Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 5: Quit Dismissing the “Negative” People in Your School.

Spend any time in Twitter and you are going to be buried in messages about the importance of being positive or surrounding yourself with positive people or the power of positivity.  

Most of those messages will be paired with images of sunrises and rainbows and shooting stars.  All of them will have a thousand likes and retweets.  They are the gumballs of the Twitterverse — colorful nuggets that none of can seem to resist.


And there’s truth in those messages. 

We SHOULD bring positive thoughts to the work that we do — especially since the human brain is hard-wired towards negativity.  Being deliberate about “embracing the positive” matters when we naturally respond more strongly to the negative.

But here’s the thing:  There really IS value in embracing the “negative” people in your school or on your learning team. 

Here’s why:  The vast majority of the people that you perceive as “negative” care just as much about seeing kids succeed as you do.  Their negativity isn’t an attempt to “be difficult.”  Instead, it is an outward expression of concerns that they have about the direction that you are currently moving in — and many of those concerns are worth addressing.

My friend and colleague Anthony Muhammad argues that reasonable, rational people resist change for four reasons:  They don’t understand the work that you are asking them to do, they don’t understand why the work that you are asking them to do matters, they don’t know how to do the work that you are asking them to do, or they don’t trust you.

So the “negativity” that you see in your colleagues is most frequently a function of one of those four concerns — and all of those concerns are valid.  They can’t be dismissed with trite comments like “that guy is always unhappy” or “we can never please him anyway.”  Instead, those concerns highlight places where you haven’t been clear enough or where you haven’t provided your teachers with the support that they need in order to move forward or where you haven’t invested the time and energy to gain the professional respect of a peer.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? 

Essentially, I’m arguing that when you see negativity in the people around you, what you are REALLY seeing is a problem that YOU need to solve.  You have knowledge building or skill building or relationship building to do.  The negative people  in your organization are, then, essential for identifying gaps that you may have missed in your change efforts.

Now, are there people who really are just being difficult because they like being difficult?


But they are in the minority.  

And my worry is that the constant “be positive” messages that we surround ourselves with make it easy to dismiss legitimate concerns as “people being grouchy.”

Any of this make sense?



Related Radical Reads:

Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip One:  Understand Teacher Approaches to Change

Want to Drive Change?  Find Your California Roll.

Want to Drive Change?  Then Lose the Bedazzler.

14 thoughts on “Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 5: Quit Dismissing the “Negative” People in Your School.

  1. jodipayneblog

    Hi all!
    I really enjoyed reading this article because it permits that teachers can appear human– not only to each other, but also to students. Sure, deficit models for viewing the school system and students usually do more harm that help. However, a space needs to be created for teachers to share when they are jaded about certain facets of the system. I think this dialogue can also extend beyond teacher communities to be critically responsive in the classroom– by showing your students that you don’t agree with everything the bureaucracy mandates. You are a human being with judgements that resist the status quo, too! How can we expect authenticity from our students if we are not willing to show authentic energy ourselves?
    More than this, positivity that erases opinions of what is problematic never solves those problems. How do we expect to see the changes we want if we cannot vocalize our concerns and complaints? The saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” certainly wasn’t generated by the quiet wheels on the cart.

    Thanks so much for sharing!


    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Jodi,

      I love this line in your comment:

      More than this, positivity that erases opinions of what is problematic never solves those problems.

      That’s a simple truth for sure. Thanks for sharing it.


  2. Vee

    Spot on, Bill. Problems can be solved when folks have a keen ear and as you mentioned, are willing to invest the time to solve problems that affect the learning community. Saying that they have bigger things to worry about is exactly when we lose some of the most genuinely caring professionals. Harvard research made some interesting findings about demoralization being a major driver, not pay, for folks quitting teaching early in their career.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Vee,

      I think that point — that demoralization is a major driver to people quitting teaching early in their career — definitely rings true for me. I always knew I wasn’t going to make much money. But I figured I’d be pretty darn satisfied with my day to day work. I’m not sure that I feel that sense of satisfaction anymore — and that’s discouraging.

      Thanks for the thinking,

  3. daveeckstrom

    In addition to the reasons that you mentioned above for resisting change, I think there’s a very big one that you overlooked, and this one applies often to many hard-working, positive, caring veterans who have been around the block a few times: We’re already working as hard as we can and you just added something to our plate we have good reason to believe won’t make a difference without taking anything off our plate to make room for it and we’re just really tired of years and years of that happening.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Dave,

      I really like your addition: We really ARE working as hard as we can — so anything new that you add to our plate has to have clear value. If it doesn’t, there’s no way that you are going to get our support.

      Thanks for the contribution,

  4. Curtis Howe

    I needed to read this article today! This idea of ownership (if you haven’t read Extreme Ownership you might enjoy it), is something I am working on daily! Your post was well thought out and balanced on using negativity as a diagnostic of policy. What a great way to turn negativity into a message of “sunrises and rainbows and shooting stars.” 😁

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks, Curtis —

      And you hit the nail on the head: Negativity is more a function of policy than personality. We need to remember that in order to improve our schools.

      Rock on,

  5. Eric

    I take your point. I also think there is a big difference between those that I view as negative versus those I view as pushing against the system, or advocating for kids.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      I’m with you, Eric…

      I do think there’s a difference between these two groups and that we can spot those differences if we are willing to look.

      Here’s the hitch, though: In a “positive first and positive always” culture, people stop looking at those differences and individuals who are pushing against the system get dismissed without a second thought.

      That’s the danger.

      Thanks for the contribution to the conversation! It’s a good one.

      Rock on,

  6. Elaine

    Sounds like a massive rationalization for being grouchy! LOL Just kidding. Great points, actually. I think we’re all negative sometimes, unless we are droids. In my own work, I’ve noticed that most of the time, those negative folks really want to feel “heard,” and something is making them feel they are not being heard. I remember working with a particularly cantankerous teacher one day last year. I had only been on my new job for about two months. We were working on a technology tool and she announced, “Your boundless optimism really is rather annoying.” She was serious but I couldn’t help but laugh. As I got to know her, I realized she’s a very caring person, but was feeling undervalued. Taking the time to really talk to her, not just about technology, but about school and life and whatever…was critical in building our relationship. I really believe that when we approach others from a place of authenticity and genuine interest, the barriers will almost always come down.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Elaine wrote:

      In my own work, I’ve noticed that most of the time, those negative folks really want to feel “heard,” and something is making them feel they are not being heard.

      This is a brilliant addition to the conversation, Elaine.

      When people don’t feel heard, you can’t expect to see anything other than resistance from them.

      Well said,

  7. Peggy visconti

    YES. This makes sense to me. I also think that people who are one way or the other all the time (positive or negative) can appear less authentic. shouldn’t there be an ebb and flow? highs and lows? good and bad? It just seems more natural to me.
    your posts always make me think, bill. I really enjoy that!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Glad you dug it, Peggy…

      And you are right: People who are “all or nothing” in either direction are generally not terribly authentic. We ought to see both sides of a person’s thoughts and feelings and emotion towards the work that we do. That’s a good way to tell the difference between the small minority of people who are genuinely being difficult for the sake of being difficult and the majority of people who are pushing against poor ideas.

      Thanks for adding that to the conversation,

Comments are closed.