Have you ever had this kind of interaction? You are talking with someone, and you’re having a good conversation. At some point, seemingly out of nowhere, the other person says something subtly unkind about you. You may not even notice it at first, but then realize it was a backhanded compliment or a personal dig. You might not even notice until after the conversation has ended, and feel confused when you realize something was amiss. If this sounds familiar to you, you were most likely negged. Negging is a manipulation tool used by people to undermine your confidence and make you feel inferior to them. It’s gross and awful. They use it for various reasons, but it is always some sort of power play.
Have you ever had this happen in a business situation? While pop culture references negging in social contexts, you will also run into this behaviour in business environments from time-to-time. As you deal with executives, senior managers, startup founders, and other visionaries who have the ability to take product ideas and fundraise around them, you are going to run into egos. And rightly so, these are unique people who are able to create excitement over their ideas, get investment, attract people and create a team around them to see their vision get built into something tangible. People with big egos can feel threatened by others around them that have knowledge, skills and abilities that they lack. They bring you in to a business because they are aware of this and they want their product or service to be a success, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling threatened by you, particularly when under stress.
Popular folklore around business is that it is driven by forces of efficiency and demand, and private companies in particular are guided by forces related to their revenue and expenses, and adjust accordingly. In other words, companies operate on a knife edge of market conditions, and are adjusting their sources of revenue and keeping an eye on their expenses, and make decisions based on the best, most up to date data available at the time. That’s folklore.
The reality is that like everything else in life, emotions drive business decisions much more than anything else. When you trigger the emotions of someone who has more power than you, they will respond in surprising ways. One way is to use the neg, to try to assert dominance and let you know who is really in charge.
Sometimes the neg is subtle, but sometimes it is obvious. Usually near the end of a conversation, the person in power gives you “feedback” and describes something you do that they feel needs improvement. It’s almost always about your personality and being, which is hard to cope with, rather than some aspect of your work, which you could easily adjust and improve. As a consultant, I get brought in by companies who are looking to improve, so part of my job is to understand what the company is doing well, and what areas need improvement. A common reaction when I present my findings to senior managers is for them to get defensive and neg me.
Negative feedback isn’t always a neg though, so it’s important to analyze the interaction. Here are some things to consider. Was it a comment about you and your behavior, or is it related to your work? Is it in a context where critical feedback would be appropriate, or did it come out of nowhere? Does it seem reasonable, or petty and vindictive? Are you feeling defensive and upset, or are you feeling attacked and confused? Do you know down deep that they are right about it, or is this something new that you aren’t aware of? Does it feel better with time after the encounter, or do you feel more confused and worse off? If you find yourself agreeing with the feedback and coming to terms with it rather than feeling defensive, it might have been good critical feedback that was delivered poorly.
Why do they neg?
Businesses aren’t a meritocracy. The people in power got there due to circumstances, luck, and timing. They stay there due to their personality and their interpersonal skills, especially their ability to assert leadership and their mastery of group politics. In some organizations, the politics are vicious and cut throat. In others, they are milder, but leadership still requires you navigate them. Some leaders even have personality traits that are dysfunctional interpersonally, but advantageous in business. Leaders respond to threats or perceived threats to their leadership in different ways, but manipulation is less threatening than productive confrontation or straight out intimidation. Negging is a subtle way to undermine someone so they feel like they need to acknowledge that you have power over them. Here are some reasons why leaders neg.
- feel defensive about your critical feedback (even though they want it and need it).
- are intimidated by skills you have that they feel they lack.
- perceive your leadership in the organization as a potential threat.
- are jealous of you. Jealous of your skills, success, experiences, the way you look, etc.
- want to manipulate you so that you do something for them that you normally wouldn’t do.
- are insecure and run everyone down to make themselves feel better.
- have a personality disorder.
- feeling stressed and desperate and are inadvertently lashing out.
- like to fuck with people.
- experience a combination of the above.
There are probably others I have missed. In short, people are people, and there are a lot of reasons why people behave the way they do. Pettiness and childishness does not disappear just because you are in a business context. In fact, pettiness and childishness can be amplified in stressful business situations. There are cliques and group patterns that emerge like in every other group, but there are also financial and other rewards at stake, causing people to behave in different ways depending on their hope for reward or fear of punishment. People in leadership like to stay in leadership positions, and the further up the corporate ladder you go, the more stresses there are. The financial rewards are greater, but there are more powerful people with a lot of influence and power that are putting pressure on the leaders. If you add desperation to the mix, then more erratic and dysfunctional behavior will follow.
Software companies in particular are incredibly difficult business environments due to their fast, hectic pace, fickle consumer markets, disruption from competitors, and the winner takes all environment they are capitalized in. Furthermore, investment firms often like to back leaders with a certain kind of personality, and arrogant, dysfunctional people are often lionized and held up as leaders we should emulate. That said, in a fast paced, ever changing environment, even the most balanced and empathetic leaders will suffer under the strain. None of us are perfect, and under the right conditions we can behave poorly, even when we don’t mean to.
In other cases, the business neg is more insidious. Sometimes people behave this way because they are:
- sexist. The vast majority of the time it’s a man who doesn’t want to see a female or non-male in a business environment, and/or they are trying to hit on you.
- racist. They don’t like the color of your skin, where you are from, etc.
- homophobic. They don’t approve of who you love.
- transphobic. They don’t like your gender.
- anti-science. They resent the data you use to make decisions.
- politically intolerant They want everyone to believe and vote the way they do.
These are extremely difficult situations to navigate, but they are easier to spot than the previous list. Leaders in companies are used to people agreeing with them, and can find alternative people and viewpoints extremely threatening.
What can you do about it?
To cope with the business neg, you first need to analyze it. Was it reasonable feedback that came at an awkward time, and I’m just feeling defensive about it? For example, I presented findings for a small software company after a short audit. Audits aren’t pleasant to do, and are unpleasant for the people in the company. After I was finished, the CTO lashed out at how I had presented the information. He was angry and said that he didn’t like the format of my report and wanted it changed. The QA manager responded with a backhanded comment, implying wrongdoing on my part during the audit. I felt taken aback by both comments, and immediately felt defensive. I thanked both for their feedback, then held my tongue and stayed quiet, even though I felt like responding in my own defense. Instead, I waited. The meeting ended, and I had some time to reflect. Which one was critical feedback that was poorly timed, and which one was the neg?
In this case it was straight forward. The feedback from the CTO was easily addressed, and I chalked up their negative behavior as a form of projection. They were upset with the findings and took it out on me. On the other hand, QA manager’s response wasn’t critical feedback, it was a statement intended to undermine my credibility. The team was struggling because an Agile consultant had worked with them a year prior, and advised they automate all tests. Now they were collapsing under the weight of all the tests and couldn’t move forward. I provided some actionable approaches to cope with this: use proper software architecture and design with automation code, treat it equally with product code, refactor, don’t mindlessly automate, summarize tests, etc. However, the QA manager was afraid they would get blamed and would lose face, lose opportunities in the organization, or lose their job. I ignored their statement and moved on.
Another neg came at the end of an interview. The executive who had walked me through their pitch, their financials, their organizational structure, their positives and their negatives suddenly turned on me. They towered over me and got quite aggressive. They essentially insulted me, and then concluded the meeting. I knew then that there was a problem with fit, and we weren’t going to work together.
Here are some options for dealing with the business neg:
- Ignore it and move on.
- Acknowledge it and address it.
- Talk to trusted confidante outside of the organization
Sometimes good leaders have some negative traits, and getting negged once in a while is the cost of doing business with them. None of us are perfect, and if it isn’t really harmful and you can cope with it, then ignoring it and moving on might be appropriate. However, what works for you might not work for others, so don’t assume everyone should always put up with it just because you can. One way to determine if this is a trait is to watch and see if they do it to others, and how they respond. If they start to supplicate to the person doing the negging, that is a big warning flag. The person doing the negging probably wants this. If they ignore it and nothing else happens, it is probably a behavior the leader isn’t conscious of.
There are two ways you can acknowledge and address negging. The first is head-on, in the moment. You call out the other person and ask them what they mean and what they hope to get out of the comment. This is high risk, because people don’t like getting confronted by their toxic behavior. It can be effective in stopping it, or in ending a business relationship where there isn’t a good personality fit. In other words, this will very well end a business relationship early on, before it gets to be truly abusive. Another approach is to acknowledge it after the fact on your own, and address it through your own behavior. If it is worthwhile feedback and you can do something to address it, you’ll grow from it. If it is just a neg, you need to utilize your own self care tools, possibly with the assistance of a counsellor or therapist.
Negging is awful and can be so damaging it tears you apart emotionally, causing you to doubt yourself. Often there is a grain of truth to the neg, which can prey on you and dominate your thoughts and self talk. If it comes from someone in a position of power over you, especially someone you admire, it can be even more difficult to cope with. Getting advice from someone who isn’t in the situation can help a lot. Recently, I had a startup founder insult me at the end of a session. I confronted them in real time, and they started making excuses and then blamed themselves. I laughed it off afterwards, but a few days later self doubt started to creep in. I called a friend and professional colleage and shared what had happened with them, and what was said. They were shocked, said they had never witnessed anything like that from me, and told me to ignore it. Sometimes though, people have agreed with the assessment, even though it was delivered poorly, and gently offered support and ideas on how I could address it. I am not perfect, and I have problems with communication. My brain tends to run more quickly than my words, so I can overwhelm people with too much detail, and interrupt when I have a new idea or thought. I work on these problems, and sometimes a neg is poorly framed feedback meant to address this. I would prefer more straight forward feedback on these and other issues I have in the proper context, but that doesn’t happen that often. With experience, I have developed a pretty good sense of negging that has a reasonable motivation, and negging that is designed to manipulate or insult. Working with others on my own weaknesses and coping skills has helped in this regard.
Finally, if it is really damaging, you need to get out of the situation. If it is a first encounter, or early in the business relationship, congratulations, you found out early on that this person is harmful to you. Move on to another opportunity. If it is in an established business relationship, moving on might take time and planning. In that case, hunt for a new job or relationship and end things cleanly once you are able to. People who are against who you are as a person can never be satisfied, while others who are so deeply dysfunctional will never change. You’ll be a target for not just negging but harassment, bullying and possibly worse. It will be damaging to you personally and emotionally to stick around, as well as your career. Your mental health will suffer, and if you are set up to fail, your professional reputation could be harmed. I have seen business leaders with severe personality disorders absolutely ruin the mental health of those around them. I have seen sexists, racists, and political zealots destroy everything they have built because of their lack of empathy and respect for others. I have seen talented staff driven off because of who they were, not because of their work or interpersonal relationships. When someone is completely unreasonable and is angry with your right to exist, you need to get away from them.
Do you neg others?
It’s one thing to see this behavior in other people, but it’s important to analyze our own interactions. We might be the person inflicting the business neg on others. A lot of these behaviors are learned when we are young, and to help us cope in difficult situations. We may be more comfortable being passive aggressive rather than confronting an issue directly. Or we may not be aware we are doing it. It just might be part of our learned communication and interpersonal interactions. If we are rewarded for manipulating people, then it becomes more entrenched. If you realize that you neg others, please try to stop. Seek professional help via a counsellor or therapist, and through professional communication and HR training. There are tons of resources out there to help you deal with confrontation better, on how to have difficult conversations and provide feedback in a healthy way, and how to cope with your own emotions so you don’t lash out when you feel threatened. There are better ways to assert your leadership or get things done than using potentially damaging manipulation tactics.
Bottom line: negging is real and it will affect you. A business relationship is no different than any other relationship, no matter how successful or large the company is, or how fancy the office space is. People are people. Always trust your gut. If you think you are being negged, you most likely are. Find the best path forward to cope and deal with it effectively. And, if you neg others, please seek help and stop.
PS: the business neg can show up in various ways. I’ve seen it as a marketing strategy where organizations try to shame or manipulate people into buying something. I’ve also seen corporate trainers and other people in positions of influence do it. Once you learn to spot it, you see it more often, and you can deal with it rather than feeling troubled by it.