How to Stay Productive When Dealing with Negative Co-Workers

By Meredith Summers Posted May 15, 2017

You likely don't need a cited study to prove negative co-workers can have a major effect on how much you get done in a day, but we'll let you in on a small statistic anyway. An Associate Professor at Georgetown University and her colleagues found that a constantly pessimistic and negative coworker affects you up to seven times more than a co-worker who spreads nothing but good cheer. That rough reality translates into hours worth of loss in productivity and potentially worse. See just how important attitudes are in a workplace, and what can be done to avoid falling into a trap — whether you're a CEO, a manager, or a frustrated colleague.

Recognize the Signs

Employees affected by the negativity of their coworkers may start to feel as though they're on an island. They'll share less, work less, and may even complain more. They may start going through extreme measures to avoid coming into contact with the negative coworkers in their circle. Staff will worry (or even obsess) about why they're so affected by someone else's mood, and why they can't tolerate their behavior. There may be many separate dynamics going on in any one office, making it harder for leadership to dissect these types of signs, but failing to recognize them will make for lower morale.

Planning Ahead

A good leader can do wonders when it comes to dealing with negative employees, and it all comes down to finding the right balance of interaction. It's generally recommended that there should be some level of isolation for the negative employee, at least for the time being. A negative attitude is a core trait, and it's not going to be changed by a few positive phrases or even several lectures. This doesn't mean that the co-worker has to be set off adrift on the company's version of an ice floe forever though. There are things that can be done to encourage trust within a workplace, but it will take time and careful thought. Changing an employee's attitude from negative to a positive is not impossible, but it doesn't happen overnight.

A negative attitude is a core trait, and it's not going to be changed by a few positive phrases or even several lectures.

Divide and Conquer

Workplaces have seen success when negativity is removed almost entirely from the office. This might involve redistributing talent, limiting the number of meetings, and even letting people work from home. (As a side note, some studies show people who work from home can actually be 13% more productive than those in the office.) It's not unusual for major companies to build separate areas for the most valued members of their team who also happen to be extremely negative. For consistently pessimistic employees who still care about their productivity levels, isolation can actually be as much of a boon for them as for the rest of their team. They may want to be left alone so they can get more done.

The Spider Effect

When a high performer is surrounded by negative attitudes, they're 13 times more likely to leave their position than they are to be dragged down with the people around them. In a sense, this is good news in that high performers have a strong work ethic that can't be broken, but horrible news for a company that wants to retain its talent. Happiness and negativity can spread not just between close ties in a workplace, but even by the most casual of encounters. So if a sales coworker's hot dog was delivered without relish (when they specifically asked for relish!), you may find yourself responding to their anger all the way over in IT. When this negativity is constant and recurring, it needs to be addressed.

Be Assertive

If there's currently no way around dealing with a negative coworker, nothing stops the spread of their attitude as much as assertion does. Negative people are generally looking for people to feed off their anger and disappointment, but they'll stop once they know they won't get anywhere. While politeness often calls us to participate in conversations that aren't productive, there are ways to exit them without coming across as rude. Simply telling the negative person that you prefer to think positively about your position at the company can go a long way to affirming your own feelings about your job. Regardless of how the negative employee takes the departure, others will certainly notice it as a clear attempt at setting boundaries.

The key is to develop a real sense of trust in the negative employee, which can allow them to start seeing the value of collaboration and cooperation.

Don't Argue

Arguing with a negative employee will not get you anywhere, and unfortunately, they're more likely to hold onto their attitudes than you are. In one study done at a large manufacturing firm that spanned across more than 30 countries, those who reported the most negativity were found to be 30% less happy than colleagues who felt the organization was doing just fine. This gap makes it much more likely you won't win an argument, either literally or figuratively. Those who are negative are not likely to respond to statistics and facts. The odds are the emotional side will negate the logical side, firmly digging in its proverbial heels regardless of sound reasoning. While it's not healthy for anyone, the negative employee is comfortable to a certain extent feeling the way the feel. Their pessimistic view may have been around long before they stepped foot in the company, and will be difficult to change.

Turn the Beat Around

If you want to do more than just isolate an employee, then you there are steps you can take to turn things around, but again, it will take time. Negative employees can have their emotions redirected by consistent reinforcement that they are indeed a valuable and contributing member of the organization. These efforts don't have to be done in stealth either, they can be done right out in the open. Despite the transparency, employees are likely to respond to this. In fact, they may be even more willing to absorb the message if there is no subterfuge. The key is to develop a real sense of trust in the negative employee, which can allow them to start seeing the value of collaboration and cooperation.

Think of the Rewards

The concept of rewarding negativity (with extra attention) or catering to the needs of a negative employee may seem counter-intuitive. However, if the employee is valuable to the company and you feel their attitude can be rescued, it's worth the effort. Fellow employees will hopefully see it as a clear sign that the company cares about the people they hire. The key is to practice these habits of respect on a larger scale for the good of everyone. These steps can go a long way to increasing collaboration as long as they're done with the right intentions. It would be better to fully isolate yourself from the employee entirely than to try to act as though you feel a relationship that just isn't there. While 'fake it until you make it' may work in some situations, this is not likely to be one of them.

Integrify streamlines workflow processes to increase everyone's productivity. By eliminating redundant tasks, our products can boost employee confidence to create a better environment. The right software won't solve every problem, but it can certainly help when it comes to encouraging employees to get more done.

Meredith Summers

Professional freelance writer for companies who want to get more done. She enjoys reading, going to the beach, and brief descriptions of herself.

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