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Bad attitudes and complaints

Gina Johnson knows something about negativity. The Urbana-based consultant and owner of Blueprint has extensively studied a phenomenon known as negativity bias – the tendency to dwell on negative information while disregarding positive information. Johnson points to research that indicates that people are three to five times more likely to remember negative events than positive or neutral ones. That bias comes into play in the workforce, she said.

Johnson noted that workplaces today often try to recruit and retain talent through appeal and attraction rather than through coercion. “We’re in a time of transition,” she said. “We’re moving from a place of hard power to soft power.”

Johnson said workplaces are increasingly places where people are allowed and even encouraged to show vulnerability and to show more emotion. She describes herself as a “huge fan” of Brene Brown, a research professor who studies human connection. Brown is a proponent of creating a sense of belonging in the workplace culture and of employees being able to open up without boundaries and to be listened to. “Being comfortable with people and their feelings is an act of vulnerability,” Johnson said.

Johnson also likes Shawn Achor, a happiness researcher whose book “Big Potential” proposes that leadership is about everyone, no matter what position they hold. Giving people a sense of purpose and meaning can make for a happier workplace environment, Johnson said.

Supervisors’ and managers’ communications and actions are crucial, she said. “They set the tone in creating an emotionally safe work environment where it’s safe to fail and take risks, even when you know things may not always work out,” she said. “There may not be punishments, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. Having an open workspace where employees can go and get some work done is important.”

Meeting individual needs, listening and taking action are other ways to foster a positive work environment, according to Johnson. “It’s about not going to one extreme or another,” she said. “People want to be seen and heard on a consistent basis. It really helps the overall well-being of the workplace.”

Johnson said negative feelings are often the result of employees feeling “shut down and invisible. All that negativity just grows.”

Taking employees’ feedback in an open forum is helpful too, Johnson said, explaining that employees have to have “the emotional strength to be able to hear some of the more difficult feedback.”

A high turnover rate can cost a business in a variety of ways. “The most obvious is financial,” Johnson said.

Johnson said social researcher Yuval Harari predicts drastic workplace changes in the next 10 years. “It’s important to keep some core basics,” she said. “That is your stability.”

Johnson said a company’s success can be limited if employees find a workplace unpleasant, negative or stressful. She suggested a good starting place is first looking at the employees on an individual level to find out what’s going on with them. “Is there something with their own inner well-being that’s getting projected on the company?” she said. “You need to sit down and have a conversation with that person. If a large number of people are perceiving a workplace to be negative and toxic, people start -- unfortunately -- feeding on that, and that takes on a life of its own. And that affects the bottom line.”

Johnson said one of the keys to fostering a healthy workplace environment is identifying people who are “engaged and positive.” Those people can be encouraged to lead groups.

There are some steps companies can take to foster a positive work environment. “No. 1 is creating a space where people have an outlet to express negative and positive things and making sure they’re being heard,” Johnson said.

One way to do that is to encourage the expression of gratitude for the good things going on in the workplace. Some companies go so far as to encourage employees to post positive messages on a board or even on the walls, where they are visible to all. An example might be to ask employees to talk about a fun thing that happened over the weekend. “People can engage in that way,” Johnson said.

Another exercise Johnson has worked with companies on is writing notes to customers they’ve had a good experience with, and especially about what it meant to the employees.

Johnson said employees are sometimes hesitant to do such things without specific direction to do so, worrying that they might get in trouble. “We’re all programmed by our nature to be more focused on negative things than positive things,” she said.

Johnson said that research has determined that it takes 12 seconds for something good to “soak in.” She illustrates that by having people shake hands with someone for that duration. “It’s a long time,” she said.

Johnson has a practice of writing down when good things happen, where she felt it in her body and about somebody she wanted to share it with. “It increases the feeling of happiness inside of us when we tell someone else about it,” she explained.

While people will sometimes start such practices, they may fall by the wayside over time. “All of this is a practice,” she said. “None of us ever really gets good at these practices. They’re things companies need to continue to do.”

Unless you’re in survival mode and have no choice, Johnson advises checking out the workplace environment when job hunting. “It’s really important to assess the fit,” she said. “What I focus on with people is knowing oneself – not only is it a good fit for me, but it promotes growth. That’s when most of us are fulfilled, when we’re growing. We have to stretch. I don’t believe we can make ourselves fit (a workplace) and be happy. You should think, ‘I can find a place better made for me.’”

In order to cope with negativity at work, Johnson suggests, “Be that change, the person that starts leading the way. Start complimenting people. Start the day off emailing someone about something good that happened the day before.”

Once you become motivated, you can start thinking about how to get others motivated as well. Johnson suggests selecting two or three people interested in thinking differently and in growing.

A positive workplace culture can have a number of benefits. “Individually, employees will have better health and relationships outside of the workplace with family,” Johnson said. “We feel better when we’re doing things that are better for us than drowning in the negative,” she said.

They will also be more inclined to want to do other things outside of work instead of just going home, Johnson added. If employees don’t feel good and feel sad when they’re at work, then they should communicate with someone outside of work about that, Johnson advised.

A gesture as simple as bringing in treats can improve workplace morale, Johnson said.

Johnson has a master’s degree in social work and is licensed as a social worker. She has been practicing about 23 years. After her father died, she struggled with negative feelings. She began by making a conscious effort to post 10 good things per day on Twitter. “People started reaching out to me and sharing their stories,” she said.

The “fight or flight” response makes people either get revved up or shut down and isolate, she said. “You can create new pathways in the brain with gratitude or even meditation,” she said.

That led Johnson into consulting, working with businesses and groups. She is currently in the process of writing a workshop to give this summer.

One of the things Johnson teaches is knowing yourself and how to navigate negativity. “I’m trying to make this community-wide,” she said, noting that through her website, she even offers T-shirts to remind people of the good things in life. She quoted Alice Morse Earle: “Every day may not be good, but there’s something good in every day.”

For more information, contact Johnson at 217-607-1678.