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How to conquer negative thinking

Sometimes at work you might feel that there’s no point, you can’t make a significant difference. I was doing a project management course for a large local authority in England once and they were all complaining about how badly run everything was, and I was saying, “Yes, but you can still run your own projects properly, just in your own area.” 

And one person said, “Chris, there’s no point in even trying, we’re just minnows in a sea of poo,”; that phrase has always stayed with me, such a great way to describe the utter futility of it. 

But I think he was wrong—although my training course was for just 12 people in an organisation of 12 thousand and although I felt like a little pebble trying to make ripples in a massive ocean I still think you can make a difference if you start with your own area—you’ve got to at least be proud of what you do.  

Most people’s reaction to bad management or a dysfunctional culture is to keep plodding on, keep getting paid, but to gradually cease to care, and I think that’s a real shame—you’re spending five days a week at work so you’ve got to believe in it, you must never cease to care about what you do.

Personally I think you should keep on fighting for what is right, fighting to do the best job you can, for the customers and for the organisation and for yourself, and if that means pushing back against difficult people, whether they are colleagues or even your boss, then you must do that. Find a way to enjoy your job, or find a job you enjoy, but you have to believe in what you’re doing.

But if you are prone to negative thinking, is there anything you can do? I’ve got four thoughts for you:

The first one is that change IS possible, although it is hard to change other people. But easier than trying to change other people is to change how they behave towards YOU; and it’s also well possible to change yourself.  

Young man in glasses is looking thoughtfully through a window while his reflection shows in the glass.
Reflect and change.
Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

You can change anything about yourself by what you say to yourself, because we are all products of the scripts that we have within our heads. If you feel that you are always going to be irritated by slow people, or intimidated by scary people, then you’re wrong—you CAN learn to change your behaviour by changing your inner thoughts, and this begins with mantras like “I am patient and calm with slow people” or “Nobody intimidates me—when people are aggressive it’s THEIR problem not mine, and I can stand up for my own rights”.  

You can say these things until they become true, and so you CAN change yourself in order to be more and more effective with difficult people.

My second suggestion is about personal goals at work: Change is driven by goals, and it’s a great feeling to be moving steadily towards a goal. Your assertiveness and your self-discipline both come from goals, and if you want to change your behaviour it starts with having a reason for doing it, and that’s your goals.  

For example, if you have a goal to be the expert on a particular type of software in your organisation, and it’s a goal you are really fired up about, then you won’t have any problem making time to sit down to learn all the features of that software, and you won’t let other people distract you from doing that. 

So make sure you have very clear goals for work as well as your home life —what do you like doing at work that you’d like to do more of, and what do you want to achieve at work over the next few years? These are incredibly important questions and if you don’t have an immediate answer, as I’m saying this to you, then after this you should sit down and have a good think about what your goals could be.

Third is to start with a small feeling of progress—as well as a big goal it’s good to have the steps along the way so you can feel your progress being made. How can your goals be divided up into small steps?

Ice-cream and cone that's been dropped on the sidewalk.
Learn from your mistakes.
Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

And fourth, when you get setbacks, just treat them as learning opportunities—how can you learn from this and be even better next time? That difficult person who got the better of you this time, or who you just couldn’t think of a way to deal with, it’s just an interesting challenge for next time.  

You might discuss it with some friends: “What could I have done, do you think?” And have the plan ready for next time. You’ll almost be looking forward to another difficult encounter so that you can have a chance to try out your plan.

So there are some ideas to help you to take on the big challenge of trying to make your work a better place: are you going to change your inner thoughts by using mantras? Are you going to get clearer goals for your work? Can those be divided down into small steps? And can you get better at learning from the times that it doesn’t quite go to plan?

Onwards and upwards!

—Listen to the Evolve to Succeed podcast with Chris Croft here.

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