Negative Bonding and the Costs of Toxicity

Especially when times are tough, many of us have an inherent inclination to focus on the negative.  As soon as things go south, we are primed for self-righteous disappointment.  And it feels good to vent our disappointment, to show our contempt.  It feels like we’re underscoring our high standards and implying we would have seen the danger ahead if we were at the helm.   “Can you believe they waited until now to spring this project on us?”  “What was she thinking making these forms so detailed?  We’ll be here all night.”  

Unfortunately, when negativity becomes our habitual focus, it shifts from icebreaker to being the whole foundation of our relationships.  The strongest linkage is the sum of the things you mutually dislike.  This is called ‘negative bonding’.  

Relationships built on negative bonding can be toxic to our attitude, relationships and culture.  It may start with lighthearted complaints as an easy conversation starter to make us feel connected, as though we’re all suffering the same benign plight.  But each time we’re around those individuals, we are prompted to enter the same negative mindset.  The more of these relationships we form, the more negative we will view the workplace as a whole. 


Negative bonding is radioactive

And what is the cost of this for our peers?  Did it add value to my friend’s day when I stole ten minutes of their morning for my harangue?  Did my team members feel more or less positive about the project after I started the meeting with a string of complaints about a newly truncated timetable?  

Why do we allow ourselves these behaviors?  Perhaps we’ve had past situations blow up in our face and now we’re hyper-alert for signs of a repeat experience.  We’re so afraid of the potential negatives that focusing on them becomes pathologically ingrained.  Our insecurity about the impermanence of the status quo leads us to an obsession over potential pitfalls.  As a result, the outcome of every situation needs to be perfect; everything becomes binary, either totally awful or acceptably perfect.  

Negative bonding is an important foothold for cultural toxicity.  It can spread alarmingly fast.  The negative foci comprise a negative feedback loop: the more you engage them, the more engaging they are.  It can drain a team’s focus from solutions and success to complacency and drudgery, eroding morale, little by little. 

Controlling the spread of toxicity

Most managers will recognize these trends quickly.  The first step is to offer feedback to these individuals on just how damaging the habit is to both them and their peers.  If that is insufficient, where can a manager put someone who is toxic?  In a study by Housman and Minor (2015, Harvard Business Press), workers who experienced a specific increase in exposure to toxic behavior incurred an almost fifty percent increase in the likelihood of being terminated for toxic behaviors.  Therefore if we can’t convince employees to abandon toxic attitudes, termination may quickly become the only option, or else they may drag others down with them.

Get positive, stupid

As individuals, we can probably agree that we don’t enjoy working in a negative environment.  We can take ownership of our attitude and our speech and stop habitually complaining about issues we can’t change.  We can ask ourselves whether our words are adding value to others or dragging them down.  

Similarly, we can stop being a sounding board for those who can’t seem to stop griping.  By doing so, we refuse to allow relationships in our lives that are built on negativity.  

Any idiot can see the problems sitting right in front of them; it’s self-evident.  It takes more strength of character to ignore what can’t be changed, search for the positive among the rubble, and start building new solutions.  That’s how perspective can add value.  And if that can’t be managed, at least keep your mouth shut. 

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