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On Navigating Negative Attitudes in the Workplace

On Navigating Negative Attitudes in the Workplace

Written by Jessica Hatch


There’s a reason we love to laugh at workplace grouches on television. 

Whether it’s Angela Martin browbeating The Office’s party planning committee or How I Met Your Mother’s Robin Scherbatsky shrieking, “Nobody asked you, Patrice!” to her coworker at Metro News 1, watching these over-the-top situations are cathartic. They give a voice to the things we may want to say to the Patrices or Phyllises (or the Angelas, for that matter) in our own offices, but that we can’t take action on without risking real-life penalties.

Whether you’re an entry-level employee, a high-powered manager or even the cause of the problem, the following are a few tips on how to identify, address and diffuse negative attitudes when they crop up in your professional life.

If It’s a Coworker

Unless your office is incredibly high-powered, you’re likely to have some downtime during the day. When the downtime comes, you and your cubicle mates inevitably turn to small talk. But what if you don’t have a lot to talk about?

I’ve been there. My former coworkers were major DIYers who loved a good Pinterest board, while my idea of a fun Saturday night is Chinese food and a Buffy marathon. If you and your coworkers don’t have a lot in common, it can be easy to fall back on a reliable source of conversation: gossip.

Small talk around the office often springs from a culture of complaints—whether it’s about the weather, someone’s horrible rush-hour commute, office politics and so on. This can be fun for a while, but habitual negative thinking always begins to wear people down.

At the outset, it may not seem like a big deal, because there’s a spectrum of workplace negativity. Sure, there are extremes like Angela and Robin, but what about complainers and whiners? What about the little negative moments that build up over a day, week or career? How do we avoid these elements of negativity when they’re practically ingrained in American office culture? One way is to avoid falling into this trap in the first place. At best, you’ll get known around the office as a negative person yourself. At worst, you could end up taking sides and making the problem even bigger than it is.

Next time you hear idle complaints, pop on your headphones and listen to a happy playlist on Spotify. Or, try offering an alternative: compliment your coworker on her new shoes or ask her how her sister’s visit was last weekend. Shifting away from the toxic conversation creates room for positive emotions to spring up in their place.

If You’re a Manager

If you’re a babe in a management position, try to handle your negative employee one-on-one. Sending an email blast against negativity or gossip to the entire office won’t help. In fact, it may backfire by causing even more gossip among those employees who are out of the loop.
When you do meet with your “problem employee,” listen before prescribing advice. Remember, you don’t always know what’s going on outside of the office. A rough home life could be spilling over, or your employee may have perceived a comment as rude or offensive in a way you never intended.

Then, use the tried-and-true “compliment sandwich” method to moderate the situation. As a consulting editor who is constantly giving people constructive criticism, I’ve found the medicine goes down a lot easier with a bit of sugar first. For instance, if your employee feels he has been overlooked for promotions, compliment him on something he does well before suggesting a means by which he could advance his career.
In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen R. Covey explains the difference between the “Circle of Concern” and the “Circle of Influence.” The Circle of Influence is the range of concerns we have control over, while the Circle of Concern is a wider range of concerns we may have anxiety about. Proactive people focus on those concerns they can influence, while reactive people focus on those they can’t control—which in turn makes their influence shrink.
At the end of the day, you can only do so much to impact a negative attitude in your office. You can listen to them and you can give them advice and resources, but at the end of the day, they have to do the heavy lifting to make things right.  

If It’s You

Pause here, and give yourself a gut check. Take a step back and ask yourself if negative attitudes in your workplace stem from you. Most of us are guilty of this in some manner. It doesn’t mean you’re the bad guy! But negativity generally leads to further negativity, which can damage your reputation. No one wants negativity to be the reason they’re back on the job hunt. 

First, examine the reasons you’re being negative. Is it to have something to say? To fit in or seem “above it all” to your coworkers? Is it because you feel insecure, comparing your work to a certain coworker’s job performance or presentation?
If your negativity stems from any of these small reasons, consider that there are healthier outlets you can use to work through your negativity; ones that won’t harm you or your coworkers. If you want or need to complain, don’t do it in the office. Talk with a friend after hours or write about it in a private journal. Exercise and quiet meditation can also help you focus in a way that gets you past any small, compulsive decisions.
Sometimes, though, there’s a work-related problem—like an unmanageable workload or expectations, low pay or perhaps even an inhospitable environment—at the heart of your negativity. In such cases, negativity in the form of hurt feelings fear, and anxiety is not only understandable, it’s often inevitable. 

If this is the case, be proactive. Instead of complaining to your peers, who can’t do anything about it, bring your concerns to the correct supervisor. If they won’t respond in an effective manner, escalate your concerns to the next highest position until something gets done.

We spend a lot of time at work—at least 30 percent of our lives, by some estimates. But it doesn’t mean work has to feel like a prison sentence. Be kind. Be positive. Encourage others. And, in the words of another TV personality, Mr. George Feeny: “Do good.” 

The rest, I hope, will follow.


Jessica is a professional editor and publicist who got her start at such New York literary establishments as St. Martin’s Press and Writers House. Her words have been published on LearnVest, Fast Company, and Money.com. Jessica lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where she enjoys providing story consultation services to aspiring and established writers alike, through the use of a prescriptive, practical editing system. Say hello at www.hatch-books.com

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