10 Tips for Combatting Negativity at Work

No one thrives in a negative work environment. In fact, exposure to persistent negativity in the workplace is corrosive, counter-productive, and shockingly contagious. It also leads to absenteeism, low morale, and lost productivity.[1]

Combating negativity at work requires effort and starts with (no surprise) monitoring and adjusting your own behavior.

Negativity comes in many forms. The negativity we’re speaking of, that is so damaging to the work environment, comes in the form of behaviors and attitudes that disrupt human relations; for example:



















Source:Alex Sherrer, Combating Workplace Negativity  [2]

If you’re being stifled by undue negativity in your workplace, here are some tips for pushing through to a better place by working from the inside, out.

Reducing Your Own Negativity

Start with what you can control, yourself. Studies show that positive leadership is correlated with employee engagement, performance and positivity.[3] The first step in combatting negativity at work is to look in the mirror.

1. Reverse your polarity 

Most people have a natural bent toward either optimism or pessimism. When you slide into a pessimistic frame of mind, it can’t help but affect your attitude and rub off on the people you work with. Two of the most effective ways of switching from a pessimistic to an optimistic outlook are reframing (changing your perspective on a particular situation) and cultivating gratitude awareness.

2. Clean your attic 

If your head is cluttered with a lot of guilt, regrets, and discouraging self-talk—clean house! Pay attention to your internal dialogue and change the conversation. Instead of beating yourself up for past mistakes, be grateful for what those mistakes taught you. Remember the learning and move on.

3. Watch your words 

Sometimes the words we use in conversation can be as negative as that annoying voice in our heads. Words spoken in anger can trigger a fear response[4] in the brain. In fact, research shows that the words you speak and think can change your brain![5]  Pay attention to what you say and how you say it. Remove negative phrasing and angry and insulting words that feed your own negativity. And avoid words that tend to trigger negative responses in others (e.g. you should, you shouldn’t, you never, you always).

Reducing Negativity in Your Team

Once you’ve sorted out your own behavior, you can begin to look at and respond to negativity in your team.

4. Set the example

If you’ve done the work described above, your new internal perspective should be evident in the behaviour and attitude you project and your team will soon notice the change. The most important thing you can do to reduce negativity in your team is to clean up your own act and lead by example. It’s almost impossible to influence the behavior of others if you can’t manage your own behavior. That old directive “do as I say, not as I do” has never worked.

5. Set the stage

According to Gary Topchick, author of Managing Workplace Negativity, negativity stems from a loss of confidence, control or community. So, aside from setting an example of positivity, as a leader, you also have to make sure that workplace practices support employees’ confidence and contribute to their sense of autonomy and belonging.

6. Redirect

When someone in your team is being negative, don’t let it slide. Make a habit of reframing or redirecting negative comments when they happen, without recrimination. When you insist on framing things in a more positive light, most people will follow.

7. Confront privately

Negative attitudes at work are often fostered by one or two ringleaders who seem to delight in stirring things up. Take these ringleaders aside and talk to them about the impact their behavior has on the team. At the same time, listen. You may find their negativity is fueled by legitimate grievances that you can address. Sometimes, simply being heard is enough to turn a perpetual complainer into a champion.

Tackling Negativity Among Peers

Dealing with negativity among peers can be challenging, whether within a management team or among co-workers. The political and social implications of acting can be significant.

8. Take the high road 

If you’ve decided to steer clear of negativity, take a stand. Behaving with respect and professionalism; refuse to participate in the gossip; offer different perspectives on people and situations that come under fire; and suggest solutions to the problems being raised.

9. Raise concerns

If someone you work with continues to take a negative stance regardless of your efforts to move things in a more positive direction, take her aside and explain how negatively her words and actions are being perceived. You may find she had no idea of her negative effect and bore no ill intent.

10. Create distance if necessary 

Some people prefer to wallow in negativity. When all efforts to reframe, redirect, problem-solve and clarify fall on deaf ears, you may just need some distance. People who steadfastly cling to a negative mindset often drag others down with them. To avoid being sucked back into a damaging vortex, do what you can to limit direct contact with these peers. If that’s not possible, take some time to learn how to emotionally distance yourself from their disruptive influence.

You’ll never banish all negativity from the workplace. But, with focus and effort, you can reduce the kind of “doom and gloom” negativity that drags people down without offering any constructive input. The kind of negativity that erodes confidence, damages relationships and dampens performance is worth combatting with everything you can bring to the fight!


NetSuite TribeHR, fostering positive workplaces around the world.

Photo credit: HJ Media Studios, Foter.com, CC BY-SA

[2] List of behaviors from Alex Sherrer, Combating Workplace Negativity http://www.alexsherrer.com/articles/10001_CombatingNegativity.pdf

[3] M.H. Greenberg & D. Arakawa. Optimistic Managers & Their Influence on Productivity & Employee Engagement in a Technology Organization http://repository.upenn.edu/mapp_capstone/3/

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