A Guide to Working with Negative Coworkers
People love to complain. You don’t have to look far to find that negative conversations and complaints often dominate the positive or inspiring ones. You’ll see media and journalism filled to the brim with news that almost always has a depressing tone to it, and social media is filled with the rants and tirades of people far and wide. Even everyday conversations with our friends, families, and acquaintances tend to gravitate towards the drama and the things we just want to give a good rant about. For various reasons, humans are drawn to these more negative-centric conversations like moths to a flame.
The workplace is no exception to this. I’m sure we can all think of those coworkers we’ve had who do nothing else but complain all day about work. Perhaps we’ve even joined in on the rants from time to time (or are even a regular voice in the conversation). If so, I wouldn’t blame you. We all do it. I’ve done it. Being able to rant about things that bother us is therapeutic, cathartic, and calming. It’s a way to let our voice be heard and get things off our chest. In other instances, it’s a way to fit in and bond with your work community. It could be quite odd to be the ever-happy positive ray of sunshine in a workgroup that is otherwise very unhappy with the way things are.
But over time, I’ve learned that the small benefits of a good rant with coworkers are not worth the inevitable pit of negativity most workers tend to fall into when they either participate or associate with these negative conversations. Instead, the once positive and high-spirited worker quickly transforms into just another jaded and eternally frustrated employee. Thoughts about work begin to automatically shift towards the negative and the brain is quick to find the bad or wrong in everything.
These individuals grow discontent with their work… they hate their company’s management and policy and job performance often starts to suffer. Any positives of the work or company are shrouded in a veil of negativity. They begin a downward spiral into this negative void that is hard to recover from.
It’s this downward spiral that is the most concerning risk factor. The inability to see the good in things and have an optimistic “glass half full” perspective has blocked many from success in their work lives. I’ve seen individuals enter companies with vibrant potential for advancement and success only to fall prey to the negativity from others. The once wide-eyed and bushy-tailed professional ready to tackle anything (and capable of it, too!) is now barely able to make it to work each day and hopes they can just run the clock out for another paycheck at the end of the week. It’s a sad transformation to see happen and it happens far too frequently.
What Can We Do?
All of this really got me thinking… With all the negativity that is often found in the workplace, how can someone stay above it all? You can’t exactly isolate yourself from everyone at work, and you don’t exactly want to be the person who comes in and tells everyone to get a grip and stop being such negative Debbie-Downers. Even the most positive individuals may find themselves joining in the negativity from time to time because it can sometimes be helpful to get things off your chest. The problem is staying strong enough to not let yourself get sucked too far into the black hole of negativity.
The answer ultimately ends up being a practice of resilience, positive thinking, and mindfulness, along with a few practical tips that will help along the way. Let’s take a look.
1. Harness the Power of Mindfulness and Positive Thinking
Practicing mindfulness and positive thinking is something that requires diligence and practice but the benefits of developing these skills are well worth the investment.
Mindfulness allows you to recognize when you’re experiencing a negative thought or starting to get pulled too far into a negative conversation. We can’t stop negative thoughts from occurring, but we can choose how we react to them and what we do next. It’s important to moderate how much you allow yourself to submit to the negativity in the workplace (and others), remembering that this negativity is not healthy. We can work to bring our thoughts back to a more positive space or continue down a path of negativity and rumination. This is our choice to make.
The second important element of this is the ability to see (and focus on) the good in things. With very few exceptions, there is always something good you can choose to focus on. It may be something positive within the very thing you’re feeling negative about or positive factors from other areas of the scenario. For example, embracing a positive thought such as “having a job right now is better than being unemployed and needing a job” is a perfectly valid positive thought and an excellent way to work towards adopting that “glass half full” optimism that we can benefit from.
2. Handle Negative Coworkers and Conversations Gracefully and with Empathy
How you approach making the best of a negative coworker or conversation will always vary case by case. However, there are many misconceptions about how to best handle these negative conversations with coworkers.
Avoidance or dismissal strategies (such as avoiding negative coworkers or changing the conversation) are often suggested as remedies but I strongly believe that these tactics actually cause more harm than good. Isolation from your colleagues is one of the quickest ways to make yourself an outcast in the workplace and changing the conversation when things become negative diminishes the valid emotions and feelings of others. Using strategies like this might make YOU the center of what people complain about and you very well miss out on opportunities to move up the career ladder.
I believe the best approach when interacting with negative coworkers is to use empathy and grace. Genuinely acknowledge the complaints, concerns, and frustrations of your negative coworkers and let them know they are being heard. In most cases, it’s likely their negative perspectives are quite valid and felt by many in the organization. The key here is listening and deciding how to respond next.
In some cases, just actively listening is more than enough to make your coworkers feel heard and you’ll gain the trust of all while also not getting pulled down too far into a pit of negativity. This is the win-win situation that is one of the best outcomes.
In most cases, however, you’ll be expected to respond. This is where the “handle things gracefully” part comes in. In some cases, it might be best to join in on the rant a bit, being mindful of not letting things go too far down the rabbit hole of negativity and brooding. Other times, it may be best to just join in light-heartedly to the conversation using more neutral dialogue. There will even be times when being more optimistic will be the best choice, perhaps by acknowledging the frustrations and negativity but also sharing some of the positives you’ve experienced regarding the topic. There’s a chance that others will buy into the optimism and positivity as well.
But it does ultimately come down to playing it case by case by analyzing the situation, knowing your coworkers, and judging how to best act. It’s once again something that takes practice but the more you work on it, the better you will get. Before you know it, you will become a pro at handling negative coworkers and conversations and not allow them to bring you down while also maintaining great connections and status at your company.
3. Be the Catalyst for the Change You Want to See
Take action! If you or others are unhappy with the current situation, what are the solutions? Is there anything you can do to directly facilitate those changes? If not, what are other things you can do to foster positive change in other ways?
I’m very serious here. Leading change is never easy but someone has to do it if things ever want to get better. Most sit around waiting for someone to tap a magic wand and poof, everything is great now, but that’s simply not going to happen. Instead of waiting around, be the person who steps forward to make that change and facilitate progress toward a better tomorrow.
I also need to stress that taking this initiative doesn’t have to solely be focused on making major changes within the workplace (such as changes to organizational culture, policy and process, or leadership). I would never discourage someone from working towards fostering major change but it is often a hard path to walk. It’s not within everyone’s comfort zone and that is perfectly OK. It’s good news, too, because it’s often the small and simple changes we can foster that may bring about some of the best results for the entire workplace. Best of all, these smaller changes are easy to make and anyone can work to make these changes a reality.
What do I mean by small and simple changes? There are tons!
- Start up a hobby club at work (book club, video game group, sports club, etc).
- Organize outings for the company (movie nights, field trips, picnics, etc).
- Explore things like walking for exercise on breaks to support each other’s health goals or looking at potential carpool opportunities to help people with their commutes.
- Bring food or candy to work to share with others.
- Organize some type of food event at work. This can be anything from regularly scheduled potlucks or bagel/donut days to organizing a regular time for coworkers to go out for lunch together or have their favorite food delivered to the office where they can eat together there.
Another useful strategy is to seek out what small changes you can make to company processes for the better of all. I once introduced Microsoft Mail Merge to a company doing things manually and it was a big win. Perhaps there are low-cost tools, equipment, or processes you can implement that will make everyone’s workdays a bit better. Perhaps there are organizational deficiencies that you can easily correct. Many “annoyances” in the workplace actually have easy solutions. Investigate these issues and get to the root of the problem. Is there something you can do to make it better? If so, go for it!
All and all, there are so many possibilities to explore for how you can be the catalyst for positive change in the workplace. Whether you go for the big revolutionary changes or the small and simple ones, be brave to take the step forward to initiate that change.
4. Leave the Negative Environment by Finding a New Job
If all else fails, it may be time to start looking for your next job. Some companies are black holes of negativity and toxicity and all the positive thinking in the world and effort to foster change won’t be enough to combat the overwhelming negativity in these environments.
I know I’ve certainly had experiences where you show up for work and the complaining and moaning of coworkers goes on from start to finish without pause. This continues the entire week, the entire month, the entire year. It is literally a culture built on negativity and that is not something you want to be a part of. Even beyond the negative and depressing mood it creates for you, it’s likely a sign of a very poorly run company – it’s hard for things to get so bad otherwise! People generally don’t get that negative without someone or something to cause it.
Point is, you deserve better, not only for your career but also for your overall well-being and health. If you’re in one of these negative environments that never seems like it will change and it’s taking you down with it, find that new job, it’s worth it.
I often wish there was a better answer to the dilemma of negative coworkers. A magic solution that just would make everyone happier and make all things better. Unfortunately, negative coworkers and work environments are commonplace in most businesses and the strategies to combat the negativity aren’t always the easiest to implement and practice.
However, I hope that the strategies in this article will help you in the workplace when faced with negative coworkers or work environments so you can be a force for good and create more positivity across your workplaces. Learning to stay above the negativity is a great skill for not only your career success but also for your overall health and well-being.
So here’s to a happier and more positive tomorrow for all of us. If you have any thoughts, comments, or strategies on dealing with negative coworkers, let me know in the comments below!
– Mr. Happy Work