope, but as the weeks wore on the constant negativity of
her team took its toll; she was accepting that the project would fail and that it wasn’t worth making much effort.
This is Charity’s time to shine, instead of giving up and going through the motions of her role, Charity focussed on her
tasks, she strived to get them completed ahead of plan and actively engaged others to deliver components of the project
Outcome 1 - The failure occurs as expected
Although Charity requested others to help her succeed, many were not willing. Although she delivered tasks, she wasn’t
responsible for, and made do as best she could, the project was declared a failure as everyone had predicted.
In this situation it’s possible no one noticed the extra effort Charity made and her actions went unrewarded. Her
actions may not have a positive impact on the perception of her at work, but she definitely isn’t any worse off than
when she first realised she was getting sucked in to the negative cycle.
This situation also has the possibility that others did notice Charity’s effort. Maybe it’s a co-worker who will now
look at her as a leader; maybe it’s a manager who is now looking at her for a potential promotion. In either case
Charity’s future role will have a greater positive influence on the department, and on the next project maybe it will
help to avoid the failure.
Internally Charity has a feeling of pride, she faced the adversity at work and knows that she did the best she could.
Although she wasn’t able to change the outcome of the project, she gave it her best shot, but the power of the
department, or her late arrival to the project, was too much for her to have a meaningful impact.
Outcome 2 - The failure is reduced
When Charity asked others to help, some of the were willing. They could see her effort and drive, and they did what
they could to enable her. Through Charity’s extra effort, and then motivation she provided others the project delivered
some results, but not as much as expected.
It’s likely that managers noticed Charity’s ability to lead others, they saw her motivation and recognised her ability
to drive others. Although she’s still new to the organisation they’re now monitoring her as a potential leader, and
they recognise the value she can provide.
Internally Charity’s teammates have a sense of pride that they managed to deliver some of the project when they thought
it would be a complete loss; they also look up to Charity for staying strong when everyone else had surrendered.
Charity has a sense of pride that she’s made a positive impact on her team and the project. She can see that she didn’t
just let it fail, and she’s got a feeling of strength that she can use to help drive the next project.
Outcome 3 - Failure? What Failure?
The best possible outcome is that Charity’s drive and motivation reignites the team. She asks some people to help her
deliver, they rely on others to deliver, before long the team is performing well and starting to make up the lost
ground. Other teams see this and start feeling more positive, they start making an effort and slowly get the project
back on track.
Charity’s managers will have noticed the impact she’s had; they’ve felt the team dynamic change and realised she was the
first to re-adopt a positive attitude. Her co-workers may think she’s slightly crazy, but they recognise that she’s
lifted them up and helped them get going again.
How to find the Positivity?
The big question is, how to find positivity in a sea of negativity? There’s no simple answer to that. Some people have
a magical ability to always be positive; others will find the tiniest positive item and build on it; and there will be
some who just think “Fuck it! What’s the worst that can happen?”, bite off more than they can chew and refuse to give
up. Finding what works for you is the biggest challenge, maybe it will be one of the three I just mentioned, or maybe
it’s another method that is entirely different.
If you’re involved in something that is doomed to failure, you’re free to experiment. There’s no way to lose any worse
than you already have, so try a few things, see if you can’t get some success from the failure. Maybe you’ll save the
day, maybe you’ll get rewarded for minimising the failure, maybe nothing will happen, but whatever the external outcome,
internally you will know you gave it everything you can, and you can feel proud of that.