When the CEO announced that the construction was finished on time and on budget, the board launched into complaints instead of rejoicing.
Working with a group, such as your board or staff, that defaults to the negative is like wearing a full 70-liter backpacking uphill mid-summer. Besides being unpleasant, negative groups cause damage. Andrew Knight’s meta-analysis found that shared negativity “undermines social integration and task performance” in ongoing groups.
To guide your board, staff, and ongoing meetings toward less negativity, gear up. Why? Because it takes more effort to move a group from negative to positive than the opposite. And, because this post is dense! (When I researched approaches to deal with negativity, I found no toolbox of options and decided to create this one.)
What kind of negativity is this? Negativity here is the collective and habitual mindset that the sky is falling.
Of course, most groups include people who tend to be negative. These individuals vary in their degree of naysaying from slow to get enthusiastic to CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything.) Most teams easily accommodate them. Astute groups consider their points, extract any value, and apply the insights to reduce risks. In both cases, the groups right themselves.
However, negativity sometimes infects groups. Gripping becomes normal. As Bobby Darnell of Construction Market Consultants states, “Negativity is cannibalistic. The more you feed it, the bigger and stronger it grows.”
Later in this post, you’ll explore your options when your group gets a negativity infection. First, we take a look at the causes.
As I help groups align around critical issues, I encounter three key reasons for group negativity.
In this situation, the negativity habit is part of the culture. The older the institutions, the more likely a negative bias began before some members arrived. It’s inherited. Your meeting’s time frame, setting, and even specific topics cue doom and gloom.
Being risk averse is normal for boards and some roles, such as your fiscal team. Some groups believe their negativity is a service. “We protect this nonprofit from bad decisions,” they argue.
Something else is going on that needs exploration. The negativity is a symptom.
What’s one symptom of weak board recruitment or orientation? Boards put their personal needs and goals ahead of the nonprofit’s success and fail in their duty of loyalty. Other causes of negativity include:
Those are the three common causes of chronic group negativity. Sometimes, you have one or more of them. Sometimes, it’s one or more of the above and something else. Sometimes, it’s you.
How do leaders invite negativity? Besides conflict with the group or individuals or joining in the complaining, the leader’s timing is off.
Timing issues plague CEOs and executive directors. Since they deal with issues 24-7, they are often ready to solve them ahead of their staff and board. Often a group is recovering from a shock and needs more process work. They complain because they feel pushed and tired. (Read How to Fix Your Board Fixation on the Wrong People for More on the Need to Grieve.)
When it comes to dealing with negativity, the facilitation advice is pretty straightforward but rarely collected in one place. Here are the eight action choices, divided into two groups, redirect and confront-deal.
Note: Pick an option or two that fits your style. Don’t try them all at once.
▢ 1. Limit naysaying with ground rules, such as “We focus on solving problems, not just identifying them.”
▢ 2. Assign negative ringleaders tasks to gather the information that would make them more confident, such as, “Would you research the likelihood of a flood in this location?”
▢ 3. Set boundaries. Clarify the input you expect and insist that people answer the question on the floor, such as, “Let’s start with talking about what went well.”
When you get boundary challenges, please ask and, if necessary, help the individual to restate the answer positively. So “not enough people attended” becomes, “Since we had just a few people, we had time to talk to all the donors present.”
▢ 4. Straight up. You name the group’s foul mood and ask what’s going on. You step out of the agenda and work on your process. (Watch Content vs. Context for the importance of talking about process.)
▢ 5. If you see something, say something. Instead of asking the group, what’s going on, name the emotion and check for confirmation. Chris Voss’ ‘s Never Split the Difference is excellent on this tactic, plus saying upfront what the other may be thinking about you, such as “You may think I am Pollyanna reincarnated, but here’s a positive spin.”
▢ 6. Realistic Perhaps, the negativity comes from the truth. Do they have a point? What’s motivating them? In a New York Times essay, “Dr. Fauci Looks Back: Something Clearly Went Wrong,” Dr. Fauci shares:
So I have always felt when there are people pushing back at you, even though they in many respects are off in left field somewhere, there always appears to be a kernel of truth — maybe a small kernel or a big segment truth — in what they say. One of the things that we really need to do is we need to reach out now and find out what exactly was it that made them push back. Because so many people cannot be completely wrong.
▢ 7. The one-to-one. Meet with the ringleaders and explore what they want to accomplish. Bring specifics, like, “At the meeting, the board told three committee chairs three times that their ideas wouldn’t work. You were one of the people who agreed. Tell me about your thinking.” Talking will give you perspective and to consider how others see them.
Of course, whatever you do, when negativity arises, try to remain present, slow down, and listen. Staying on course is a must to avoid joining the carping or despairing.
The challenge is how! In her book Lessons from the Edge, Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, talks about how surprised she was that she flinched during a public hearing. (Watch it here.) What’s remarkable about this encounter is how she recovers.
▢ 8. How do we get there? Watch Managing Difficult People Effectively by Karen Kane for a tactic to do when conversations turn dark. Kane’s video gets five stars. And I can testify that even the first step she recommends (around the 13:00 minute) makes a difference.
You can guide your board, staff, and other groups to less negativity. You thought about why groups get negative and considered options. What going on with your group? Which options or options will you use?
Keep up with Karen, subscribe to her twice-monthly newsletter for nonprofit leaders, Karen’s CEO Solutions.
Karen Eber Davis Consulting guides executive directors and CEOs to generate the resources, boards, and support they need to make remarkable progress on their missions. As the award-winning thought-leader, advisor, and founding principal of Karen Eber Davis Consulting, Karen helps nonprofit leaders get answers, generate revenue, and grow their mission. Davis is known for her innovation and practicality based on her work with or visits to over 1,000 nonprofit organizations and her experience leading board and team events. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.