I once worked with a woman who was so unhappy that she sucked the joy out of the air whenever she walked into the room. Once, after she left a meeting, my co-worker turned to me and sarcastically said, “So, I guess we should just all give up and go home and die?” as her attitude had suggested that was the only reasonable solution to the problem we were facing.
Perhaps you know the type?
No matter what the gender, this is what many call a “Debbie Downer” — someone who, when you say, “I just made us a million dollars!” would simply sigh and say, “Man, that’s going to be a lot of work to figure out how to invest all that money.”
A Debbie Downer is a person for whom, “no” will always be more comfortable than “yes;” who will always opt for prudence and caution rather than innovation; and for whom “being the devil’s advocate” is the preferred method of role-playing.
Sadly, there are thousands of Debbie Downers out here in the workplace. They come in three different varieties. Each needs to be handled very differently and very carefully, since often they can be the linchpin in determining your project’s success (especially if, like the woman I mentioned, they tend to infect others with their pessimism).
Here are some tips I use to work with all three. Hopefully they can help you, too:
The Defiant Debbie.
A Defiant Debbie is a person whose “no” comes from a place of self-preservation. It’s very important for this type of Debbie to appear to be the smartest person in the room, which means that you – the person bringing a new idea to the table – must be the dumbest one. A Defiant Debbie doesn’t know how to sell his/her ideas any other way.
Non-verbally, you’ll know you’re dealing with a Defiant Debbie in a meeting if he/she makes direct eye contact with you, while – at the same time — closes off her/his body by folding their arms across their chest or tilting their chair away from you. (In the Midwest, some Defiant Debbies will talk directly to you, but focus their eyes just over your head. This way they can be both defiant and “Minnesota nice.”)
A Defiant Debbie will also tend to raise their voice in the conversation (particularly if it is a guy), based on the mistaken logic that louder = more forceful, and more forceful = winner.
I have found three strategies helpful in dealing with this type of Debbie:
- Go Nice: Sometimes I’ll try complimenting the Debbie by letting him/her know that I think very highly of the work they’ve done or are doing. My goal is to make them see that I am not here to help them (which implies that they need fixing), but to assist them in maintaining their perceived awesomeness.
- Go Zen: The louder a Debbie Downer gets, the quieter you should get. They are like a ticking bomb, and – if they play this card a lot around the office – are used to having people back down when they crank up the volume. So, take a deep breath, talk slowly and calmly, keep your head down and start clipping their fuses as fast as possible.
- Go Home: I know not everyone has this luxury, but if I run into a person whose defiance is exhausting, counterproductive and detrimental to our project, I will walk away from the gig. Life’s too short to waste it trying to force someone who doesn’t want to change to consider trying it anyway.
The Downtrodden Debbie.
A Downtrodden Debbie is a person whose “no” comes from a place of fear. Likely, this Debbie is very afraid of things that could upset her/his boss or lose their job or in some other way destabilize their highly controlled existence. He or she sees your new idea as a straw that’s going to break their back.
So, pretend you’re like a cop walking into a domestic disturbance when you encounter a Downtrodden Debbie. There’s a lot going on just under the surface here, and likely little of it has to do with you.
Non-verbally, you’ll know you’re dealing with a Defiant Debbie in a meeting if he/she says no a lot and then darts their eyes to look at his/her supervisor immediately afterwards.
With Downtrodden Debbies, I try to throw positive focus back in their direction as much as possible. For instance, saying to her boss, “Erin has done some great work on growing your Facebook presence. Perhaps we could work with her on testing an advertising campaign to increase your reach.” And then turning to Erin and saying, What do you think, Erin?”
The Depressed Debbie.
A Depressed Debbie is a person whose “no” comes from a place of sadness. They wear their depression like a scar across their personality and may not be aware that it is slowly leaking into everything they do.
Non-verbally, you’ll know you’re dealing with a Depressed Debbie in a meeting if he/she makes little eye contact or exhibits many of the hallmark signs of depression – they talk very slowly, ruminate on failures, seem like they’re continually on the verge of tears or act out with an irrational amount of anger.
Depressed Debbies break my heart. And, I run into them all the time.
I often want to take them aside and tell them that I understand, that they’re not doing as good of a job at hiding their sadness as they think, that with some therapy and perhaps some medication, they don’t have to feel so horrible all the time.
But, as the consultant, this isn’t my place. I’m the outsider, not their long-term co-worker and certainly not their friend. So, I just try my best to be sympathetic to a Depressed Debbie’s pessimistic responses, just as I would a stutterer who is having trouble getting their words out.
So, then what?
No matter what kind of Debbie you’re dealing with in your job, just remember that most of them expect that things in life will not go their way, so (low and behold!) they don’t. There’s not much you can do to change that.
But, if you’re very close to the Debbie, you may want to clue them in that their approach to life is possibly hurting both their career and their relationships. Many are not even aware that they’re unloading all of their baggage on their co-workers, clients or customers each day. (Actually, many are not even aware that they HAVE baggage.)
In the example I shared above, I finally took that woman aside and said, “You are young, beautiful and talented and have so much to offer the world. But, you clearly hate this job. And that hatred seems to be sucking away those gifts. You need to leave before they’re gone for good.”
So, she did.
And, while I never knew if she found happiness somewhere else, I do know that, the day after she left, all of her co-workers said that the air felt lighter and the place more hopeful in her absence. For her, choosing to go left a greater legacy than years of saying “no.” And that’s a lesson Debbie Downers need to learn for themselves.