7 Ways to Deal with Negative People at Work

by Alli Polin on November 27, 2012

How to work with the negative person at the office

Raise your hand if you can picture the face of that person – you know, the one that’s always negative and you need to gear yourself up to head into a meeting that they’re attending too.  Nobody is going to see you.  Hand up?  OK… put it down and let’s get rocking and rolling on some solutions to help you to deal more effectively with that negative person at the office and keep your sanity.

Ask yourself the following questions to find some relief and turn difficult into do-able:

1. Could It Be True?

Do they have a point with some of their comments?  Are there other things to consider?  Is there a grain of truth in the negativity?  Use their negativity to foster a positive outcome: Take a beat to look critically at your work and make it even better.

2. What’s Up?

What’s happening with this person?  What’s going on in their life that has made them so sour?  Loneliness, low self-worth, and frustration can bubble up and appear to the outside world like a negative, difficult person.  What if they are struggling on the inside?  Practice compassion and it will enable you to have a fresh perspective on their behavior.

3. Can I Invite solutions?

Stop the barrage of negativity by asking the difficult person, “What do you recommend?”  Engage them in solutions instead of bellyaching.  Instead of pointing out all of the holes, invite them to craft patches to make the project even better.  If they don’t contribute, you’ve still engaged as a leader, shown them that they, and their opinion matters.  By inviting solutions you’re channeling their energy into positive action.

4. How I Can Help?

Outside of a public meeting, try to build a relationship with your negative colleague by asking how you can help them to be successful.  Be honest with them that you’ve heard their challenges and you’d like to work together to make it better.  Helping may be as simple as giving them a chance to speak while you listen – it may be a long time since they’ve felt heard.

5. Do I Buy In?

Negativity is a powerful force.  We turn to the dark side often and easily.  It may be tempting to give in and swim in the dark, difficult and negative waters of complaints and impossibility.  Before you dive in, ask yourself, “What do I choose?”  We always have the power of choice on our side.  Despite their negativity we can choose positivity, happiness, emotional control, confidence, creativity…  Be intentional about your choice and escape the negative black hole.

6. Should I Speak Up?

If an individual is persistent with their negativity, dragging down the entire team and impacting the culture of the organization, you aren’t helping if you just suck it up in silence.  It may be time to speak up to start to turn around the difficult situation.  Consider: 1) Be direct with the individual that their negativity is having a broad impact 2) Talk to your supervisor and engage them in solutions.

7. What’s Next?

Still struggling?  You only have the power to change yourself.  Judging and engaging with their negative, difficult behavior won’t make it go away.  Make one final choice: Take a deep breath, walk away, and be happy. 

What are your biggest lessons learned from working with difficult people?  What are your personal ah-has about negativity at work?

(Photo credit)

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan November 28, 2012 at 5:08 am

Hi Alli,

Excellent post and great set of practical advice – we all know “that person” all too well!

I know this one isn’t for everyone, but I like to use humor as much as possible to help either break things up, tame things down, or prevent it before it starts.

Thanks always for sharing your fantastic words of wisdom,


alli November 28, 2012 at 6:04 am

Thanks for your comment, Ryan! Humor is amazingly effective to defuse tense situations. You’re right, not for everyone but when delivered with a lightness that isn’t meant to make anyone feel bad, it works to bring the team together.

I appreciate all of your kind words!



Susan Ritchie November 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Hi Alli,
A great article! I love your emphasis on helping them to find solutions 🙂
I think a useful thing to do, which I suppose underpins a lot of what you’re saying, is to look at their motivation for being negative. This is something I cover when I’m teaching people how to deal with criticism. Where’s this coming from? What’s motivating them to share these thoughts? Is it a genuine desire to help, or make things right? Or is it saying more about their own personality and desire to ‘stick the knife in’?
And to echo your very empowering final thought…we all have the choice to walk away!
Sue 🙂


alli November 28, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, Sue! You’ve put it very well. It’s important to understand their why… their motivation too. I made some suggestion under “How can I help”… which is about truly listening to them but you really added some more depth which I greatly appreciate!




Rich Thornton December 4, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Too often, the problem is not the problem. Many times, taking a few minutes to genuinely listen to what’s going on in Negative Nancy’s life can uncover a fundamental personal issue that’s spilled over into their work life. Being a good listener can help you understand what they are going through, and position you to be a positive resource in helping them get through it.


alli December 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Great point, Rich! Listening to both what’s said and also unspoken through body language can help to uncover meaningful reasons for the persistent negativity. Great leaders listen as much as they speak and sometimes negativity shows up when someone doesn’t feel like they’re being heard.

Thanks for sharing your perspective and adding to the conversation!


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