Working with Negative People

Jul 28, 2020
by Julie East

I worked for a national retail chain as a store clerk in my early days.  The manager was the most difficult person I have ever had the displeasure of working with.  She was rude and often unprofessional to her employees, even in front of customers.  Her negativity sabotaged the morale of the staff, and made for an all-around intolerable working environment.  But although the experience with her was one of the worst work experiences I’ve ever had, it did teach me how to work with negative people.

Learning how to work with difficult people is an extremely uncomfortable, albeit necessary lesson to learn. Some coworkers seem to take pleasure in seething, shouting or withholding vital information. You might think their main goal is to make teamwork unpleasant and difficult, but the truth is they may not even be aware of their bad behavior. With a little practice and patience, you can learn the difference between the behaviors and turn that negative into a positive.

These folks seem to revel in dissention.  They are the first to point out the negative in every situation, such as a word you misspelled on a work order, or a mistake on a supplier’s shipment.  They then proceed to dwell on all the undesirable effects of the error. While they thrive on the constant sharing of this negativity, it’s incredibly draining on everyone else. Research shows that workplace negativity creates a toxic environment that has an adverse impact on employees’ mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Solution:  Deal with the real problem, if in fact there is one, and then walk away. Don’t buy into their negativity, or allow it to control your attitude towards the assignment at hand.  Gandhi once said, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet,” – an important lesson to learn when working with negative coworkers.  I became a master at this in dealing with the difficult store manager mentioned above.  If I could find a way to resolve the dilemma, I’d focus my energies on doing that, and not on her poisonous mindset.  Many times my solutions were overwhelmingly successful because of it.

An angry person is hard to be around in general, but working with one can be especially challenging. This coworker seems to operate on a hairpin trigger, frequently lashing out at any perceived misunderstanding instead of cooperating with you on the task at hand. Teammates hesitate to work with or confront him/her because of the retaliation and outburst that usually follows, which leads to resentment and frustration.

Solution: Listen. Angry workers feel the need to be heard. By listening to their complaints, you can often diffuse the heat of their emotion and look for quick, practical ways to work on the solution. Rather than reacting to an angry outburst in the same way and creating a bigger scene, offer a few suggestions on fixing the problem, implement the solution, and resolve the real issue.

This worker is more dangerous than the angry worker. When his/her ideas aren’t implemented, open resentment is the result.  Teammates quickly tire of their sense of superiority and “I know better” comments, making a working relationship with them extremely difficult. Use caution when interacting with these employees, because resentful workers tend to pair up with or turn into gossip workers. (We’ll look at those next.)

Solution: Communicate.  Share ideas before you act, and encourage feedback. If you offer them a chance to provide input, a resentful employee may feel valued and may be more likely to take ownership of the solution. In the same way, once the ideas have been openly discussed, if the decision is made not to utilize them, communicate that clearly and directly, as well.  Misunderstanding and misinformation only feed into the resentment and allow bitterness to grow in an already dissatisfied employee.

Although technically not a negative person, the gossiper’s behavior can have negative effects.  Social media has taught us a valuable lesson:  Don’t believe everything you hear. In a work environment, gossip can lead to resentment, loss in productivity or even cost someone their job. Rumors – substantiated or not – get repeated over and over, and usually by the same people, who just love stirring up the worst-case scenario.  Someone heard there’s going to be a layoff, or that the new manager is a personal friend of the boss, or even that there won’t be a raise this year and through retelling the story, needless turmoil is created in the workplace.

Solution: Push for facts.  Like the internet, things tend to spin out of control unless someone stops the conversation with verifiable details.  The next time someone claims to hear something outrageous or questionable, push for real answers. “Oh, wow, that sounds pretty extreme. Is that a fact? Who told you that?” You’ll quickly earn the reputation of a worker who won’t engage in frivolous chatter that’s not based in fact. In turn, gossips will likely steer clear of you because asking for facts takes all the fun out of it for them.

These workers take lack of enthusiasm to a whole new level, and fall into a different category because of it.  Not only do they see the negative in everything, but this worker focuses on the disastrous what-if scenarios in any bit of good news. For example, instead of being excited about a new account, the doom-n-gloom worker will respond with a pessimistic reaction you probably didn’t expect.  They may say things like, “I’ve heard the client is a real pain,” or, “They will never order enough to make it worth the energy to service them.”  It’s hard to get motivated to begin the task with this lack of enthusiasm drenching your fire.

Solution:  Like gossip workers, it’s best to nip this in the bud.  Confront the situation head-on by gently explaining how his/her behavior affects the rest of the team.  Most doom-n-gloom workers don’t realize how negative they’re being and how it’s affecting those around them. By pointing it out in a non-confrontational manner, you can help them make the correction and transition to being more supportive of themselves and their teammates.

These types of workers blame others for their circumstances.  You know this person.  This is the team member that blamed a missed deadline on Accounting for failing to get a report to them on time. Instead of taking ownership of the mistake, this coworker claims someone withheld valuable information that hindered the project, thereby relieving themselves of any responsibility.  In their eyes, they’re constantly the victim, with everything being done to them. They often suspect there’s some huge conspiracy that is firmly rooted against their success. And what’s worse, they love to tell you about it.

Solution:  This is where your positive outlook can actually help turn someone around.  If you continue to agree just to get rid of them, the behavior will continue and possibly get worse.  Instead of agreeing, try asking, “What could you have done differently?” Engage a thought process that could benefit not only the employee, but the company overall.

Nobody likes to work with negative people, but you can make a choice to limit the amount of negativity you entertain around you.  The next time you find yourself getting sucked into another negative workplace situation, try one of these techniques to deal with it, and bring some positivity back into your workplace.

About Lofton: Founded in 1979, Lofton Services offers clients the best of all worlds. We provide the responsive, personal service and flexibility of a small local firm while having the technology, resources, and infrastructure to deliver the benefits of the biggest players in our industry. Lofton can deliver the right people, with the right skills, right when you need them. Contact us today.