Negative people are often scorned, tip toed around or worse still, excluded. Their presence in a room can make eyes roll and heads slump into hands. Often, their reputation precedes them and they are the thing that newcomers will hear about first, their negativity having become part of the DNA of the business. In larger companies the naysayers are often those either very senior or kept well down on the ladder for what seems to be obvious reasons. Middle management is often filled with highly positive, enthusiastic, can-do people who, on a daily basis run the gauntlet of negativity. But, in an owner-run business, the individual with the reputation of ‘grumpy’ is usually up close and personal to a high percentage of people, not just those employed, but all of the people that the business interacts with on a daily basis and that means your clients!

My own take on legendary negativity came in for some realignment when I met with one individual who changed my mind forever. As I arrived at the fast growing renewables company, the CEO pulled me aside and apologised because Mark was going to be in the room that day and ‘Mark’ was verbosely negative and often left lesser mortals scurrying away seeking positive re-oxygenation. My task that day was to navigate a collaboration with another company, something that Mark was likely to react to.

He was indeed a formidable character but my memories of him these days are only good ones, warm and friendly remembering the person I said cheerio to many years ago and hoping that he is still a tornado-like personality in whatever company he works for. You see, it came to light that Mark wasn’t negative, he was just passionate. He was passionate about safety and with a wealth of experience in his head, he could see things down the line that others just couldn’t see. For many years he had been labelled ‘negative’, ‘impossible’ and on his worst days ‘obstructive’. In truth there was another side to Mark that few people could see. An immensely caring family man, he viewed every project through the eyes of a father and wondered how safe that project had to be before he would be happy letting one of his adult kids near it. His problem, if he had one, was the way he verbalised his insights into the complex challenges that faced the company; usually red-faced and ranting. Working at a senior level and in with the bricks, he was often given these labels to his face, it was in fact an in-company joke but as the accolades for negativity piled up, Mark could do nothing other than be what people expected of him, there was no way out.

Then we changed everything. We gave him a new label and worked with his thinking in a way where, as a team, we could mine the safety gold out of Marks head. The problem was keeping up. At one point three of us were taking notes as we discovered all the answers we needed to make the project a rapid and safe success were inside Mark’s head. Diamonds of thinking right there where nobody was looking. In fact they had been avoiding for years.

Months later I returned. Mark was indeed a changed man (but not too changed). He relished his job once more, still took stick from colleagues but was invited on to every new project team and was now running a far bigger team of his own.

Negative isn’t bad. Negative people are more often than not passionate about something. If you can get them pointing in the right direction they will often give you insights that no one else can see but it takes a brave and invested business owner to give them that opportunity.

Now if you really want to find the problem in a company, look for apathy, that will mess you up every time!

Although this is a true story ‘Mark’s’ name has been changed to protect his identity.