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Lighten Up: Negativity at Work is Bad for Your Career

Lighten Up: Negativity at Work is Bad for Your Career
Credit: Meikesen/Shutterstock

Even though you may be helping your employer by regularly pointing out problems in the workplace, you are hurting your own performance by doing so, new research shows.

Employees who focus on the negative aspects of work are more likely to become mentally fatigued and defensive, and experience a drop-off in production, according to a Michigan State University study.

"The moral of this story is not that we want people to stop raising concerns within the company, because that can be extremely beneficial," Russell Johnson, a Michigan State management professor who co-authored the study, said in a statement. "But constantly focusing on the negative can have a detrimental effect on the individual."

Workers who frequently point out problems and errors might be mentally fatigued because this often means they're highlighting their co-workers' shortcomings and causing tension in these relationships," Johnson said.

"The irony of that is, when people are mentally fatigued, they're less likely to point out problems anymore," he said. "In addition, their own work performance suffers, they're less likely to be cooperative and helpful, and they even exhibit deviant behaviors, such as being verbally abusive and stealing from the employer."

Researchers think that in order to counteract these harmful effects, employees should not just point out the problems they see, but also offer suggestions for how to fix them. To encourage that, companies can consider rewarding employees who point out problems that lead to improvements, Johnson suggested. [Neutralizing Negativity Is Key to Career Success ]

"In that case, maybe other employees would be more accepting of someone pointing out errors if they know this is what the company wants them to do — that the person isn't acting outside the norm," Johnson said.

For the study, which was co-authored by Michigan State doctoral student Szu-Han Lin, researchers conducted two field surveys of more than 300 total workers in a variety of occupations, such as accounting, retail, manufacturing and health care. The findings were published online recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.