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.
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