Dealing with Negative Coworkers

The negative coworker comes in a variety of forms. There is the gossip-monger, the perpetual victim, and the melodramatic whiner, to name a few. But regardless of form, at their core they all share an intense focus on the crummier aspects of work and life. Psychologists even have a name for it: the “negativity bias.” Put simply, our brains react more strongly to unpleasant news and events than pleasant ones.


Unfortunately, you share an office with one such coworker, and her negativity is contagious. It spreads, flu-like, through the office as her poor attitude triggers everyone else’s negativity bias. And now, no one enjoys being at work.

How do you deal with this bad-tempered coworker and inoculate yourself to her poor attitude? The answer depends on whether you’re dealing with an occasionally negative coworker or a chronically negative one.

Dealing with Occasionally Negative Coworkers

We all have bad days and sometimes bad weeks and, sadly, even bad months. If a positive coworker suddenly turns negative, chances are she’s experiencing one of life’s personal crises. Maybe she feels underappreciated by the higher ups, or maybe her relationship is on the rocks. Whatever the case, she is saturating the office with negative emotions.

Your first step when dealing with the occasionally negative coworker is to simply listen and empathize. We all have a desire to feel like we're understood and the people we rely on—family, friends, coworkers—have our backs. Active listening will show your coworker that you care for her wellbeing.

If a part of the problem is manageable, you can also offer to help. That being said, be careful here. Empathy is great when it provides the support a coworker needs to overcome a setback, but you don’t want to create a cycle of negative bonding where the coworker comes to you with all her adverse situations. Relationships that grow careers are about balance.

Any help you offer should be minimal, come with predetermined boundaries, and not interfere with your own work or life. You must also be careful to avoid mission creep, where a single offer of help becomes a long-term commitment. If your coworker needs more than you can provide, you can assist her in finding the help she needs, such as pointing her to human resources.

Dealing with Chronically Negative Coworkers

If you're dealing with a chronically negative coworker, no amount of listening or help will solve the problem. The chronically negative coworker will interpret your attempts as justification for his view that everything is rotten.

You’ll have to do something else to short-circuit his negativity bias. Here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Ignore the negative coworker.
    • Remind yourself that your coworker’s negativity isn’t directed at you personally. If you can manage these emotions without it affecting your work or wellbeing, this is the quickest solution.
  • Find ways to remove yourself from conversations gracefully.
    • Let the negative coworker know you have to get back to work or offer a solution that definitively concludes the conversation. In Internet parlance, don’t feed the troll.
  • Take control and redirect the conversation to something else.
    • Do this often enough, and at best your coworker might start focusing on the positive—at least he’ll no longer seek you to justify his negativity bias. Either way, you win.
  • Avoid spending time with a negative coworker.
    • If you’re battling an open-office floor plan, you may need to invest in some comfy headphones and calming music.
  • Discuss the negativity directly with the coworker.
    • Warning: This one can be tricky. If you argue with the coworker or make him feel under attack, you will only strengthen his outlook. However, if your rapport with him is strong enough to manage the discussion tactfully, this may break the cycle of chronic gloom and open the doors for constructive dialogue.
  • Talk to your manager or someone in human resources.
    • A study found that negative coworkers cost company’s more than top earners make in return. This means a negative coworker isn’t just your burden to bear. He's a company problem, and the company should be made aware.

Which option you select will depend on the type of negativity your coworker exhibits. It may be best to ignore a passive-aggressive coworker, while the perpetual victim could use a gentle nudge to look on the brighter side of life. If you are dealing with a workplace bully, skip the DIY steps, and go directly to your supervisor.

Negative emotions drive out positive ones; it’s just the way we're wired. Unfortunately, this means you can’t wish away irritable coworkers any more than you can wish away the flu. They need to be dealt with, and by using these tips, you can spread productive, healthy habits throughout your office. With any luck, negative coworkers, like the flu, will only pop up seasonally.

Search for your next job now:


Back to listing

The Washington Post Jobs Newsletter

Subscribe to the latest news about DC's jobs market