Negating Negativity

Complainers create a toxic work environment, but you can make them stop — and save a few brain cells, too.

It seems as though every workplace has a resident griper. Everyone has dealt with it — that person who's perpetually unhappy about everything from the vending machine coffee to the weather to his or her supervisor to management's business strategy.

At the very least, it's annoying when Carl or Cathy Complainer corners you in your cubicle, buttonholes you at the water cooler or sets up shop inside your truck in between sewer inspections. A productivity killer? You bet. And it easily spreads into a downward spiral for everyone involved; after all, few things unite people better than a common dislike.

But according to Trevor Blake, you should be equally concerned about an insidious physical side effect: all that negativity harms your brain, too.

Citing research performed at Stanford University by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neuroendocrinology, Blake says that listening to complaining actually kills brain cells. In a nutshell, Sapolsky has proven that long-term exposure to hormones like cortisol — produced when people feel fearful or stressed — actually decreases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps connect neurons and generate new neurons. This, in turn, can lead to declines in cognitive function.

In short, gossip and complaining are toxic to mental health; you're not in your most productive state — or poised for success — when you're surrounded by negativity.

"Listening to complainers basically turns your brain to mush," says Blake, a self-made millionaire businessman and author of a new best-selling book, Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life. "And it's not just people in the workplace. It's also social media, talk radio, television ... it's hard to stay focused when you let your brain stay passively focused on all that.

"Just spend a day counting the number of complaints you hear," he adds. "Being aware of it is illuminating. In a couple hours, you're well over 100 ... that's just the world we live in. But if you're aware of it, you can do something about it."

Break the connection

So how should you handle chronic complainers — and save your brain? The first step is to step away and break the negativity connection, which Blake compares to secondhand smoke.

"If your manager and you know that it (chronic complaining) is bad for you and the company, then you have a responsibility to treat it like smoking," he explains. "If you catch employees lighting up again, you have to get them to stop. It's so toxic you just can't allow it."

So when the complaining starts, tell the offender you have to go the bathroom, even if you really don't have to. Feign an appointment for which you're late. In short, do what it takes to get away. Blake says he often challenges people to try it for one day, and people tell him they're amazed at how much more energy they have by not being "hard-wired" into the complaining mentality.

If there's no way to escape, then push back, Blake suggests. When the griper starts complaining about something, ask him or her to recommend a solution.

"It's amazing what happens," he says. "Nine times out of 10, they aren't expecting that. They might get huffy because you aren't acting the way they expect you to. But every so often someone agrees and goes out and develops a solution."

Blake recalls a situation that occurred while he was working for a large corporation. A national account manager was always complaining about things such as the heavy travel schedule, the size of her sales territory and general stress. "I kept asking, 'What are you going to do about it?'," he recalls.

One day, the manager came to Blake with a surprise: a plan to split customers into specific niches and realign sales territories.

"To be honest, it was a plan of genius," he says. "I wondered why I hadn't thought of it myself. It saved the company money, reduced everyone's travel and increased productivity. It was good for her too, because she was no longer perceived as a constant moaner, but someone who was creative and smart. It was actually a turning point in her career."

Get tough mentally

If all else fails, Blake suggests that people develop what he calls an "invisibility shield" that allows them to mentally repel complaints.

"People smile when they hear that, but it works," he says. "It sounds 'new agey', but there's nothing new about it. It's all based on ancient principles. Sometimes we find it difficult to do things without scientific verification, but you should give it a try."

Blake says he's used this strategy to great effect, and points out others who've done the same, from giants of industry to professional sports heroes. Henry Ford, he points out, called it a "deflection spell," which he used to mentally protect himself from all the naysayers who said automobiles would never replace horses.

"I was bullied a lot as a child, so I'd hide out in the library and read up on great people ... who learned how to shut out negativity," Blake says. "If you're consistent enough, it becomes a lifelong habit.

"If it works for them, who's to say it won't work for me?" he adds. "I tried it myself and it worked. It was profound."

Of course, complaints are justified in some instances. The trick is to find legitimate solutions instead of falling into the fruitless cycle of endless complaining.

"The thing about complainers is that they usually don't want a solution," he says. "They just want to unload that energy ... and it's amazing how it perpetuates. And if you spend too much time complaining, you can't find solutions because you're shutting down the part of the brain that creates solutions. If you can eradicate that and allow your brain to do what it does best, you'll find the solution."


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