We’ve all been there, right? We go to work minding our own business and suddenly that chronic complainer is in front of us again. On and on and on, telling you how terrible his life and job are. You want to walk away, but you feel rude… so you listen. 

And that’s how it begins – dealing with negative coworkers. Toxic work environments are alive and well. Even now as many of us work in our own homes, the bad actors are still thriving. These environments cause good people to leave jobs they otherwise love. And for those who can’t leave, work becomes a living hell. 

What Is A Toxic Work Environment?

Let’s start by defining a toxic work environment. It’s an environment where you feel an overwhelming sense of pressure. You feel stress and anxiety about going to work. It impacts your work and your life.  Yeah, I know, it’s work, right? We all feel that way sometimes. But this is different. It’s not the work, it’s the nuances of the culture. How you’re treated by co-workers or supervisors. Belittled, bullied, or otherwise treated badly. 

What makes a toxic work environment even trickier is that what may feel “toxic” to one person may not to another.  

That’s exactly why the ‘toxic’ environment is often overlooked. If there’s nothing illegal happening, the victims feel silly speaking up. And even when they do, the employers often don’t intervene. 

The Negative Vortex

Toxic work environments happen in many ways. But one super common one is what I call:

The Negative Vortex.

The negative vortex is subtle. It’s caused by repetitive negative conversations. Think about that coworker who complains about work every day. You know the one. He hates the job, he hates the boss, he hates the commute… or he hates that he can’t commute and has to work from home. Whatever it is… he is miserable. 

This is how we end up dealing with negative coworkers on a daily basis.

Negative Vortex Example:

Laura – A new employee that started with positive expectations. 

At first her new position was everything she had hoped it would be.  She looked forward to going to work. And she had plans for her future in the organization. 

But after only a few months, it started to change. The man in the cubicle next to Laura was angry about a promotion he believed should have been his. He resented that he didn’t get it.  Each day he complained to Laura about the “unfair management”.  He also believed the woman who did get the promotion didn’t deserve it. 

The coworker’s complaints made Laura feel uncomfortable. But she felt sorry for him, so she allowed him to continue his rants.  She validated him by pointing out that the company doesn’t see what a great guy he is. She agreed there must be something wrong with this company. 

If Laura were completely honest with herself, she would admit she had no real opinion on the matter. She didn’t even know the details. Only what he told her. But Laura is like the rest of us. She felt that a complaining coworker deserved empathy. 

This went on for months. The man complained. Laura listened and agreed. Soon, she accepted his perspective as her own truth. She believed management must be unfair. And she went from an employee who loved her job to a dissatisfied person who dreaded going to work. 

Laura listened over and over. The toxin spread. Within a year Laura would be looking for a new job. Not because she didn’t like where she was. But because she heard the complaints so often that she convinced herself she shouldn’t like it there either.  

How To Handle Negative CoWorkers

If we take a step back and look at Laura’s situation, we find two problems. One, there was a toxic employee in proximity to Laura’s cubicle.  And two, Laura didn’t know how to recognize or defend herself against the toxin.

Toxic employees are often very nice people and aren’t trying to be toxic. They want validation. They want to believe they’re right. So they talk about it to anyone who will listen. Especially those who agree.  In the case of Laura’s coworker, in his mind his complaints were completely justified. 

This cycle between Laura and her coworker is the negative vortex. And once we begin to spiral down, this vortex is hard to recover. 

Here’s how to handle negative coworkers and avoid the negative vortex:

1. Don’t engage with toxic coworkers

When co-workers come to you with complaints, stop them. Change the subject. Redirect the conversation to the task at hand or excuse yourself. You don’t have to be rude. But you do have to stop the conversation. If you do this enough times, they’ll get the hint that you want things to stay profesional and upbeat. They will stop coming with complaints.

2. Remove yourself from the negative energy

If you do find yourself in a negative conversation with a coworker, detox as soon as possible. A fast way to do this is to do an appreciation dump. Take out a piece of paper and write down as many things as possible that you appreciate about your job. This helps. It gets your energy flow from the negative to the positive

Remember, we can’t control someone else. We can’t control their mood, their feelings, or their actions. But we can control how we respond to them. And that’s the first defense to avoiding a toxic work environment.

Need Help Dealing With Negative CoWorkers?

To work on improving your work environment and improve your career, book a chat to work out how to take control of your career and stop letting your career control you.

Looking for a career transition or to create a bigger impact in your current careerSpeaker and coach Cynthia Corsetti can guide you in Executive LeadershipCareer Transition and Interview Skills. Connect with her on InstagramLinkedIn. and Facebook