Mandy Haskett: How bright people deal with ‘Debbie Downers’

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This column is about the people who drive you nuts.

Recently, leaders have been asking me what to do about the Debbie Downers dragging their team morale down.

The phrase “Debbie Downer,” introduced and popularized by Rachel Dratch’s “Saturday Night Live” character in 2004, was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2005. A moniker for our culture’s doomsday dwellers, Debbie Downer is defined (irrespective of gender) as, “a negative or pessimistic person; a person who speaks only of the bad or depressing aspects of something and lessens the enthusiasm or pleasure of others.”

As workplace “Debbie” denizens proliferate, it strikes me that this is just one in a range of pseudonyms that have bubbled back to the surface within the past two years. March 2020 memes, for example, welcomed back Rosie the Riveter as a symbol of “can-do” for quarantined people everywhere. But as the pandemic drew long, Rosie started to look more like Surrender Susan. Burnout, chronic stress and post-pandemic perspective shifts gave way to a collective angst that has contributed largely to this Great Resignation—a human migration of discontent.

I believe Debbie (or Dave) Downer appears after hyper-vigilant Rosie (or Roger), but before checked-out Susan (or Stan).

Before surrender, we get mad. Stress triggers the sharper edges of our personalities to emerge, and cynicism, sarcasm and negativity erupt.

Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl, in reflecting on what makes life worth living in the worst of circumstances, wrote the following in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” As leaders, it’s our own agency—our choice to respond, rather than react—that holds the key.

This means, dealing with difficult people is a lot about us and a little about them.

So next time you start to feel the grating “wah-wah” from an unhappy person, try restoring your control with these three steps:

Pause and reality test: We are emotional beings who think, so we need tools for self-inquiry to test what’s real versus what we feel. Byron Katie’s “The Work” simplifies this: Draw a Venn diagram. In the left circle, write what happened. On the right, write what you made it mean. In the overlapping middle, you have your myth about that person or event. Ask yourself—is this absolutely true? How do I react and behave when I believe this? Who might I be without this thought?

Meeting the discomfort that a person brings you with inquiry builds the freeing space between stimulus and response. This helps us see what’s worth “fixing,” and what’s not.

Stop talking: Hear them out. It’s tempting (for me) to jump directly into solving a problem when I hear one. The moment someone starts complaining, an advice-giving monster lumbers to its feet somewhere inside me and loads up 50 excellent suggestions in an advice cannon by the time Debbie pauses for air.

But this is counter to what we all need most, which is to be seen, heard and valued. It’s often insecurity that prompts people to act badly in the first place. One of the most powerful ways we can reclaim our own value when it’s threatened is to validate and appreciate the other person’s perspective. Put down the cannon of advice, listen and say, “Wow, that sounds really hard. I completely understand why you’re stressed. I would be, too.”

This leadership capability is called empathy, requiring us to suspend our egos and put anything feeding our feelings to the side. Touted by experts as the most critical antidote to burnout, empathy neutralizes chronic negativity by compassionately validating Debbie’s gripes in the moment.

Set boundaries and share feedback: It’s true that you’ll encounter energy-takers in your life that seem to subsist in a permanent bad mood. Protect your own energy reserves by setting boundaries with these folks. Boundaries are friendly fences that help others know what’s OK, and what’s not.

You can take responsibility for giving Debbie opportunities, but you don’t have to take responsibility for her bemoaning them. Along the way, give feedback to the negative person by holding up a mirror to the observable behaviors that are hurting the team’s morale. Help Debbie understand the dissonance between the behavior you’ve observed and the behavior you expect. Then, invite and empower the person to chart a better path forward. Clear is kind.

As Richard Rohr writes, “Much of the work of midlife is to tell the difference between those who are dealing with their issues through you and those who are really dealing with you.” Meet Debbie Downer’s groans and grievances as Enlightened Edith (or Eddy). You’ll both be better for it.•


Haskett is a leadership consultant at Advisa, a Carmel-based leadership consultancy.

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