Attitudes Are Contagious: Dealing With Negativity

By Denise Hellekson
The Village Business Institute

I was talking to a friend the other day who said she wasn’t enjoying work as much as she used to; she didn’t look forward to going to work anymore, and the days seemed long and difficult. This came as a surprise to me, because she has always loved her work and the people she works with. When I asked her what had changed, she said one of her co-workers with whom she shares an office has become increasingly negative; complaining about the workload, talking badly about people behind their back, angry with the customers that call, etc. I could tell from the way she was talking that the negativity had taken a toll on her, and she was starting to feel discouraged and drained. Ironically, although I did not point this out to her at the time, she was starting to take on the same negative outlook as her co-worker.

I was again struck by the notion that attitudes are indeed contagious. It made me start thinking about what we can do to deal with negative attitudes before they seep into our mindset and steal our energy and enthusiasm. In my search for answers, I came across a newsletter article I wrote for The Village Business Institute in 2005. I think the tips still hold up today:

When dealing with a negative co-worker, first ask yourself whether the poor attitude is situational, or an ongoing pattern they have developed throughout the years. Determining this can help you decide what approach to take.

When dealing with situational or occasional negativity, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes people repeat negative sentiments over and over because they do not feel they have really been heard, or they may not know how to resolve the situation. Some tips that might help are:

  • Listen to the person until you are certain that he or she feels heard. Ask questions. Clarify statements. Reflect back feelings as well as content.
  • Once the person feels heard, ask questions that help them move toward a solution. “What needs to happen in order for this to get resolved?” “Have you talked to the person you are upset with?” “What are you willing to do to resolve this issue?” Questions and suggestions that point the person in the right direction can help them explore their options.
  • If the complaining continues, set limits so the coworker does not overstay or over-talk his/her welcome. While it is helpful for people to feel heard, continuing to attend to them if the complaining continues can simply reinforce the complaining. Don’t allow that to happen. Tactfully set limits; walk away, and tell the coworker you’d prefer to move on to more positive topics
  • If you decide the concerns are not legitimate, practice personal courage and tell them what you think. Tell the person you care about their concern and their happiness at work, but you disagree with their assessment of the situation.
  • Reinforce the behaviors you’d like to see more of by paying attention to your co-worker when they are not complaining. Let them know how much you appreciate their efforts when they are cooperative or helpful.

When Dealing with Chronic Negativity:

  • Deal with genuinely negative people by spending as little time with them as possible. Just as you set limits with the coworkers whose negativity in your mind seems unwarranted, you need to set limits with genuinely negative people.
  • If you need to interact with a negative coworker due to your job responsibilities, set limits. Do not allow yourself to be drawn into negative discussions. Tell the negative person you prefer to think about your job positively. Avoid becoming a sympathetic audience for the negativity, for this just encourages the very behavior you want to see diminish.
  • Suggest the negative person seek assistance from human resources, their supervisor, or EAP. Encourage them to get support in addressing the issues they continue to complain about.
  • If all else fails, seek support for yourself. Talk to human resources, your supervisor, or EAP about the challenges you are experiencing in dealing with the negative coworker. Reach out to get the tools and support you need to maintain a positive, productive outlook.

Keep in mind, one of the best ways for you to deal with a negative co-worker is to stay happy, busy, and preoccupied with your own work. Focusing on someone else’s attitude can leave you feeling powerless. When you focus on what you have control over; your attitude, thoughts and actions, you are empowered to positively affect your day.

So, put time and energy into keeping your own spirits up. Remind yourself that you only get this day once, and find ways to make it a good one. Seek out positive people to spend breaks with, treat and affirm yourself. Continue to look for the good in yourself and others. When you protect and nurture your own positive attitude, you will find you are less susceptible to other’s negativity, and a positive role-model for the behaviors you would like to see more of.

For more information about how you can deal with negativity in your workplace, contact The Village Business Institute at 1-800-627-8220 or

Denise Hellekson, The Village Business Institute
Denise Hellekson, The Village Business Institute

About the blogger
Denise Hellekson provides EAP counseling, training, consulting, and crisis response services for The Village Business Institute. She has a master’s degree in Community and Rehabilitation Counseling from St. Cloud State University; and is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and a Qualified Neutral under Rule 114 of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice (Mediator). Hellekson has many years of experience in counseling, advocacy, and consulting services.