Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Handling Workplace Negativity: Some Lessons from the Sport of Cricket


I recently came across this intriguing piece by Paddy Upton, former coach of Indian cricket team. The article was titled "What do we mean when we say a cricketer is mentally tough?", where he breaks many myths about the subjective topic of mental toughness.

One of the incidents that he recalls in the article that really caught my attention was Paddy Upton's dealing with Gautam Gambhir. Gautam was a former Indian Cricket team opener. He won the 'International Cricketer of the Year' award in 2009. He was the top scorer in the finals of last 2 world cup wins, in 2007 (T20) and in 2011 (ODI), which is an unparalleled feat. Despite these towering achievements, Paddy called Gautam as one of the most negative persons he ever worked with.

How can a sports person who won top laurels be called as negative ?
Paddy cites scenes where Gautam would be self-critical even after scoring a century or contributing highly. In most of the situations, he would find flaws in himself like- i should have scored double of what i did, i should have found more gaps in the field and so on.

I found it very fascinating to say the least. If I look back at my workplace experiences, I have noticed negativity in various forms, let me share a few examples:
1. I noticed people react negatively when faced with political situations at work.
2. There were instances of people allowing ugly situations to dominate their minds and let those affect their performance.
3. People spreading negativity by broadcasting the work pressure to the fellow colleagues.

Just thinking over it two things are clear: 1) We face different sorts of negative situations at work.
2) These happen almost everyday.

That led to me the following divergent questions:
If i am the recipient of negativity, how should i deal with it ?
If i am the source of negativity, how should i deal with it ?

No single answers to these questions, but lets assess the perspectives does Paddy Upton's work give around these questions:

1. Be aware of extent of your negativity:
Paddy says in the quoted article: 'Research suggests that most people sit somewhere on a continuum between being an optimist and being a pessimist, with 100 standing for ├╝ber-optimistic and 0 for pessimistic. Gautam was definitely wired towards the 'lower' end of the optimism/pessimism scale; let's say his range was from 20 to 40, with 30 being his normal.'

In workplace too, we have employees at the different stages of the optimism continuum. when faced with negative situations, the people who are at the higher end of the continuum- say if they are at 95, they will fallback to say 75 on a subjective.The people who are at the lower end of the scale, will reach even lower as was the case in Gautam's example.
A mere awareness of where we stand in this scale, will help predict and hence control our reaction to the negative situations. Positive people and negative people respond differently to negativity.

2. Positive self-talk doesn't work always:
Paddy says: "Trying to engage in positive self-talk for people who naturally have more negative thoughts can be frustrating, and because they often can't get it right, can cause them to further think negatively about themselves."
Positive self-talk works for the employees who are wired on the optimistic side of this spectrum. Positive self-talk is not recommended for people who are generally more pessimistic.

3. Embrace the negativity rather than challenging it:
So how do generally pessimistic people handle workplace negativity ?
Paddy quotes Oliver Burkeman's book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
' He makes a case for learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. We're often told to 'face your fear', to embrace it rather than run or hide from it. It turns out, we might also benefit from facing and experiencing negative emotions - or, at the very least, by not running quite so hard from them. Fear of failure is one of the world's most prominent negative thoughts. Failure will happen, so why not rather face and embrace it?'

Tip here is to embrace your own self first, even the negative parts of your personality. Coming to terms with our own negativity (rather than fighting it out) will lead one out of the internal conflict and bring in more clarity and perspectives.

4. Optimism can be learned:
Paddy suggests that optimism is a behavior that can be learned. One of the ways it can be done is by redirecting our response to negative situations. Rather that taking negative situations personally and finding root causes within self, redirecting it to the context or even suggesting to self that it is happening only in a small area of our lives, helps put things in right perspective and stay at higher end of the continuum.

5. Keeping emotions in check helps:
Paddy gives an captivating example of M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli (for those not familiar with them, both are Indian cricket legends) to explain the roles emotions plays in letting negativity overpower us.

 M.S. Dhoni, as an example, has incredible emotional control. He never shows emotion, and he is lauded for that. Just as with being openly optimistic as opposed to being pessimistic, 'having emotional control' is sometimes seen as evidence of a player's mental toughness. But I would go as far as to say, with the greatest respect for MS the man and the cricketer, that it is not emotional control, but lack of access to emotions. MS is not wired as an emotional type. It's almost as if he doesn't have them; a performance-enhancing gift from birth. Imagine taking that trait as the ultimate characteristic of a 'mentally tough' athlete, and then try to prescribe that to someone who is very emotionally wired, like his successor Virat Kohli. Virat uses his visible and overt emotional charge to drive his success, whereas MS's success is facilitated by his lack of emotional charge.

We can't change the situation (be it negative or positive) but we can decide our response to it. Think of emotions as something that's kept inside the lock with only you having access to open it. Use this key wisely, and less so in negative situations.

As i summarize this write-up, i wish to clarify that i didn't want to sound judgmental. Both positivity and negativity plays a role in our lives and both should be embraced based on the situation. George Bernard Shaw expressed it the best when he said:

'Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.'

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