Strategies for Dealing with Negative Coworkers

Strategies for Dealing with Negative Coworkers

It’s happening again. Your coworker’s negativity is spreading like a dense fog and it’s getting closer and closer to you.  

The other people around you seem to be feeling it too and it is starting to affect their attitude.

Ultimately, the walls start going up and hurdles are placed in the path of progress, and what was a workable situation has now turned into something quite stressful to navigate. While you may not notice the changes as they are happening, once they are in place, your work environment can start to feel impossible to navigate.

A negative coworker can:

  • Counteract positivity
  • Make it hard to have a fruitful conversation with them and others
  • Challenge collaboration and your team’s ability to find the middle ground

It is so easy to let someone else ruin your day. It’s not fair that someone else’s bad attitude should be your problem to rise above, but unfortunately, it is. If you want to be a leader and be in charge of your own success, you must figure out how to manage difficult people.

Before letting the fog of negativity envelope you, and you say goodbye to your reasonable, positive self, consider a few thoughts:

  • Everyone sees things differently and has a different perspective
  • People handle stress differently and in their own unique way
  • Maybe this “fog” has a point, but it is being displayed an abrasive and unprofessional manner

It can be really hard to distance yourself from a negative coworker for obvious reasons: you can’t control who your coworkers are, you may share a workspace that can’t be physically modified to allow more privacy, or you’re on a team with people of an (un)like mind.

Given these circumstances, it can be that much harder to avoid being dragged down by negative coworkers.  

So what do you do?  

Here is our strategy: approach how you deal with a negative coworker like a series of concentric circles.

Start at the center with yourself, and move outward, ring by ring, to your negative coworker and then to your manager, until you have finally created a space where their negativity is no longer having the same massive impact on you that it has had before.

Start with what you can control…yourself!

One of the few things you can control in life is yourself; we sometimes forget that, even though it is a simple concept. You can’t control other people’s negativity, but you can control how you respond to it and them.  

Since this may be easier said than done, practice reminding yourself the following, either in that moment or before you go into a situation with your difficult coworker:


Try to focus on your breathing and stay calm. If they’re not talking to you directly, distract yourself and count to ten, or try a breathing exercise like diaphragmatic breathing. It has been scientifically proven that slowing your breath (which slows your heart rate) will reduce your other stress responses.

It’s not you

Hypothetically, if you knew everything there possibly was to know about a negative coworker (or anyone really) and what they’ve experienced in life up until this moment, then the reasons they’re acting this way would be clearer — and really unlikely that to be all about you. Thinking of the situation in this way can remind you that it’s not personal and you don’t need to internalize the negativity. Instead, trying to see things through their eyes might give you better perspective on dealing with them.

It takes practice 

This is a learning experience! Being patient with yourself and practicing the best ways to handle negative people can take time. If you don’t think of these tips until after the interaction, that’s ok! There will be a next time.

Take a step back

If there’s nothing you can directly do about the situation and your coworker is venting to no one in particular, consider disengaging and take a quick break to step away from the area to reset yourself. You can always run to the bathroom or back to your desk for a breather and to collect your thoughts

So the next time your coworker reacts negatively to a last minute request or question they’ve been asked before, or overreacts to a mistake, try to remember that it doesn’t mean you have to internalize that mood and carry it with you the rest of the day. There are things you can do to control yourself and react in a way that helps you both.

Kill them with kindness

Figuratively, not literally, of course! Make an effort to always exude and practice kindness towards your coworkers; ask how their day is going, about their family/pets/trips, and/or hand out compliments like candy.

The worst thing that can happen is you stay positive and feel happier; practicing finding the good in situations will help you reframe previously challenging people and places.

And the best thing that can happen is you have an impact on those people and change how they feel! Showing kindness towards the chronically negative coworker or those just having an off day will pay off in the long run.

Consider responding to negative coworkers with what is most appropriate. Here are some ideas:

Listen and show empathy to that person

Responding positively with a friendly tone can gently shift perspective without sounding condescending, e.g. “I agree that this short deadline is kind of frustrating. But I bet by working together we can get this done in just a few hours and won’t have to stay late.”

Maybe your coworker doesn’t realize that what they’re doing is unproductive or that they’re bringing the team/group/office down.

Arouse their curiosity rather than their defenses by phrasing a question like “You may not realize that you’re doing this, but I’ve noticed that when I’m on the phone with a client, you provide suggestions in the background. I have a hard time hearing what they’re saying and responding appropriately. You have such good ideas, but I think it would be more productive to brainstorm after I’m off the phone, and I can come to you with my questions.”

Use a friendly tone, coming from a compassionate place, and recognize they might not be aware of what they’re doing, instead thinking that they’re being helpful.

Reach for help from an ally

If you’ve noticed your coworker’s negativity, chances are others have too.  Choose who you talk to carefully, as your reputation is important and you don’t want to be known for spreading gossip or talking about someone behind their back.

Spreading more negativity will not help quiet the negativity of someone else. Confiding in another coworker is tempting, but can backfire if who you’re talking about finds out or if the person you confide in feels like you’re gossiping.

Instead, look to your manager or supervisor for help. Where a difficult coworker is making productivity or a process impossible to make progress on, you may need to rely on someone with more weight to sort things out.

Of course, you don’t want to rat anyone out or feel like a little kid tattling to a teacher. However, there are ways to phrase your issues in such a way that ask for advice for yourself rather than accusing your coworker.

For example, you can mention in your 1:1 meeting with your manager that you’re having trouble getting the components you need for certain aspects of a project and ask if they have any advice for how you can make people take your requests more seriously. This way you can share your problems upwards without coming in and complaining that someone else is too difficult, which just makes you sound like you’re whining or trying to get someone in trouble (and your manager does not want to deal with that).

There may be more going on with a negative coworker than just what you see, and your manager should be the one to broach the topic with that person, for example if they need help learning how to handle work problems or stressors.  

Try finding a quiet moment to bring it up, utilizing 1:1s or other times your manager has open office hours. Avoid using a tone or words that sound like you’re complaining about the negative coworker. You can also explain that you tried a few different tactics that haven’t seem to improve the situation.  

How do you deal with difficult coworkers?

If you have an experience working with a challenging personality, share your stories with us on Facebook! We love hearing what other smart people do to overcome obstacles and shine at work.

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