Does your work environment bring out the best in you or the worst?

When you leave work, do you feel drained, exhausted and even angry? Do you generally feel like you are dodging bullets all day?

It happened to me the other day. As a practicing RN, I take shifts at a local, acute care psychiatric hospital.
So one day, I work with Nurse Mattie, we’ll call her. We don’t usually work together. But from the moment the shift began during morning report, she complains, making little comments about how she hates this and, “why did they accept this patient? I hate this place. Oh that person is horrible. I hate her.”

You know the type…

I do not get sucked in. I stay away as best I can and focus on my work – I’m there to do a job, make a difference and make some money, right? So I focus on that. I make small positive comments that support the people she is verbally bashing – I do not gossip but rather look for the good in others and offer that as a possibility to someone so skilled at seeing the negative in everything.

I carry an invisible shield that protects me from her “spears of anger and arrows of hate”.

But perhaps, I do not say enough to get her to stop or to notice how she is behaving.

By the end of the day, I find myself angry. Very angry.

It took some time – lots of deep breaths – and some mental processing to realize that, after being bombarded for eight hours with her moaning, groaning and complaining, it got to me. My shield did not sustain the beating.

While I was able to recuperate fairly quickly, it was easy to see how this could eat a person alive if it happened everyday. Little by little, the goodness in you would be zapped. And you would turn into an angry, unhappy, stressed out person who either succumbs to it by doing/saying nothing and letting it eat you away inside, or you become like her noticing the negative in everything too.

Working in a negative environment offers you the opportunity to develop your leadership muscles forcing you to be more assertive about how others can communicate in your presence, expressing directly what is acceptable behavior and what you will tolerate vs. what you will not tolerate.

Here are 6 steps to help you when working in a negative environment:
1. Strengthen your “shield”. Nothing is personal. No matter what other people do, it’s not about you. You may have an emotional reaction to what someone does, but control your emotions. Use the emotion as information and choose your response appropriately.
2. Develop your self-control. Manage your emotions and use the information to speak up or to change yourself in some way.
3. Develop your boundaries and ask for what you need. Be more assertive! When someone does or says something inappropriate, you must address it – your silence gives the behavior permission. If you want to create a more positive environment, especially as a leader, you have to speak up! There are two things to do:
a. Tell people what you DON’T want. If you don’t want people to gossip or speak negatively about others, then tell them to stop. When you refuse to gossip or to allow it in your presence, you develop a reputation as someone who is respectful and you gain the trust of others. If, however, you are willing to tolerate the poor behavior of others, then it will continue and it will continue to do damage in terms of morale, decreased productivity, and even increased turnover. It’s your (everyone’s!) responsibility to create a positive workspace and to squash negativity.
b. Tell people what IS acceptable. Ask for what you need from others and teach them expectations for how people are to be treated. People don’t always know how to do things differently.
4. Be a role model for positivity. What we think about and talk about and focus on all day, every day, is what we bring about. If you want to create a positive, healthy, constructive work environment, then it starts with you – stop talking negatively, and start thinking and talking positively. Don’t tolerate negative talk – no rumors, gossip, blaming or complaining. If it is not a meaningful, purposeful and beneficial conversation, don’t have it. Do start looking for what is good in everyone and everything. And shower people with praise and appreciation! You will be surprised at the response in people, especially over time. When you look for what is good, other people start to do the same. Just as negativity is contagious, so is positivity. Give it time, though. Old wounds take time to heal and old habits take time to change.
5. Develop your leadership skills and share a vision for a better future. People want to be lead – in the absence of leadership, people will do whatever they know how to do. It’s often easier to put others down in order to feel better about yourself. But I can only put you down to the extent that I feel bad about myself. If I love and respect myself, I won’t be disrespectful to you. As a leader, you take a stand for what is good and share a vision that people can get excited about. Share it loud and clear, enough times, and it will catch on.
6. Evaluate your commitment to your work. In other words, you may have to work in order to support yourself and your family, but you don’t have to work there. If it is really bad and you are surrounded by this kind of negativity, you might decide that your health is more important than this job and find another place to perform your skills in an environment more conducive to respect, professionalism and bringing out your best.

When you start taking responsibility for the quality of your workplace and the impact it has on you, then you can start to create a different outcome. When you start to make changes in yourself to be more assertive and to be more positive, you will start to be treated with greater respect.

When I work with Mattie again, I know I will need to develop a thicker shield AND I will speak up more directly to ask her to stop. Life is too short. I choose to take shifts and do so there because I enjoy it; and I will not tolerate the negativity. I don’t get paid for that.

Author's Bio: 

Does Change have to be so H.A.R.D.? Julie Donley, a psychiatric nurse and author of this essential book on change, was tired of life being SO hard and went in search of an easier way. What she found was quite intriguing: “Hard or easy, it’s how you think about it!” Want to learn more? Contact to arrange a free 30-minute coaching session to learn how you too can change a HARD challenge to something EASY. An addiction and change expert, Julie is named one of the top 100 thought leaders in her field. She has published hundreds of articles and is author of several works including Does Change have to be so H.A.R.D.? and The Journey Called YOU: A Roadmap to Self-Discovery and Acceptance. Visit to learn more about her work, sign up for her newsletter or arrange to have her speak at your next meeting or conference.