How to deal with negative people at work

Everyone has a bad day now and then. Perhaps a client meeting did not go well. Maybe the individual spent the previous night losing sleep over her teenager’s poor report card. Or, someone simply could have spilled coffee all over himself on the commute in and just never quite got back on track today. We sympathize, give the person some space, and move on with life.

Some colleagues, though, are routinely negative. Air seems to drain from the room when they walk into it. Their verbal and non-verbal behavior causes those around them to feel upset, depressed, anxious, discouraged, or hopeless. They manage to find a dark cloud on even the brightest of days.

Negative people can have a negative impact on the work environment. They jeopardize productivity and morale. They distract and deflate those around them. They kill motivation and mood. Such a toxic atmosphere contributes to absenteeism and employee turnover.

Tips for dealing with negative coworkers

The obvious question becomes how to deal with such people. No concrete answer exists. Rather, working with them — and maintaining your own positive attitude — often rests on employing some of these strategies:

Keep your distance

Don’t subject yourself to more of this person than necessary, especially when he is in a mood. Nod hello when you pass him, but refrain from asking how things are going. Pick a different lunch table. Make an excuse and walk away when stuck listening to a rant. Reroute your path to avoid passing his cubicle. Try not to get cornered alone. Favor contact in a group setting so you won’t have to be his captive audience. You will at least have a shot at other conversations drowning him out.

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Maintain emotional distance, too. If a negative friend always rains on your parade, celebrate good news with a more supportive colleague. Set boundaries. Times will exist when you just can’t handle the negativity and must protect yourself. You are not a horrible person for failing to extend an invitation or for cutting a conversation short.

Don’t join the chorus

Chiming in will make the whiner feel she has support for a negative attitude. Avoid fueling her fire with your own emotional response. Stay calm and objective. Hold your tongue. Don’t bother making a million points as to why she’s wrong. Hopefully, she will run out of steam when she can’t lure others into hopping on the negativity train. Likewise, your positive behavior encourages others around you to take the high road rather than the bait.


Occasionally, someone just needs to vent. Empathize if you feel up to it. Lend a sympathetic ear, but avoid getting into a prolonged discussion.

And avoid playing psychotherapist. Remember that you do not have to “fix” a negative coworker. You can make a cheerful comment or two, but don’t feel you must be the beacon of positivity. It is draining to take on a negative person’s problems — and not your job. The individual probably does not want to hear your Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow speech or constructive criticism anyway. Consider gently directing the person to an appropriate resource by saying something such as, “If you feel that strongly, maybe you should talk to HR about it.”

As you listen, don’t be surprised if you end up feeling sorry for the person. Negative individuals are often lonely, burned out, or unhappy with themselves. Encourage them to attend to their well-being through exercise, pursuing hobbies, relaxation, healthy eating, and meditation. When they feel better, they might act better.

Move the conversation along

Stuck at someone’s pity party? Acknowledge what the person says, but then change the subject. Try a phrase such as “Yes, I can imagine that was frustrating. By the way, did you try one of those fantastic donuts Linda brought for the lounge?” (If what you are doing comes off as obvious, that is ok. Maybe Debbie Downer will take the hint.)

Or, ask a question or make a statement about something good. Perhaps even give a compliment. Consider saying something like, “It sounds like your interaction with Mr. Anderson had some downsides. You are always so well-prepared for those client meetings that I bet there were plenty of positives too. What were some of those?” Providing a new line of thinking may halt the complaints as well as show the person he gets more of the attention he desires by being positive.

Preface the conversation

This tactic works with some people but not others. Still, it merits a try when you just aren’t in the mood to hear negative comments but must talk about a subject. Ask the individual to avoid bringing up negatives. State before you start conversing on a topic that you are (pick one) tired, overwhelmed, in need of a boost, etc. Request that they hear you out without interruption or judgment. Tell them you would really value hearing positive feedback. They may grant the favor.

Examine your own behavior

Explore the possibility that your own negativity is attracting like-minded company. Are you guilty of the same negative mindset that drives you nuts in others? Or, is it possible that you secretly enjoy gripe sessions because they add drama to the workday or make you feel important because you can offer advice? You might not be part of the problem, but then again, maybe you are.

Stay positive

Make a conscious effort to not let a team member’s negativity chip away at your own positive attitude. Exhibit security in your own outlook and beliefs. Hang out with other positive people. Remember, you are responsible for your own happiness, not the negative person’s unhappiness.

Dealing with negative people when you are the manager

When it comes to workplace negativity, leaders face a double whammy. First, managers are human. Like anyone else, the negative energy given off by pessimists and other types of toxic people drains them. They must employ strategies like the ones previously mentioned to preserve their own mental health.

But being in charge comes with additional responsibility when dealing with difficult people. Smart managers know a bad apple can spoil the bunch. Without action, the company risks a negative mindset spreading throughout the workplace. Managers also must address the issue to keep it from frustrating positive people. Workers depend on their leaders to handle such matters. Failure to do so can make you look ineffective.

Ways for managers to address an employee’s negative attitude include:

Bring it up

While obvious to you, the person in question may be unaware an issue exists. She may not realize the extent of her negativity or how it affects others. Or, she may simply write off complaining as “something everyone does” or just her nature.

There is also the possibility that she knows quite well that she has a negative attitude but does not bother to reign it in. What motivation does she have to change if those in charge seem unconcerned and unlikely to issue consequences?

Bring the problem to light in a private conversation. Discuss why the behavior must change and how this might be accomplished.

Open a conversation with a chronic pessimist with something like this. “I’ve noticed that you seem to spend a lot of time complaining about things that make you unhappy. Your coworkers find this very depressing. In the future, I need you to keep these negative thoughts to yourself. When you have a concern, bring it to me to see if we can work it out.”

Or, perhaps you have someone on staff quick to point out flaws. He may claim that he just wants to be helpful. Let him know coworkers often see such behavior as intrusive, condescending, or just plain annoying. Try an approach such as the following. “When other people present ideas, you immediately start talking about why they won’t work. Sometimes, you make good points. But this quick criticism tends to discourage creative thinking. I need you to look for the possible benefits of a proposal before you attack it.”

End with an agreed-upon action plan that includes following up at a later time to evaluate progress and offer feedback. This sends a clear message that your discussion is not one-and-done. You expect change and will keep on top of the issue.

Take disciplinary action

Hopefully, the person attempts to develop a more positive outlook or at least reigns in the negative comments. Without signs of improvement, though, you may need to move on to measures designed to convey the seriousness of the problem. Follow your company’s disciplinary procedure as you would for any offense. Formal verbal and written warnings in accordance with policy display that the matter will not be taken lightly or forgotten. And taking the proper steps, including documentation, serves as a good foundation should harsher steps such as suspension or termination become necessary.

Avoid using the wrong “reward equation”

Attention is a powerful reward, especially when it comes from one’s boss. Do you listen too long to rants? Do you display interest in what gossipers say? If so, you boost the odds of them continuing. Use your words and body language to convey that you want no part of such nonsense. Make an effort to instead reward people with your valuable attention for positive things that contribute to improving the company and its culture.

Open the lines of communication

People like to be heard. Offer plenty of opportunities to voice concerns through proper channels such as surveys, a suggestion box, and one-to-one check-ins. Pick up the phone to just chat with a remote employee from time to time. Occasionally sit down for lunch with the resident Negative Nellie. With outlets for expressing themselves, workers with negative thoughts may be less inclined towards venting at the water cooler or taking over a staff meeting with unsolicited advice.

Ask for solutions

Challenge whiners to come up with concrete ideas on how to change what they do not like. Agree to listen to reasonable ideas. Encourage employees to create positive energy in the workplace by reframing negative situations. What was learned from a “disaster”? How could a less-than-perfect presentation go better next time? Figure out the bright side and grow.

Explore what would make them happy

Finally, consider showing concern for the person’s well-being. Ask what would increase job satisfaction. Then, try to make these desirable tasks or responsibilities a greater part of this person’s role. Whenever possible, make these potential changes contingent on displaying a more positive attitude. For instance, if she wants to handle bigger clients, she needs to show that she brings energy to the room through a positive mindset. Dangle a reward carrot as motivation to improve!