top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr. Neal Nybo

What to do when positivity at work isn’t working.

My writing partner, Nicole Phillips, and I are all about positivity in the workplace. We wrote the book, Workplace Positivity, to give managers, supervisors and leaders simple and easy ways to decrease negativity and increase positivity.

But, we all need to face reality and understand being positive when someone or some situation is particularly negative can be seen as insensitive, out of touch, and pollyannaish.

The Harvard Business Review effectively makes this point. “Countering someone’s negativity with your positivity doesn’t work because it’s argumentative. People don’t like to be emotionally contradicted and if you try to convince them that they shouldn’t feel something, they’ll only feel it more stubbornly. And if you’re a leader trying to be positive, it comes off even worse because you’ll appear out of touch and aloof to the reality that people are experiencing.”

We can’t throw up our hands in defeat or increase the problem by becoming negative ourselves. Forbes reminds us of the impact the negativity can have. “Negativity takes a toll on many aspects of the workplace. It affects everything from engagement to productivity, and even impacts employee retention. No one likes to work in a toxic work environment, period.”

The HBR article goes on to suggest three things we can try with negative people when positivity isn’t working.

1. Understand how they feel and validate it.

2. Find a place to agree with them.

3. Find out what they are positive about and reinforce it.

This corresponds with a key lesson from my all-time favorite change management team, Dan and Chip Heath.

These brothers are co-authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. The Society for Human Resource Management makes the point that Dan Heath made a compelling case for effecting change successfully. “He observed that companies tend to go about implementing change the wrong way. “Instead of emphasizing ‘What isn’t working and needs to be fixed?’ ask ‘What is working, and how can we clone it?’ ”

What is working and how can we clone it?

The best thing to do when positivity isn’t working at work.

If we combine the recommendations of the Harvard Business Review and the Heath brothers we find one common activity we can take.

Find out what the negative people are positive about and reinforce it.

HBR says give attention to whatever positive feelings they do show — and chances are they will have shown some because it’s unusual to find people who are purely negative. The idea is to give positive attention to positive feeling. And to offer concrete hope. It’s concrete because it’s based on actual positive feelings people already have, rather than harping on positive feelings you think they should have.

By doing this one thing, we avoid the trap of being out of step with our insensitive positivity. But, be warned. Both HBR and the Heaths say this isn’t easy in practice. In fact, it can be difficult to contain our own negativity when faced with it in others.

We need to be intentional and committed to increasing positivity if we are going to maintain our efforts in challenging times.


In our book, Workplace Positivity, 30 Micro-actions to Eliminate Negativity Wherever You Work, we tackle this obstacle head on, in our first recommendation. Here is an excerpt from our book with our first micro-action. It is about making a decision to be positive. It’s about developing a positivity mindset.


Think About What You’re Thinking About

Hey, Nicole here! The first time I started thinking about what I was thinking about,

I was disgusted. It was 2011 and my mind was filled with junk. I had a constant

dialogue playing in my mind determining who measured up and who didn’t.

Old woman in the mini-skirt? No.

Guy flexing in the mirror at the gym? No.

Colleagues who won’t stop talking about their terrible lives? No.

Colleagues who won’t stop talking about their terrific lives? No.

At what point had I determined I was the judge and jury over myself and everybody

else? I could argue my thoughts didn’t really matter because I never said anything out

loud, but the truth is, the negativity in my mind eventually spilled out of my mouth.

Do you ever find yourself compromising on your conversations? You get a snippy

email from your boss and immediately head to a coworker to commiserate. You were

once so grateful to be hired by this company, but now find yourself complaining

about all the aggravating policies. You join in on the office gossip in the breakroom,

because it seems harmless enough.

Our thoughts impact our actions. Our actions create our everyday lives, in the

office and out.

What’s the solution? Make a decision to stop saying negative words.

When you set your mind on a specific goal, it allows everything else to align with

this goal and helps you to keep your focus.

Decide right now you will contribute to a healthier workplace by stopping the

negativity train before it comes rolling out of your mouth. Acknowledging our role

in our work environment and deciding to stop saying negative words is the first step.

Now let’s give that decision a supportive team of two to make it stick: a trusted

confidante and a rubber band.


Marcel Schwantes, Founder and Chief Human Officer at Leadership From the Core

says one of the habits of happy people is that they choose kindness. Most bosses don’t see the upside of kindness in terms of any business impact. But, research at New York University

demonstrates when one co-worker sees other co-workers helping each other, it heightens

that person’s well being. In other words, kindness produces more kindness, improving

collaboration, and productivity across teams. (Vianello, M., Galliani, E. M., & Haidt, J. (2010). Elevation at work: The organizational effects of leaders’ moral excellence. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 390-411)

Positivity begins with a choice, a decision.

Now it’s your turn.

In the comments, tell me your #1 takeaway and how you plan to use it in your workplace?

Want more? Click here for a free excerpt from Workplace Positivity with three micro-actions.

For more about Workplace Positivity, go to

For more about the work I am doing, go to

33 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page