How to Deal With a Negative Coworker: Negativity Matters

9 Tips for Dealing with a Negative Coworker in the Workplace

Coworkers unhappy with smiling woman negative coworker
Negative, Smug Employees Incite Reactions from Coworkers. Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Some people exude negativity. They don’t like their jobs or they don’t like their company. Their bosses are always jerks and they are always treated unfairly. The company is always going down the tube and customers are worthless. 

You know these negative Neds and Nellies—every organization has some—and you can best address their impact on you by avoiding them. You have no reason to hang around with negative people and it's a fact that their negativity is contagious.

Hang with negative people and you may become negative, too. Why go there? Your career and job should bring you joy—not sorrow and negativity.

On the other hand, sometimes normally positive people are negative. Some of the time, too, their reasons for negativity are legitimate. You will take a completely different tack with these occasionally negative people.

The following tips provide advice about how you can deal with both of these varieties of negative people. You need to approach them differently and sometimes, you may need help addressing their impact on you and your workplace.

Tips for Dealing With Occasional Negative People

You will want to deal with occasionally negative people in these ways.

  • Listen to the employee or coworker’s complaints until you are certain that they feel heard out and listened to. Sometimes people repeat negative sentiments over and over because they don’t feel like you have really listened to them. Ask questions. Clarify their statements. Make sure that you have actively listened.
  • Decide if you believe the employee or coworker has legitimate reasons for their negativity. If you decide affirmatively, ask if they’d like your help to solve the problem. If they ask for help, provide advice or ideas for how the coworker can address the reason for their negativity.

    Short term advice that points a person in a positive direction is welcome. But, your role is not to provide therapy or counseling. Nor is your role to provide comprehensive career advice or long-term recommendations. Point the coworker to helpful books, seminars, or the Human Resources Department to solve their problem. Know your limits when advising coworkers.
  • Sometimes, the coworker just wants to complain to a friendly, listening ear; they don’t want your advice or assistance to address the situation. Listen, but set limits so the coworker does not overstay or over-talk his or her welcome.

    Long term complaining saps your energy and positive outlook. Don’t allow that to happen. Walk away. Tell the coworker you’d prefer to move on to more positive subjects. Tell the coworker that their complaining affects how you feel about your job and your workplace—and not in a good way.

    If you are frank, hopefully, the negative person will stop complaining or unfortunately, probably target a less straightforward employee. If you see this happening, you might want to head to your HR manager to let him in on what is happening. He may address the problem to create a more harmonious workplace.
  • If you listen to the coworker’s negativity and decide their concerns are not legitimate, practice personal and professional courage and tell them what you think. Tell the coworker you care about their concern and about their happiness at work, but you disagree with their assessment of the situation. You do not, for example, agree that management lied or withheld information improperly to mislead staff. You believe that the information was provided as soon as it was available.

    Back gracefully out of additional conversations. The coworker will attempt to appeal to your sympathetic nature, but if you believe the negativity is unwarranted, don’t spend your time listening or helping the coworker to address the negative feelings.

    You will only encourage long-term and ever-growing negative feelings and, potentially, behavior. You will set yourself up as a negativity magnet. Constant negative interactions will eventually permeate your interaction with your workplace. You could become the negative person, too.

    Tips for Dealing With Regularly Negative People

    Deal with genuinely negative people by spending as little time with them as possible. Just as you set limits with the coworkers whose negativity you believe is baseless or unwarranted, you need to set limits with genuinely negative people.

    Causes of their long term negativity are not your concern. Every negative person has a story. Don’t impact your positive outlook by listening to the stories, or reviewing the history and the background about the grievances purported to cause the negativity. You'll reinforce the negativity; negativity is a choice.

    Negativity mongers need a new job, a new company, a new career, a new outlook, a new life or counseling. They don’t need you to help them wallow in their self-serving despair. Don't go there—it's not good for you, for them or the organization that you serve.

    Deal with perpetually negative people in these ways.

    • Avoid spending time with a negative coworker. For all of the reasons cited, you want to limit the amount of time you spend with them.
    • If you are forced, through your role in the company, to work with a negative person, set limits. Do not allow yourself to become drawn into negative discussions. Tell the negative coworker, you prefer to think about your job positively. Avoid providing a sympathetic audience for the negativity.
    • Suggest the negative person seek assistance from human resources or their manager. Try to steer the person in the direction of getting help with their negativity.
    • If all else fails, talk to your own manager or human resources staff about the challenges you are experiencing in dealing with the negative person. Your manager may have ideas, may be willing to address the negativity, and may address the issue with the negative person’s manager.

      Remember that, persistent negativity, that impacts the work and environment of coworkers is a work behavior that may require disciplinary action up to and including employment termination.
    • If negativity among employees in your company is persistent, if the issues that warrant negativity are left unaddressed, and the negativity affects your ability to professionally perform your work, you may want to consider moving on.

      Your current culture will not support your desired work environment. And, if no one is working to improve a work culture that enables negativity, don’t expect the culture to change anytime soon. Move on.