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How to deal with a “Negative Nancy” or “Downer Dan” in your workplace

Posted by Neha De

November 11, 2021    |     4-minute read (694 words)

Whether it’s “Negative Nancy” or “Downer Dan,” every office has one. It’s the person who manages to turn every situation into a negative one or complains endlessly without offering any solutions or suggestions to make things better. 

A Negative Nancy or Downer Dan tends to overgeneralize in labeling people and circumstances, jump to conclusions, focus only on the negative in every situation and constantly redirect the blame onto others. In a work setting, these types of behavior can have harmful consequences, including poor group morale, decreased productivity, higher stress, less innovation and creativity, more wasted time and increased employee turnover.

Research from Stanford University shows that chronic complaining can have physiological effects, too. Neurotransmitters in the human brain can go through a neural rewiring through repetitive feelings of sadness and powerlessness. This reinforces negative thought patterns, which makes it easier for sad thoughts to repeat themselves, leaving no room for positive feelings of appreciation, gratitude and general well-being. A constant cycle of negativity can also damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for cognitive functioning and problem- solving. As time passes, chronic complainers become addicted to negativity and the drama that comes with a bad attitude of constant complaining.

These people are also vulnerable to black-and-white thinking, and they refuse to compromise on almost anything. This makes it difficult for them to make decisions or solve problems logically. Ironically, continual complaining helps them find more things to complain about.

Chronic complainers can also have a negative effect on those around them. When someone is thinking and reacting in a pessimistic and negative manner, without realizing it, they can pass on these feelings of being weighed down and exhausted onto others in a process psychologists call projective identification — the unconscious act of attributing something inside ourselves to someone else. 

Managing chronic complainers at the workplace

A survey conducted by Fierce Inc. revealed: “Despite differences in how individual employees and organizations handle toxic employees, there is clear agreement on the havoc a toxic employee can wreak on an organization.” 

Halley Bock, CEO and president of Fierce, noted, “Negativity leads to reduced productivity and engagement, and allowing it to fester is much more costly and damaging to an organization’s bottom line than confronting or possibly replacing a single toxic employee.” 

Bock added, “Organizations must foster employee- and company-level accountability by addressing attitudinal issues as soon as they arise.” Therefore, once you have identified a Negative Nancy or Downer Dan in your company, consider this six-step strategy to crack down on the behavior before it spreads throughout your workplace:

  1. Recognize the negative attitude Identifying negativity and bad attitudes and then identifying the individual causing the toxicity is the first step in nipping the issue in the bud. 

  2. Confront the toxic individual – The next step is coming up with a game plan to address the person causing negativity, in a private, calm setting. Here, it is important to understand that there may be a trigger or a reason for their behavior. Set enough time aside to discuss the situation in detail.

  3. Reinforce positive behavior – Then, set targets for change and even play out different scenarios. Make a genuine effort to understand the employee’s point of view by paying attention to their thoughts and ideas about the situation and focusing on the need for a positive change moving forward.

  4. Follow up – Merely having a discussion is not enough. Schedule a meeting to check in and talk about the staff member’s progress. Identify and applaud their positive attitude and improvements, if any.

  5. Model a positive attitude – This is important if you want your employees to follow your lead. Remind staff that setbacks and challenges are an inevitable part of life, including at work.

  6. Invest in positivity – Boost your employees’ positivity quotient by encouraging activities and programs that will make them look beyond work. These can be games, potluck lunches or recognizing employees of the month. It is essential to promote physical as well as mental health in the office, especially in this day and age, through such efforts as sponsoring office yoga classes, supporting employee fitness programs or designing work spaces with natural light.

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