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How to Stay Motivated in a Negative Work Environment

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In an ideal world, work would consist of perfect people with balanced loads who face predictable challenges and are fairly compensated. Unfortunately, workplaces have negative aspects. In a study of the American workplace from 2010 through 2012, Gallup found that 70 percent of workers are “not engaged” or are “actively disengaged.” They are also emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive. These employees cost $450 to $550 billion per year in lost productivity. Further, they are more likely to steal, negatively influence co-workers, miss work and drive away customers. Given the negative environment that you likely face, it is important to stay motivated. As a result, you will be able to adapt to a number of situations with confidence and ease.

Organizational Culture

Company culture consists of shared moods, values and habits. Negative norms include chronic lateness or absenteeism, excessive competition, verbal abuse and nepotism. It is very difficult to thrive in negative cultures because, since you do not fit in, you often feel something is wrong with you. While it might seem like the culture reflects the majority’s decisions, typically, norms are set by founders. In the face of such a powerful and historical force, identify an advocate who is willing to validate your ideas, affirm your work style and brainstorm survival strategies. You should also continue to make a positive mark on the company each day through your achievements. In addition, focus on any benefits to being there -- whether a healthy retirement plan, the ability to work from home or a stepping stone for your larger career.

Excessive Job Responsibilities

Employees often find a huge disparity between their job descriptions and the actual work they do each day. This is often a function of delegating, sometimes across several tiers of a company. Moreover, employees who are excellent at what they do tend to receive more responsibilities. Even if you have extraordinary talents and manage your time effectively, an excessive workload can dampen your spirits. Assuming your superiors are truly unaware of the overload, you can chart your various job functions and the average time it takes to fulfill them. If this time exceeds one full-time equivalent (or FTE) you might justify hiring a half- or full-time person for balance. Another option is to privately list each day’s accomplishments. This will give you regular lifts and help when it’s time for your performance review.

Low Pay

It is hard to deliver your personal best each day and not receive fair compensation. Sometimes this happens because an organization struggles to meet its bottom line. Other times, it is a function of human resources policies or individual decisions. Still, at other times, the scope of your work may expand while your paycheck does not. If you have a strong case, and the company can financially support your bid, ask for a raise. Timing is key -- asking too early (1 month after you are hired) or too late (after many years) can reduce your odds. In general, communicate the value of your work to your boss and colleagues in a non-showy way. You will feel better when you give voice to your triumphs. And, in time, others will rally behind you.

Corporate Restructuring

You might have a reasonable workload with great pay and work for a company that has a positive culture. Unfortunately, all too often, companies restructure themselves. Downsizing can occur in line with a recession. Or a shift into a new product or service line can completely affect business as usual. Change is one of the most natural and challenging situations you can face in life. At work, the same principles apply. Instead of taking on a passive role in which you are told what to do next, set new goals for yourself and take steps each day to complete them. Your goals might focus on acquiring new skills or simply improving your attitude. By actively investing in the direction your company is moving, you will develop a forward-looking vision that motivates and renews you.


Kenya Lucas has been writing professionally since 1998. Her work has appeared in “Anthropology & Medicine,” “New Directions for Evaluation,” “Psychology of Women Quarterly” and “Journal of the Grant Professionals Association.” She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University and Brown University.

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