How to Work With a Negative Coworker
Sarah Brodsky / MARCH 16 2021

You might have a great time at work when everyone’s in a good mood, but if one of your coworkers is being negative, it can ruin the whole atmosphere. And if one particular colleague expresses negative thoughts regularly, it might seem like they’ve cast a shadow over your job. You might wish you could just stay home so you don’t have to encounter them.

When a coworker’s negativity has gotten so bad that it’s affecting your well-being, it’s time to take action. 

Ask your coworker to tone it down

Look for a time when your coworker is not visibly stressed, and ask if you can chat for a minute. Try not to be accusatory, and keep it brief. Just politely let them know that you’re having trouble dealing with the negativity, and ask them to be more considerate. For example, you could say, “I know you have a lot on your plate. But when you complain for the whole afternoon, it’s hard for me to stay upbeat about my work. Would you mind if we talk about other things instead?”

If this direct approach works, then you’ve solved the problem. If not, you’ll need to turn to different tactics.

Get support

First, don’t try to cope with a persistently negative coworker all by yourself. Find someone who knows you well and who doesn’t have a connection to your coworker, like a family member, friend, or mentor. That person should give you a safe space to vent about your coworker, so you aren’t keeping your frustrations with your colleague bottled up inside. They can also help you brainstorm better ways to interact with your coworker and offer a reality check whenever your coworker’s negativity is getting inside your head.

Roleplay responses

Try to list a few situations that trigger your coworker’s negative ruminations. For example, maybe needing to work unplanned overtime always makes your coworker grumble. Or maybe your coworker complains on nights when guests aren’t tipping well.

Come up with some non-confrontational responses for when your coworker is extra cranky. Ask the mentor, friend, or family member who’s helping you to pretend to be your coworker, and practice responding calmly to their gripes.

Don’t try to argue them into positivity

When your coworker launches into an annoying rant, your first instinct might be to tell them they’re wrong. For example, suppose your coworker says, “I shouldn’t have to come in on Sunday! I worked last Sunday. Scheduling here is unfair, and I’m always being picked on.”

You might be tempted to reply, “We all work the same number of Sundays each month, and you got Saturday off two weeks in a row.” But realistically, contradicting your coworker is likely to prolong the argument or make them angrier. Some other options are to briefly agree, such as by saying, “That’s too bad about your shift,” or to ask a question, like, “What would your ideal schedule be?” You could also nod sympathetically, or change the subject. 

Different responses will work best with different people, so you may need to attempt a few strategies to see how they react. Ideally, you want to choose a response that doesn’t provoke an extended diatribe.

Look for constructive takeaways

Sometimes, there’s a grain of truth hidden within a negative person’s endless criticisms. If you can ignore most of the negative chatter and find something actionable, you might be able to resolve a few of your coworker’s grievances. 

Suppose your coworker becomes especially irritable when your housekeeping team is behind schedule and berates everyone about the importance of punctuality. You could consider whether there’s any way to work more efficiently. Perhaps keeping a closer eye on the clock could help you avoid falling behind. You might also figure out if there’s a bottleneck in your workflow and find ways to eliminate it.

Making these changes isn’t guaranteed to improve your coworker’s attitude; some things may be out of your control, and your coworker might find something new to criticize. But at the very least, you can feel good about the fact that you’ve done your best to make things better.

Focus on getting to know other people at work

A negative coworker can be very grating if you spend a lot of time talking to them. And if you’re assigned to work alongside them, you may not have a choice. But in some cases, you have the option to strike up a conversation with someone else nearby or to meet other people on breaks or at lunch.

Try to take advantage of all the opportunities your workplace provides to socialize with other employees. If you cultivate a wide circle of friends at work, your negative colleague will be just one of many people you interact with, and you may find that they have a less noticeable effect on your day. Plus, when your negative coworker sees that you’re forming new friendships, they may realize that you are not a captive audience and that if they want to hold your attention, they need to rein in their bad attitude.

Talk to your manager

Finally, if your coworker’s behavior is making it hard to do your job or hurting your team’s morale, it may be time to speak with your manager about the problem. Explain how your coworker’s attitude is affecting you, and ask for help. Your manager has probably had experience with similar issues in the past and should have ideas to help your team function more harmoniously.