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 realize something was wrong until after the conversation has ended, and feel confused. If this sounds familiar to you, you were most likely negged. Wikipedia says it’s a “…remark to another person to undermine their confidence and increase their need of the manipulator’s approval.”
In other words, negging is a manipulation tool used by people to undermine your confidence and make you feel inferior to them. If you feel defensive, or that you need to prove yourself to them, you are now more open to being manipulated. Negging is gross and it’s awful. People use it for various reasons, but it is always some sort of power play. Negging is well known in social situations, but have you ever had this happen in a business context?
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, consultants, senior managers, startup founders, influencers and others who have reached some level of success, you are going to run into egos. 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. Instead of analyzing and reflecting on the insights they are paying me to give them, they might tell me I look too young to be a consultant, or they expected someone taller, or that I don’t know how to communicate.
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 people neg in business situations.
- want to manipulate you and get you to do something for them you might not normally do.
- assert dominance and “put you in your place”, reminding you of their power over you.
- 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.
- are insecure and run everyone down to make themselves feel better.
- have a personality disorder.
- are 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, childishness and social manipulation do not disappear just because you are in a business context. In fact, these basic negative interpersonal behavior patterns 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.
A simpler way of saying this is schoolyard behavior does not magically disappear when we are adults, or when we are in business situations. In fact, due to enormous stress in work situations, it can be even worse.
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. Software founders and dealmakers can have huge egos, and are used to getting their way. 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.
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 facts and 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? Or was it an attempt to manipulate me to change something about my behavior or my work products?
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. Was this critical feedback that was poorly timed, or was there a business neg at play here?
In this case it was straight forward. The feedback from the CTO was constructive but awkwardly delivered. Their concerns were easily addressed in my report, 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, the QA manager’s response wasn’t critical or useful 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 the team were collapsing under the weight of all the tests and couldn’t move forward. They had far more code in automated tests than in the actual product, but fewer people working on that codebase to keep it running. They needed a serious philosophy change, major rearchitecting and refactoring, and to staff their automation efforts adequately.
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. If they undermined me, then maybe they could get out of doing the hard work of improving their department. Or, maybe, they could get me to blunt my feedback and alter my report. That’s an even better way to get out of hard work that has high visibility. However, if I altered my report to make them feel better, it would be deeply unethical. Instead, I ignored their statement and moved on.
Another neg came at the end of an interview for a new gig. The company founder had walked me through their pitch, their financials, their organizational structure, their positives and their negatives and we had a constructive session. He asked hard questions about what I would do to help a product move forward, and we talked a lot about processes and people and fit. Then, near the end of the interview, he suddenly turned on me. He stood up, had a defiant look on his face, then towered over me and got quite aggressive. He then started to insult me, berate me, and then concluded the meeting. I knew then that there was a problem with fit, and we weren’t going to work well together. He was pulling a neg, and I wasn’t going to stick around and find out why. If he was going to choose to neg me in a job interview, imagine what it would be like working together?
Here are some options for dealing with the business neg:
- Ignore it and move on.
- Acknowledge it and address it.
- Get help. Talk to trusted confidante outside of the organization.
- Run. Seek opportunities elsewhere with more like minded people.
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.
The second approach is more time consuming, but allows you time for reflection and strategy. With this approach, acknowledge it after the fact on your own, and address it through your own behavior. You come up with some approaches to deal with the person negging you, and how to cope with the self doubt and emotional responses it causes in you. You figure out ways to protect yourself politically while still doing your work and getting enjoyment from it. Setting it aside in the moment and finding a path forward after the interaction is lower risk. However, putting up with negs over a period of time can have a damaging effect on you. While it is lower risk in the short term, beware of a long term emotional toll.
Bottom line: If you can handle getting a neg once in a while, and the person who negs you doesn’t escalate their behavior, you are probably ok in that situation. If negs are eating at your self esteem, interfering with your life and work, or if your management of them causes people to intensify negative behavior towards you, you need to find a change.
Having negative feelings after an interaction doesn’t necessarily mean we have been negged. Sometimes we get defensive and feel doubt because an interaction felt like a neg, but it was something else. Reflection can help a lot, because negative feedback can hurt, but it can be a super power to deal with it constructively. It’s important to analyze the interaction and see if your confusion persists. Someone might have been awkwardly giving you valuable feedback that is hard to hear. One rule of thumb with telling the difference between feedback and a neg is an ongoing and growing feeling of confusion. After careful reflection, do I still feel confused and hurt, or do I feel like the person was correct and I need to work on something? Do I feel like they are in a position to get something from me, or are they in a position where they are trying to help? Is it something within my control to address and change?
Here are some things to consider when you are wondering if you have been negged:
- Was it a comment about you and things about you that you can’t change (physical traits, background, etc), or is it related to things you can control such as your behavior or your work?
- Is it in a context where critical feedback would be appropriate, or did it come out of nowhere?
- Did you ask for feedback or did they volunteer it without asking?
- Who is in a position of power here? What kind of power play might this person be pulling on you?
- 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 that feels unfamiliar and hurtful?
- Does the confusion and discomfort feel better with time and reflection, after the encounter, or do you feel more confused and full of self doubt the more you think about it?
If you find yourself gradually 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. If it is worthwhile feedback, you will have something you can work on that helps you improve. In that case 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 meeting. I had spent a lot of time researching their product offering, pouring over their business plan, and helping them hone their pitch deck as they tried to raise money. It was positive, but difficult, as these processes are. I have to get up to speed quickly, point out problems and gently suggest actionable tasks that would make a big impact quickly and cheaply. The founder was experienced, well spoken and gracious. They took feedback in stride, and talked a lot about future goals and how they hoped the product would be the cornerstone of several offerings.
Things were going well, and they asked me to take on a role in the organization for the longer term. I wasn’t qualified, and suggested I could help them find the right person. It would have been an amazing opportunity, but ethically I couldn’t take on the role. We finished the chat, and agreed that I would help out as much as I could, and in ways I was comfortable with, and that was that.
The next conversation was fine, but the founder asked me about reconsidering. He was positive and professional, but said it was hard to find someone with my skillsets, and I could learn the rest on the job. I reiterated that I couldn’t do that role for them, but I would help find the right person. The session went off as they usually did, some hard questions, lots of reflection and banter, and a great positive vibe. All of a sudden, at the end of a meeting, the founder insulted me.
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 colleague and shared what had happened with them, and what was said. They were shocked. We walked through the conversations, and realized that me turning down the job offer had probably bothered the founder. This was the likely scenario: The founder had tried several gentle ways of manipulating me to say yes, and when those had failed, had insulted me. They had hoped the neg would cause me to change my mind. Instead, I fulfilled my business obligations to them and then promptly cut off contact.
My colleague helped me unwind what had likely happened. I then decided that putting up with someone who negged wasn’t worth my time and the mental health implications. (Furthermore, they were early stage and likely wanted me to work for free or for options rather than a paycheck.)
If the neg is potentially damaging, you need to get out of the situation. Sometimes you might feel like putting up with the neg for your own reasons, but you will need to prepare and strategize.
It can be hard to walk away. 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. The business neg is the proverbial canary in the coal mine warning of more to come. 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 professionally 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 and communication skills. When someone is completely unreasonable and is angry with your right to exist, you need to get away from them. They won’t even have a sense of self preservation when they are stressed out and desperate.
It’s not just leaders who neg
So far I have described situations where there is a natural leader/subordinate relationship. However, negging can occur in all kinds of business scenarios. Here are some I have witnessed and experienced myself:
- If you are a potential customer, a salesperson might neg you to try to manipulate you into buying something. They may use a neg to close a sale. Marketing teams might also do this at large scale.
- A work colleague negs you to try to position themselves politically in an organization.
- A coworker might be jealous of your success or skills at work, and want to put you off your game.
- Your manager might neg you because they feel threatened because they are insecure in their position and see you as competition.
- A manager or coworker may neg to try to get you to agree to doing work that you aren’t able to take on. You might be overloaded already, for example.
- If you are a contractor or freelancer, an established “big name” person in your field might see you as potential competition for influence, public events or business.
- A corporate trainer may be using group dynamics to generate further business for themselves. Or they might be toying with a group for their own research or enjoyment. They might split the group to encourage fans who become net promoters, and discourage skeptics.
- A professional or networking organization may have leaders who want to use your success for their own PR and influence, or to try to control who you work with.
- An “experienced mentor” may be using you to get new ideas or work leads because they are becoming out of touch.
- Established people with public platforms and reach (influencers) may want to use your up and coming reputation, skills and energy to try to secretly generate business for themselves.
These are just a few examples. Sadly, the business world is full of them, but often when we complain, we get gaslit. We are told that people somehow behave “professionally” in the office, and we are imagining it or overblowing it.
When I transitioned from full time employee to contractor and then to consultant, I thought I had escaped office politics. The truth was they just changed their form. When you leave a business situation with a clear hierarchy, the hierarchy does not disappear, it just goes underground. Don’t convince yourself out of your feelings and experiences because the business context markets itself differently. Just because you are your own boss, or you are in a flat organization or a distributed autonomous organization that basic human behavior changes. It does not.
One rule of thumb to determine whether someone is negging you is to realize that negging is about control. What does this person have to gain from you changing your behavior? What might their motivations be? Do they potentially benefit? Do you? Conversely, what danger are you put in by accepting the manipulation and going along with them? Are you going to burn out at work? Do you expose yourself politically? Are you breaking your sense of morals or ethics to satisfy this person? Are you falling into a pattern of dysfunction that you already know impacts your mental health?
There are situations in business where people deliver you hard truths that are difficult to hear for your own benefit. In my experience though, altruism in business tends to be rare. Also, the most sincere forms of feedback and mentorship tend to come from people who would not be in any kind of competition with you (for status, for work, for money, for online influence, etc.) Or, there is an obvious and mutual benefit to you improving in a situation where you are working together on something tangible, for fair pay.
Another area to be aware of are people that are in less obvious positions of power. When you are in an office, it is obvious. Nowadays though, there are people in power that aren’t so obvious. Their source of power may come from their social media status, or their popularity at conferences and in publications. They might be a “famous expert” in your field. (Or they just have lots of social media followers and a big platform for self promotion.) Outside of an office working environment, you may be blindsided because it doesn’t feel like a formal business situation. However, you will still deal with business negs by people who are clever manipulators.
Meeting well known experts in your field, celebrities, social media influencers and others with a platform that you look up to can leave you feeling a bit star struck. They may use your admiration of them and their work against you, and you may find yourself putting up with behavior you never would put up with normally, or getting you to engage in behavior yourself that you would never do in normal circumstances.
A lot of well known people got there because they are extremely skilled at getting their own way, and aren’t above using their power and influence and star status to push people into things they are uncomfortable with.
Often negs feel subtle, or we overlook bad behavior because we respect an expert or influencer who is suddenly paying attention to us. In other cases, the negging is extremely aggressive and shocking. Business celebrities will often approach someone (maybe you), and isolate them. If it is you they have approached, they may flatter you or love bomb you in private to make you feel special. They will often use a neg and your response to it as a test to see if you are someone they can manipulate and control. If you don’t respond the way they want, they can sometimes become quite aggressive. If you give in and placate them, then you are useful to them. They can dole out attention, public shout outs, or other “rewards” to get you to do what they want. For free! On the other hand, if you stand up to them, they may ramp up the aggression and hurtful behavior to try to push you away, or discourage you from becoming potential competition.
When someone who is well known and respected pays attention to you, don’t get starstruck and ignore red flags. In fact, the more famous they are and the larger their platform, the more careful you need to be. That large reach can be used against you.
Business negs can come from anyone and from anywhere at any time. While the situation might feel casual, and the people negging you might be posing as a mentor, an interested colleague or work friend, they are still negging you and you shouldn’t ignore it.
Note: It’s not just in business where this pattern appears. Nonprofits, volunteer organizations, politics and networking, professional organizations and even informal social groups will also have this dynamic. Even on your own time, when you are engaging on social media, taking part in a hobby or playing a game, someone else might be in a business situation that you aren’t aware of. I have seen this pattern in social media interactions, in hobbies, video games, and in professional development and self help forums where someone was profiting from the platform without your knowledge. They are surreptitiously monetizing their following on a platform, and you just might be a potential source of money for them. The more engaged followers they get who actively refer to and promote the influencer’s work, the more they can grow their influence and their income from the platform and beyond.
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, and we often are in business, 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, and careful reflection confirms this, 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.
The business neg can show up in various ways. Often, it appears along with other red flags. Once you learn to spot it, you see it more often, and you can deal with it rather than feeling troubled by it.
Note: This blog was originally published in July of 2021, but I have updated it due to feedback in December 2021.