Why Being a Debbie Downer Hurts Your Career

By on July 30, 2012

We all know someone who suffers from “Debbie Downer Syndrome.” Maybe it’s the barista at your coffee shop who can’t crack a smile as she begrudgingly makes your daily latte. Or perhaps it’s your uncle Steve, who’s always the first to point out any unfortunate events from the past few months at family gatherings. Although we’re taught from a young age to look for the best in people, it can be hard to find that light when these folks keep dragging down the mood.

I know that everyone has “off” days. I can’t lie and say that I’m in a fantastic mood every minute of every day — after all, I’m only human. But as a business professional and former soldier, I understand that attitude matters most in group settings, especially in the workplace.

How One Bad Apple Spoils the Bunch

I learned many important life lessons during my service in the military — lessons about responsibility, honor, teamwork, and integrity. I also learned that a single troop has the ability to bring down the morale of every other person around him or her.

You may not be surprised to hear that emotions and attitude play a large role in the seemingly robotic and calculated daily demands of military life, but morale is one of the most important factors in any work environment. If a unit is tasked with a tough field exercise and they aren’t able to get a lot of sleep, everyone is on edge and worn out. Keeping up the morale of the unit is the best way to drive on and accomplish the mission. Likewise, when a department’s pulling all-nighters to complete a project for a high-profile client, the last thing it needs is someone discouraging those burning the midnight oil. Unfortunately, all it takes is one person’s negative attitude to upset everyone and ultimately bring the group — and maybe even the entire project — down.

Many psychological studies have shown that we hold on to negative experiences or comments longer than positive ones; it takes seven positive interactions to counteract a single negative encounter. In other words, one snarky perspective can bring a whole tired team down like a pile of dominoes.

How to Spot this Social Sniper

Debbie Downers come in all shapes and sizes, but as I’ve advanced through my career, I’ve developed a few tricks to help me spot a negative co-worker from a mile away. In my experience, these people tend to do the following:

  • Get upset at even the smallest task;
  • Avoid social interaction and exclude themselves from events;
  • Gossip and feed into rumors, rather than share real facts;
  • Have extremist attitudes, and
  • Negatively impact how efficiently and effectively the rest of the company works.

Obviously, these characteristics have an impact on the company as a whole, allowing for employees at all levels to pick up on it.

In a team setting, employees can’t help but notice the disgruntled person in the room. Eventually, this negativity can affect the project or department, and the person in question will end up being avoided, left out, or asked to leave the project for good. (Misery may love company, but companies don’t love misery.) If a Debbie Downer works independently within a company, it’s likely that her clients and bosses will notice her negative attitude and have a poor impression of the employee and what she’s capable of.

And guess what? Customers’ lackluster impressions of that employee bleed into how they view the company as a whole.

How to Turn that Frown Upside Down

To sum it all up, positivity, just like negativity, can make an impact in the workplace. Luckily, it’s easy for recovering Debbie Downers to make an image shift toward becoming more positive contributors in the workplace.

Personally, I believe that volunteering is one of the most effective ways to be a positive contributor, but there are plenty of ways for a recovering downer to revamp her image and turn that frown upside down.

Taking the initiative to start relationships with co-workers (a.k.a. former adversaries) is always a good step; volunteering for extra projects, or taking on new ones without grumbling, will also be noticed. When you’ve formerly been viewed as toxic, even small details can make a big impact.

The bottom line is that it’s important for all employees to engage themselves with a company’s new goals and strive to bring an upbeat, positive attitude to all aspects of their jobs. If an employee expresses to co-workers that he or she wants to be there as a team player, colleagues will reciprocate, creating a more pleasant and productive work environment for everyone involved.

Levi Newman is a 10-year U.S. Army veteran who served in multiple overseas deployments and assignments. He has covered veteran benefits and news as chief writer for the Veterans United Network and VA Benefit Blog. Follow Levi on Google+.

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