Negative Coworker

Dealing With a Negative Coworker

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell 

Q: I have a coworker who is negative about everything, and he’s bringing our whole team down. What should I do?

A: Unfortunately, excessive negativity is often a burden in workplaces, and you’re right to look for ways to mitigate its impact on you and others. But that’s sometimes easier said than done.

If your colleague is usually positive but occasionally makes a complaint, listen to him so that he feels heard and understood. Ask questions and see if you can help him clarify the issue. If you think he has a legitimate reason for his negativity, ask if he needs help to solve the problem.

Consider referring the colleague to your employee assistance program, to HR, or even to a book or article you think might help. But remember: It’s not your responsibility to provide therapy or counseling.

I’ve found that people who are consistently negative are usually looking for someone to validate their anger or disappointment, but they’ll usually stop if they don’t find someone who will agree with them. Listen, but set limits on how long or how often you will be subjected to their negativity.

Listen, but set limits on how long or how often you will be subjected to your colleague’s negativity.

Long-term negativity can drain your energy and affect your own positive attitude. If your colleague consistently wants to dump his negative thoughts on you, learn to walk away. Let him know that his complaining takes a toll on you and others and that you don’t want to hear it anymore.

Persistent negativity on your team or in your department can create a toxic workplace. You may have to ask for help from your manager or HR to deal with someone who won’t honor your request that he stop complaining to you. This is difficult when you want to be supportive with colleagues, but keep in mind the bigger picture: You don’t want to be the person who always bears the brunt of a colleague’s complaints.

Do your best to listen when needed, but don’t get dragged into your negative coworker’s issues. That’s not good for you, for him, or for your organization. 

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].

Organizational Culture