‘How can I shift my work relationships to be less negative?’

‘How can I shift my work relationships to be less negative?’

Raise the Bar is Fortune’s advice column written by business strategist and resilience educator Komal Minhas. Are you grappling with a workplace issue that’s getting in the way of you achieving your career goals? Komal is here to help—and she’ll be tapping top experts for their best advice along the way. Submit your questions here.

Dear Komal,

I recently realized my relationship with many of my colleagues is built on complaining about work. This wasn’t always the case—I used to love my team, knew more about their lives, and I was excited about the work we did together. How can I get back to that? How can I shift these relationships to be less negative? Is that even possible or is our workplace actually the problem?

-Seeking Positivity

Dear Seeking Positivity,

We spend so much of our time interacting, collaborating, and connecting with our work friends. They can contribute significantly to our well-being, help us survive the bad days at work, and amplify the great days. This is the beauty of building relationships at work: They can be the lifeline we need when our jobs get complicated.

The workplace has changed a lot in the past three years and brought forth a lot of complicated feelings, between the battle of hybrid vs. remote vs. in-person work, and navigating our new (and perfectly normal) social anxieties. It’s natural that we’d want to commiserate with people we trust. Complaining about work is normal! We all need an outlet to talk about the bad stuff.

The thing is, if we flex this tendency too hard, we can end up with a negativity hangover that bleeds into the next day, and the next day, and the next day. We end up creating a kind of hamster wheel that we just can’t seem to get off of. And we also build a culture of negativity with our colleagues and work friends that can be hard to shift.

When we’re in this cycle, sometimes it doesn’t matter if the workplace is a net positive one or a terrible one, the culture of complaining and resentment dominates, and starts to drain everyone. 

Here are a few ways to start shifting your work friendships back to something more positive:

Start asking questions that aren’t work related

Take the time to learn more about your colleagues and their lives outside of work. From what you’ve shared, it sounds like you have some great memories together, and you have been through a lot as work friends. Come back to what made you interested in these relationships in the first place and intentionally craft some questions that will help them open up about other parts of their lives that you haven’t heard about in a while. Ask about the things that light them up and that they’re enjoying right now. Intentionally share the same about your life more often.

Just like negativity is contagious, so are positivity and compassion. Of course be mindful of toxic positivity and inauthentic conversations. Simply tap into your genuine curiosity about the best things happening in their lives and hopefully you’ll notice the change you’re longing for. People might be more eager to talk about things that aren’t work related than you realize.

Plan a non-work related outing to reconnect

Prior to the pandemic going out for lunch, after-work drinks or dinner, or planning some non-work-related outings was normal. If you haven’t done so in a while because everyone works remote, or because you’re out of that habit, plan something! You can keep it simple, and make it an easy yes from your work friends. Make it a rule at the gathering to not complain about work, and see what happens. 

We are social beings, and planning some intentional time to have fun together will help you create new memories that you’ll be able to then talk about when you see each other in the days ahead. Try to be consistent with a monthly hangout, and invite new colleagues to join as well. Build a new habit of connection together.

Build in some problem solving 

When you notice yourself starting to vent to your colleagues, let yourself get it out of your system, catch yourself, and then ask some questions about how to solve things. This intentional redirect can start breaking the habit of longer, more draining vent sessions. It can also help your brain consider possible solutions to the often manageable problems you’re facing and be a reminder of how capable you are at solving those problems. You’ll also enable your work friend to feel positive momentum as you invite them to help you improve the situation and not just lament about it.

Sometimes problems are institutional and aren’t so easily solvable, but in the cases where a redirect can help you both feel better and shorten the time venting you’ll notice a small positive shift you’ve been craving.

If all else fails, and it really is the workplace that’s the problem, plan your exit

If trying some of the above steps builds a sense of positivity, but the workplace itself continues to drain and deplete you and your work friends, start planning your exit. You can’t counter a toxic workplace or manager with small bursts of positivity as an individual, and in fact staying too long in an unhealthy environment can erode your confidence and self-belief. In this case, lean on a mentor, coach, or one of your work friends that you trust and build your exit plan, begin applying to jobs in other departments or other companies, and consider other options for what’s next for you.

Be mindful that making this jump or shift may lead to some feelings of jealousy or resentment in your colleagues if they aren’t ready to make this change themselves. In other cases, you may be the inspiration they need to move on, too.

Sometimes the way to save yourself and a work friendship is to jump ship.

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