Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Motivational Jiu-Jitsu: Staying Positive in the Face of Negativity & Indifference

It’s easy to stay motivated when you are on the receiving end of a lot of positive feedback. When your boss, your clients, and your coworkers are giving you high fives and telling you what great work you are doing, you can glide from day to day, churning out more and more great work. Unfortunately, most of us are not riding a tidal wave of high-fives through our workday.

If anything, the more demanding your job is, the more likely it is that you are having to field negative criticism on a regular basis. Or, maybe you work alone, and you just don’t get that much feedback — negative or positive — from anyone. Aside from the stress and anxiety it induces, this sort of environment also makes it quite difficult to turn out great work.

So how can we stay motivated in the face of negativity or just plain indifference?

I have a simple activity that I do to identify the problem areas, and think about how I can counteract them. Start by drawing a simple diagram: Place yourself at the center of the diagram (you don’t have to be an artist, a stick figure is fine). Now, around your picture, draw the people that you deal with regularly: your boss, your clients, your coworkers, your friends and family. Add anyone who provides you with feedback or should be providing you feedback. For example, if your boss is overloaded with her own work and rarely has time for you, put her in the diagram.

The more demanding your job is, the more likely it is that you are having to field negative criticism on a regular basis.

Make sure that one of these “people” is your Inner Critic, since each of us is continually providing ourselves with feedback. You should also add your Work Environment, since a good work environment provides you with positive feedback and an unpleasant work environment provides you with constant negative feedback.

Once you have the diagram in place, summarize the feedback you get from the surrounding people. Is it positive, negative, or non-existent? Is it strong or weak? What form does it come in: conversation, email, indirectly through others?

For example, do you provide your client with good deliverables only to get mostly negative feedback? In meetings, do your coworkers take shots at your ideas when you present them? Or, do you work mostly by yourself and receive little input from anyone? Take all this information, and draw lines between you and the surrounding people that indicate positive or negative flows of information.

If your job feels demanding and stressful, you will likely see that your diagram has very little positive feedback and quite a bit of negative feedback. You may have already known this intuitively, but having a picture in front of you makes the problem — and the possible courses of action — quite clear.


Now it’s time to change the picture, and this is where the jiu-jitsu comes in.

What you want to do is flip the situation, so that you can pick up the positive feedback and throw down the negative feedback.

Do you provide your client with good deliverables only to get mostly negative feedback?

Start with the people that give you no feedback.

Approach them and schedule regular, positive feedback sessions. If your boss thinks highly of your work, schedule meetings with her, even for a quick coffee, and solicit her input. If you have a mentor, do the same. Pencil in get-togethers with good friends you haven’t talked to in awhile, and get their feedback. Submit your ideas to independent publications, blogs, or forums and get feedback that way. Keep adding sources of positive feedback to your diagram, and make an effort to amplify them.

Now it’s time to eliminate negative feedback.

Attack “optional” negative feedback first. Instead of sharing details about your work with consistently negative coworkers, provide a highly general assessment and then change the subject (e.g. ask them about their work and how it is going, listen for a bit, then move on). Alternatively, if you have the time and energy, challenge them on their negativity and see if that tones it down.

Move on to addressing the negative feedback that is not optional.

There are a number of ways to do this. One way is see if you can work with the person to neutralize their negativity. Maybe it’s something small like they have a preference for doing something differently than you currently do it. Negotiate the change and see if this helps eliminate the negativity. Often a small positive change will lead to an upward spiral of positive communication.

However, if despite your best efforts, you cannot make an impact on their negativity, look for ways to deal with them less often. Maybe you can meet them once a week or once a month rather than daily or weekly. Maybe you can find other ways to restrict their input. In the most extreme case, maybe it’s time for you to find new and better clients or a new and better job. If you can do none of these things, understand that it’s an external factor, and try to downplay their negativity internally as best as you can.

Finally, make sure you set your own internal feedback to a positive setting and amplify that as best as you can. Work towards improving your personal work environment, too: every little bit of positive feedback helps.

What’s Your Approach?

How do you combat negative thinking?

More insights on: Motivation, Office Dynamics

Bernie Michalik

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Bernie is a senior consultant with IBM. He provides leadership to global teams that create complex IT solutions for his clients. In the years of doing this, he has developed innovative ways to be most effective productively as well as creatively. He enjoys sharing that knowledge with a wide range of people, from deep technologists to UX specialists. Though highly mobile, he is based at the IBM Centre for Solution Innovation in Toronto.
load comments (33)
  • talktherapybiz

    Hey Bernie–

    Great suggestions for tackling less than stellar reviews. I welcome negative feedback (as difficult as it is) because when people express negativity, it’s much more valuable than not saying anything at all when dissatisfied. At east the bad feedback gives you a compass.

    I try to remember that it’s all fleeting: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
    I try to deliver service that’s good, honest, and useful. I rely on honest people in my inner circle to tell me when I suck, too ;).

  • blm

    Thanks for the feedback!

    I think there is value in constructive criticism: I know it can help one improve their performance. I also think that any feedback, positive or negative, can help one adjust and improve. 

    That said, I think turning up the positive feedback and turning down the negative feedback can make a substantial positive difference in everyone’s performance and improve their overall well being.

  • @efficient

    These tips are excellent. Like talktherapybiz, I also welcome negative feedback.

    It’s odd: I’ll hear the positives, but my mind files them away. On days where I’m feeling a bit low, I think about these positives and combine them with my own affirmations of my work and value.

    The development points, though, are most useful. My mind even seems to filter these, distilling the message into actionable points and jettisoning emotion/personal inflections.

    We all have our coping mechanisms, I suppose…

  • blm

     Thanks for sharing that, Marissa. It’s interesting to hear how people deal with feedback, since we all deal with it differently. (Though there will be alot of overlap.)

    I think an additional thing I should add is that we all weigh feedback differently. Two people may meet a client, hear the same negative feedback, and yet one person will get very stressed about it, while the other people takes it in stride.

  • carol salazar

    I have read the book Mother earth spirituality.  I was very informative about how our government was created nothing like the Euorpe which live by greed.

  • richard

    I agree with you blm.
    2 people can percieve the same feedback diferently, depending on their capacity to analize what really is going on.
    Somethimes a negative feedback don´t have a reason to be, and your clients or boss, could just  be junt running automatic, and dont even realize about how negative they are beeing.

    So you just understand, and do your work focusing on the real deal , delivering a good job,
    or you can take atention to little thing that will just not help you.

  • Sarah @mycolleges

    Recently I have been listening to personal development books like one from Brian Tracy about goal-setting. Adding this positivity to my day has helped create an upswing in positive thoughts for me. -Sarah

  • blm

    Excellent! Sounds like you are working well on increasing your own positive feedback. That’s great!

  • blm

    Yes, that’s it, Richard. Thanks for commenting. I also think that one way to increase positive feedback is to learn to perceive the feedback from others in as positive a way as you can. Sometimes this can be difficult, but it is often worth it.

  • Punctuation Mark

    I am currently looking for work so I don’t talk about it with people who
    don’t believe I will be getting that job that I know inside of me I’m
    going to get… meaning that I don’t want the negative energy from
    people who are doubters…

  • Dillon Ashcroft

    I don’t quite agree with this one. I think all feedback is important, and there’s something to be taken from negative feedback. I think doing this and sticking with it would prevent vital progression and lessons. Of course there’s bullying and useless negative feedback, but when it’s criticism we need it, and in fact we should look for it (as scary as that sounds).

  • Douwe van der Werf

    I agree. Usually, I’m much more interested in negative feedback, because it’s the feedback that’s most educational. However, negative feedback can always be brought in a very constructive, kind manner.

    I think this article refers to the negative tone of negative feedback. That’s indeed the type of feedback that can be quite a drain for any creative pro.

  • Daniel Tung

    How to stay motivated when there is no feedback at all (or just very few feedbacks)? (e.g. when working alone)

  • Rafael

    Good articles, with fresh ideas.
    Really like this blog.

  • blm

    Yes, you are closer to the what I was aiming for. Thanks for your comment!

     I agree that feedback should not be ignored. And negative feedback, if it comes in the form of  constructive criticism, should be heeded. When I think of negative feedback I think mostly of negativity that is not constructive, or the constructive part is overwhelmed by the destructive aspect of it. The destructive and demoralizing aspect of negative feedback needs to be toned down.

  • blm

    Daniel, that’s when you need to seek out positive feedback. Look at your own circle, even if it is not near you, and see if you can share it with them and solicit positive feedback from them. Go online and participate in online communities that talk about the work you do and share things there. If you start listing them, you will likely find a number of places you can get positive feedback for your work. 

  • blm

    Thanks, Rafael!

  • Craig Desmarais

    I try to limit negative thinking to as little time as possible and even scheduling a time to be negative to get it out of my system.  Disciplining yourself like this will help keep negative thoughts out of your head until that time.

  • PaulBaarn

    Instead of trying to get less negative feedback, I would suggest trying to change your own interpretation of what it means. As long as you think that negative feedback means you’re not good enough it will affect your spirit and motivation. But negative feedback can mean so many things. They just don’t get it yet, they have a different agenda, they are actually right and you should learn from it, they think they have to put you down for them to be on top, they must really like all the stuff that they don’t complain about, etc.

    Decide what it means and what you want to do with it. For me the most important thing to remember is that I don’t aim to please everybody. I’m open to all feedback, but I make the final decision about what’s right for me.

    In the end I think it’s not so much external negativity that affects us, but it is our internal critic that translates it. 

  • blm

    That’s an excellent idea, Craig. Not everyone can do that, but if you can, and that works, that’s great.

  • blm

    Thanks for your well put comments, Paul. I generally agree with what you say.

    Specifically, for some feedback, how we interpret it has alot to do with how we weigh it and how we assign it to be negative or positive feedback. But I also think that there is feedback that we get that is very clearly meant to be positive or negative. We can try to shift how we think about it, but short of denial we cannot avoid what type of feedback it is.  Take the client that takes every thing you send them and either says nothing positive or mainly complains about your work. You can choose to pull positive aspects from that — and that’s admirable and a great way to look at it — but anyone outside looking at what is happening would likely say: that client only gives negative feedback.

  • blm

    When you are in a situation that already seems negative to you, getting more negative feedback can make it even more stressful. Tuning out the doubters, like you are doing, means it more likely you can turn down the negative and also turn down any stress. Looking for work is enough of a challenge without having to deal with that negativity.

    Good luck with your job hunt! Try to pull in as much positive feedback as you can.

  • PaulBaarn

    Hi Bernie,

    You are right that there is feedback that is just negative, and I didn’t mean to say that it is easy to take it a different way. And I agree with most of your strategies to deal with it. I think that the Inner Critic is the most important source to look at.

    Do you know these people who are so sure (or full) of themselves that they just go on and do whatever they want, no matter what anyone says? They usually annoy me, but what they teach me is that your Inner voice can be mighty strong. (Steve Jobs comes to mind)

    By the way, what I didn’t mention in my first reaction is that I like the article and your writing. 


  • research paper

    Good post really qualifyde!

  • blm

    Hi Paul, I am glad you followed up, because I think you are emphasizing an important idea. The idea is that feedback is never unfiltered. Each of us has our own filters that transforms the feedback subconsciously or consciously before we weigh it. It’s our inner self doing that, or as you said, our Inner Critic. It’s important to learn how to better manage negative (and positive) feedback, but it is also important to get a handle on that Inner Critic and use it to your best advantage.

    Thanks for your comments: they add depth to the article, as well as allowing me to add more. I appreciate that, and I hope people take the time to read the comments. I also appreciate the compliment on my writing: thanks again!

  • blm


  • Rebekah

    With car bombs. Just kidding. I usually just avoid anybody who is negative about what I do. Except for a select few that I trust. Then I stew over it for a few days until I can weed out what they meant to help me with outside of my hurt feelings.

  • Mm

    Feedback are feedback are function of how other’s perceive you…how does one take it is completely upto one’s state of mind…if tht improves rest will fall in place….

  • Duane Penaflor

    Paul: “In the end I think it’s not so much external negativity that affects us, but it is our internal critic that translates it.”

    I agree with you on this, Paul (99% + 1%).  I just want to add that we also have to solicit feedback from people we are sure knows objective reality before making any conclusions.  Life is a jumble of wrong judgements and perceptions, and objective friends help a lot on this.

  • Duane Penaflor

    As humans do, we are bound to make mistakes.  Yet some mistakes are
    overemphasized and retained by some people around us and are blown out of proportion.  This labels us for
    life (or for the rest of our stay in a certain post), especially if the our critics do not belong to our circle of influence.  In this particular situation, there is little we can do but move forward and bear with it.  True, this creates a lot of stress in us, but I think it’s going to be a measure of how tough we are–to live through a time of flooding opposition and prevail–assuming the cause you are in that situation is a noble one.

    If the cause we are in isn’t a noble one, I would recommend to pack up and leave; there is far too much stress and unhappiness in the world due to lame causes.

  • Reputation Management

    It’s only gay if you make eye contact.

  • erinolan

    I’ve found it really helpful to work on photos that I’ve taken and have yet to edit. It requires minimal effort and the reward is so personal, no one looks at a photo you’ve taken and bashes it (well, maybe unless you’re a professional photographer…) I suppose what I’m getting at is that a good way to build up positive momentum on your own is to work on something purely for yourself, and something that you truly enjoy doing. Maybe it’s drawing, scrapbooking, editing photos in Lightroom or Photoshop, whatever it may be. The key is momentum!

  • Nikki Beem

    I look back to projects and assignments where I did get positive feedback. I revisit my work and become happy and confident when I reread what good things I’ve done and remember the compliments I received. That motivates me to keep going and create more work that I am proud of. I can’t do this successfully all the time, but when it does work, it creates a great experience and lifts my mood enough that negativity can no longer penetrate my psyche!

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