"Let's support each other" to toxic co-workers -- does this help?
September 16, 2016 2:43 AM   Subscribe

Does the tactic of saying, "Let's support each other, have each others' backs, and give honest and open feedback" ever really help at work? This academic year, established teams have been switched about and all the toxic people have been scattered and are now working with new people.

This is happening at a high school, where we've got far too many entrenched Negative Nicks and Nellies; the black holes who can't be fired and can only seem to complain and whine. These are the people who will suck the life out of you if you allow it.

I have my own successful ways of avoiding these types and continuing my work, but I've never tried the tactic mentioned above.

Has anyone tried talking to toxic co-workers about supporting one another and in that spirit, asking them to tone down their negativity? Does that ever work? My Facebook feed seems to indicate many people feel this way but I wonder if people actually try having this type of discussion and what are their results.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I explicitly tell people that I find negative talk to be unproductive. Then I turn away, disengage and respond only positively in my interactions with and around them. Be the change you want to see, and all that.
posted by Thella at 2:54 AM on September 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

Does the tactic of saying, "Let's support each other, have each others' backs, and give honest and open feedback" ever really help at work?

Negativity = honest and open. I think this is worth a try in principle, but you need to refine your message and think about what you're really asking for.

I think of it this way: there are a near infinity of things to observe, consider, and comment on in one's world at any one time. It's important to make time for focusing on things that aren't right, even if we don't absolutely know how those problems can be solved; that's how solutions come about, after all. Also, people recognizing that they are seeing and experiencing the same problems feel less alone, which is _really_ important in a stressful situation.

In an environment like a school, any school, there are a near infinity of problems to be solved. Focusing on them all the time will destroy the will of people to actually address them, because when it seems like the problems can never all be solved, it seems pointless to try.

But it does make a difference when you try. You help the students -- who tend to leave the school just when the results would really start to pay off -- and you help each other have better lives, since a teacher's life is so occupied by work time.

The risks, problems, and bad circumstances take up a disproportionately large part of our attention because that's how people survive: by avoiding risks and getting out of life-threatening situations promptly.

However, the risks we face at work are usually not the life-threatening kind that are best solved by fight or flight; to address them, we need to be calm, think clearly, and work with others who will react instinctively to our emotional state.

Additionally, having an immediate sense of what's right, what's good, in our situation keeps us from unthinkingly choosing action, or inaction, that might harm those good things.

The disproportionate perception of threats and problems means that it's really hard to have a balanced, effective perspective when you spend a lot of time in a complicated situation. You need to really think about it to give positives and negatives equal weight, or at least proportional weight, in your day-to-day decisions.

We have to help each other, when we can, by not giving even more weight to the negative stuff than it needs. More than that, though, by only talking about problems, especially by talking about them as insoluble, we're emphasizing them even more to ourselves, and giving them even more purchase on our minds than they already have. A teacher would be familiar with the idea that putting a concept into one's own words will etch it solidly into one's mind; by repeating the same problems over and over, we're essentially teaching ourselves that we're trapped in a Sisyphean world with only insoluble problems. Since we have finite time for thinking and talking, we block other possible avenues for thinking.

So -- and here one has to try to model a more positive approach - we need to find a way to re-proportion our thinking and talking, to ourselves and to others. Making an effort to notice what's right isn't just about Pollyanna-ing.
posted by amtho at 4:14 AM on September 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

Has anyone tried talking to toxic co-workers about supporting one another and in that spirit, asking them to tone down their negativity? Does that ever work?

As framed I think that would be a non-starter, because what you'd really be asking is that the toxic co-worker support you by toning down their negativity. If you wanted to change your own behavior then you could do that unilaterally. If you wanted to say something supportive to an unhappy coworker, you can already do that. No 'Let's do X instead of Y' suggestion is necessary.

Thella has it right in the first comment. Disengage when the conversation heads in a direction you don't want to be involved with. Positively reinforce interactions you find healthy and productive.
posted by jon1270 at 5:11 AM on September 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Like the question posted just after this one, I have found that the negative people you are talking about tend to not recognize that they are part of the problem when addressing issues in the group dynamic. If you said "Let's support each other, have each others' backs, and give honest and open feedback" to one of these people, I suspect they would respond with something like "I know, right? andimistration never supports me when I tell them that the sun is far too bright in my classroom, and what is up with everyone smiling and saying hi to each other and working hard? Everyone here is fake as hell. You just know they will screw you over as soon as they get the chance, I just wish they were honest about how much they hate it here. And another thing..."

When trying to improve your coworkers behavior, I have found it important to 1) be explicit about exactly the behaviors that are problematic, 2) provide detailed examples of the desired behavior, and 3) explain carefully and in some detail the ways in which the proposed change in behavior will benefit them in terms of less/easier work, quicker task completion, better performance reviews, etc.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:38 AM on September 16, 2016 [7 favorites]

There's toxic and there's negative. I think of a negative coworker is someone who complains a lot and is a little annoying. I think of a toxic worker as someone who undermines their colleagues, throws people under the bus to make themselves look good, takes credit for other people's work, etc. I think it's important to distinguish which one you're talking about. I know lots of people who tend to complain and fuss but who are basically honest, decent people.

Assuming you just meant a whiny coworker, I think it can make a difference. I once got into a habit with another coworker of complaining a lot - we both did it. At some point one of us casually said "I need to stop complaining so much, it's making me feel bad about my job - I need to stay positive." And our conversations did change after that.

IMO sometimes negativity stems from a desire for drama, but sometimes it stems from real anxiety or fear that the perpetrator may not know how to address otherwise.
posted by bunderful at 5:39 AM on September 16, 2016 [10 favorites]

This article might be helpful, and this one.
posted by bunderful at 5:46 AM on September 16, 2016

Establish a team meeting once a week, (not a curriculum or faculty meeting, a specific problem solving meeting, perhaps over lunch) where everyone can air their complaints and try to problem solve. You can brace yourself for it, and it gives people a chance to express what's bothering them in a context that implies the potential for improvement.
When Nick or Nellie start to whine, just say something like: "Hey, please remember to save that thought for the meeting, we can work on it!", break eye contact, and look for a paper in your folder while walking away.
(because I agree, "let's support each other" is vague, everyone wants that in theory and thinks they are doing it; if you imply they are not, it's too general and totalizing of a criticism and will sound patronizing.)
posted by flourpot at 6:23 AM on September 16, 2016

Response by poster: Establish a team meeting once a week

Staff are already completely booked and will not work outside of our defined union hours so this is a non-starter.

Again, I'm really looking to see if others have tried this specific script with others; not looking for how to work with tricky people.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 6:39 AM on September 16, 2016

Best answer: I'm really looking to see if others have tried this specific script with others

I've seen at least cousins of this used and the negative people sometimes use it as an excuse to ramp up the negativity under the guise of giving honest and open feedback. Sometimes they're nasty people intentionally scuttling the effort, sometimes they're just feeling more free to say even more than they'd been already saying.

A script is just that - words. The only thing that's going to help the good people that have been beaten into negativity is actual changes in the environment and precious little is going to change the truly bad apples.
posted by Candleman at 7:03 AM on September 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It doesn't work because these are two different and often oppositional things:

1. Let's support each other, have each others' backs
2. give honest and open feedback

If you have a toxicity problem, you have to call out the toxic behaviors specifically because one of the symptoms of toxicity is a certain amount of self-unawareness about it. They think their toxicity is honest openness in many cases.

Generally, the solution to part of that is to say, "X Y and Z shit needs to stop now. If you have a problem with someone, take it up with your supervisor and in the meantime make an actual effort to not be the problem yourself." Then you empower the supervisors to decide which complaints have some kind of issue resolution protocol applied to them, and which complaints are handed back to the complainer with a "get over it."

Honest open feedback is a workplace nightmare. Most people are not good at relationships.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:26 AM on September 16, 2016 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Let's support each other, have each others' backs, and give honest and open feedback

I'm pretty sure that a version of this phrase exists in every employee handbook, team building handout, or mission statement of every organization ever. It's meaningless, and there is nothing that you've described in your question that makes me believe that you could objectively identify any ways in which the Negative Nellies are not abiding by this.

maybe if the "negativity" involves cutting down other co-workers, you could say that that's not "supporting", but as others have said, one person's negativity looks like another person's "honest and open feedback."

A better ask would be: "Can we please avoid discussing co-workers when they aren't around? I know I'd feel terrible if people were talking about me behind my back."

But honestly, besides fixing specific behaviors, there's not much you can do about people's attitudes if they are getting their jobs done, so I'd focus on improving how you personally react to what you perceive to be "negativity."
posted by sparklemotion at 7:31 AM on September 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

It only works, if at all, if you come from a position of strength. Toxic people at work tend to want power and control and will fight hard and dirty to get/ keep it. You can be strong without being an asshole. Don't self-deprecate. Be friendly with everyone, but nip asshole behaviors in the bud. Don't be over-trusting, but work to earn the trust of people in charge and people who are good at what they do. Build a network of people whose back you have and who will have you back.
posted by theora55 at 7:39 AM on September 16, 2016

Best answer: I've seen "let's support each other and have each other's backs" used, and it has generally been interpreted as "okay, cool, this is a safe space where we can vent to each other" and if anything, can open the door to more negativity. Which is a not-unreasonable interpretation of that wording, really, there are folks for whom "supporting" means "giving each other a place to blow off steam." And the lines between that and negativity can be individual and subjective, if your tolerance for that sort of thing is higher or lower than theirs.

As currently phrased, it's such a vague script as to be meaningless or actively encourage the kind of thing you're trying to discourage. If you want to address negativity, you probably have to actually straight-on address negativity, not use vague meaningless statements that people can interpret in a wide variety of ways.
posted by Stacey at 8:23 AM on September 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: A useful expression I heard at work: Bring solutions, not complaints.

It is inherently problematic to criticize people for being too negative. They will experience it as a personal attack and view you as negative. It reads as Do as I say, not as I do. That isn't a very strong position from which to promote constructive change.

One thing that sometimes works with toxic people: Have their back. But it is hard to pull off because you do not want to back them in a way that will make them more toxic.

But, at a minimum, resist temptation to be vindictive in some manner.

Toxic people tend to have a long history of negative social experiences where it doesn't fucking matter what they do, they get shit on. They have concluded, often with good reason, that the world/other people have an unstated rule that they will get shit on, period, it doesn't matter how smart they are, it doesn't matter how good they are, it doesn't matter how hard they try or how well they follow instructions or rules.

Sometimes, proving to them that there is a circumstance under which they will not get shit on does help. But it typically takes a very long time because there is a mountain of baggage behind their bullshit.

There are no easy solutions to dealing constructively with toxic people. But Bring solutions, not complaints is both actionable and walks the walk. It tells you what you can do, not just what not to do. If people follow it and some of their solutions get implemented, the work environment becomes more positive and that can help generally.
posted by Michele in California at 10:06 AM on September 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

I agree with you, Michelle, except for one caveat: A fellow teacher might turn around and tell kids "bring solutions, not complaints". Sometimes even adults know that something is wrong but have no idea what to do about it, or have no real power to do something about it. Keeping that bottled up is sometimes appropriate, but it's not good to do it _all_ the time.

Otherwise, I really like the way you've framed this. I believe it's very important to ask why people behave the way they behave.
posted by amtho at 10:58 AM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

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