The Imagined Response

We were in a team meeting discussing a creative new initiative.  People were wondering if we should loop in a peer from another department, we’ll call her Sarah.  “We probably should,” they said. “It’s part of her area.”  Yet as they anticipated Sarah’s response, the room started to dim.  What had, only minutes before, been an exciting opportunity was now fraught with angst.

It wasn’t that they were afraid Sarah would say no.  She didn’t have the power to say no.  It was their assumptions about her reaction to their project that sent the meeting south. Without Sarah being in the room or uttering a single word, the group was already annoyed at her.  The mere anticipation of her behavior turned a positive project into a problematic one.

As they say, her reputation preceded her.  This particular teammate, Sarah was known for stopping things, finding reasons something was wrong, and being generally unresponsive outside of her group.

You probably know people like this.  Their behavior – be it negativity, nitpickiness, overreactions, or some other malady – makes things harder for others.  After experiencing a person like this a few times, people begin to expect it.  As with the team in the conference room, you get annoyed at the thought of their reaction, before the person even does anything.

This is problematic on two levels:

  1. Reacting to imagined negativity has a chilling effect on YOU.
    The person in question may respond poorly, or they may not. Even if they are the worst person in the world, and there is a 100% guarantee they will respond badly, it’s lunacy to let their negativity dampen your projects or plans, when they are not even there.  Imagining the negative response of others limits your creativity; your brain goes into defensive mode.  You either get self-righteous or victim-like.  Forward thinking stops.  Your brain is now occupied anticipating the misdeeds of others.  If you do approach the person, the negative story in your head puts a wet blanket on all your ideas.

We can talk about being charitable with your thoughts, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and being non-judgmental, they’re lovely aspirations. Good humanhood aside, the biggest reason to avoid reacting to imagined negative behavior is to keep your brain space positive.  Once you start spinning negative stories, you’re at risk for becoming negative yourself.

  1. A bad reputation is hard to shake.
    The team had cemented Sarah’s response in their mind before they even went to her. Now even if she asks a simple question, it will be interpreted poorly.  She may or may not deserve the bad rap.

People form impressions of you based on the way you present yourself.  Some of their most important impressions are formed by how you react to their ideas and presentations.  If you routinely react negatively to the ideas and initiatives of others, or you ignore people, you’re going to get a negative reputation.  Once your reputation is laid down it takes a huge effort to reverse it.

As you consider your reputation, ask yourself: If your colleagues were thinking about looping you into something important, what kind of reaction would they expect from you?