dealing with a negative coworker

A reader writes:

I am a teacher in a high school that is very collaboration based, which is great because I love to collaborate with my colleges. Overall, everything is great in my work; teaching is my passion, and I have principals and leaders who value me and rank me as one of their top teachers. I have a couple people on my team who I really enjoy working with — they love students and are passionate about their teaching, but then there is a lady who hates everything.

She goes out of her way to rain on my parade. If I want to try a new teaching technique and share that idea in collaboration time (which is required), then she will be negative about it and say how it will never work. She will also say rude things about my students and their clothes or figures. She is technically not doing anything wrong because my student was out of dress code, but she will walk in my room to point it out like she is on some mission.

This attitude does not work in her favor, as she is not well liked and our bosses don’t value her because she is not an effective teacher; in fact, she was recently was demoted from a desirable teaching assignment.

What can I say to her to politely shut her down so I can go forth with a positive attitude and the belief that my students are amazing, talented jewels? Should I even bother to say something or just let the principals and leaders deal with it?

Ignore her.

You’ve noted that your bosses don’t value her and other people don’t particularly like her (not a surprise), so you don’t have the problem of needing to ensure other people see problems she’s causing, because it sounds like they already do. And that means that you can simply block her out of your consciousness as much as possible.

When you do need to respond to her, just say “thank you, I’ll think about that,” and move on.

And keep in mind that people who act this way are generally pretty unhappy. Happy people don’t act this way; they don’t see the negative in everything and don’t go out of their way to rain on other people’s parades. So if you feel anything toward her, sympathy is the best reaction because she’s probably miserable, and remembering that might making dealing with her a little easier.

And you yourself sound very happy — so you’ve really already won here.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Rob

    I have to wonder if perhaps the Negative Nancy has some larger issues going on here that negatively affects her performance at work. She may be reaching out for help, and just not knowing how to do so.

    She may just need a friend, or more likely, counseling. Perhaps the OP could be that person to reach out to her, try to find out what is going on and provide some guidance. That might be all she needs to turn things around and become a great colleague again – especially if she was once a great teacher.

    1. Anonymous

      Yes that could be true, but there is always the possibility that Negative Nancy is a vortex that sucks everyone down with her. OP shouldn’t do anything that she’s not comfortable doing.

      1. Rob

        Yeah, that was my caveat at the end. If she was at one time a great teacher/colleague, something changed. Addressing whatever changed may be all that is needed to make her great again. If she has always been terrible to be around, then there may not be anything the OP, or anyone, can do.

      2. Rana

        Plus, if one is indeed an essentially grouchy person, the last thing one wants is a cheery person offering “help.” Even if well-meant, it tends to come across as either patronizing or clueless.

        I agree that ignoring this person is the best option. Learn how to say “thank you for letting me know,” and carry on as planned after she leaves.

        (If she says rude things about a student within hearing of that student, however, I’d pull the student aside later to reassure them that you don’t share her negative opinion.)

    2. Laura L

      Even if she does, it’s not necessarily the OP’s responsibility to help her fix those problems.

    3. Janet

      It’s funny you use “Negative Nancy” – at one job, we had a woman who was so unhappy and bitchy and whiny that no one could handle it and one night after a particularly moany rant someone said “Nobody likes a Negative Nancy” to her face. After that it was our refrain. Anytime she started in with the negativity and complaints we’d all be like “Oh nobody likes a Negative Nancy” – eventually she got sick of us pointing out her negativity that she shut up.

  2. Anonymous

    Does OP have a concern about the co-worker’s (negative) impact on the students? If so, would that merit some intervention, e.g., calling the co-worker out if the co-worker makes nasty remarks to or in front of a student?

  3. Sean

    You sound like an amazing teacher, and just keep her from getting to you. It’s difficult yes, but with your personality, I can tell you’ll be able to. Alison’s advice is straight on the money.

  4. JLH

    +1 AAM, especially trying to have sympathy for the co-worker if you’re having trouble ignoring her. If this is difficult for you to do, try to imagine reason why she’s unhappy (the way she was brought up, bad marriage/relationship, someone close to her dying, etc.)

  5. What the?

    There’s a term for people like that: emotional vampires, they are soul suckers, and the only way to deal with them is to ignore and not let them get of the best of you. Takes a lot of effort on your part, but as AAM wrote, have sympathy and keep positive. You can only control how you react.

    1. JLH

      Vilifying people has the opposite effect of having sympathy for them–if you think there is something evil or malicious about a person, your mind will probably want to set the “wrong” or “bad” to “right.”

  6. Clobbered

    Been there. I did actually complain to my manager (not in a nasty way, but pointing out that a certain colleague was a not-stop source of negativity in meetings, and while honest disagreements are fine, relentless non-constructive grousing was preventing me from achieving the outcome of the meeting.

    Words were said (I assume) and the behavior stopped and in fact I went on to have quite a productive working relationship with the coworker in question, who self-sabotaging in that way. Sometimes the biggest favour you can do to somebody is have someone in authority call them on their behavior.

    1. AMG

      I agree. I have been the ‘Negative Nancy’ and needed help. Don’t deprive that person of the catalyst that can change their life. Ignore, say something if/when it needs to be done, and let the outcome be what it needs to be.

      I can appreciate the compassion of those who say OP should help Nancy, but I personally would not have received it well when I was in that frame of mind. It may not be worth the trouble, and the risk is that the person will respond defensively.

      I read a study once that proved that misery does indeed love company, but only miserable company. Stay positive and focus on your students. You sound like an amazing teacher–your students need your energy more than Nancy does.

      1. Elizabeth West

        Yep. Been working on this myself. The kick in the pants DOES help, but not every Nancy will benefit from it. Some are always that way, no matter how the circumstances are.

  7. Charles

    “If I want to try a new teaching technique and share that idea in collaboration time (which is required), then she will be negative about it and say how it will never work.”

    Here’s a question I have – why is management allowing negativity during what sounds, to me anyway, like a “brainstorming session”? One of the basic rules of brainstorming is to keep out negativity during such sessions. You want to encourage any idea, no matter how silly or stupid sounding.

    Otherwise, as AAM says – just ignore her – but, during these collaboration time sessions I would bring it up (or ask management to ) that “only positive thoughts allowed” should be the rule. No?

    Further; here’s some great advice that I got from a co-worker many, many moons ago (hehe, it was in the days before the internet!). I was working at a company that had a large helpdesk staff, as the newly hired trainer I sat with some of the help desk staff to see if I couldn’t improve training of customers to cut down on calls. After shadowing one woman for a couple of days, and seeing her deal with some really nasty and angry folks, I asked her how does she keep herself positive for the next caller?

    Her answer was brilliant! “Charles, I only have to deal with them for the one call, twenty minutes tops, they have to deal with that grouchy person from the minute they get up until the minute they go to bed at night – they’re the ones who cannot get away from grouchy. Oh, so true!

  8. EngineerGirl

    If she is being negative I would ask “Can you be more specific? What won’t work?”. If she come back with specifics then you can mitigate the risk. If she comes back with bland generics you can then say “when you have it identified would you let me know?”. Then move forward. The ball has been moved to her court to prove there is something wrong. A true Negatron will also bring forward complaints without solutions. Push the ball back in her court by saying “Can you please put together a plan to mitigate this problem?”

    This separates out a Negatron from someone that really does see issues that need correcting.

    1. fposte

      I was thinking along these lines too. While somebody who’s just lost in bitterness isn’t going to respond to this, somebody who’s negative because they genuinely think it’s useful to point out pitfalls–which often it can be–can be usefully reconceptualized as playing an important devil’s advocate role. (I’m thinking that unfortunately the OP’s colleague sounds lost in bitterness, but maybe not.)

    2. Brightwanderer

      Negatron is my new favourite word. Partly because I imagine the grouchy complaining person transforming into a steamroller halfway through the meeting and flattening everyone else’s enthusiasm.

  9. A Teacher

    Ignore her. I also teach high school and those are the teachers that the kids come into your room complaining about–the good kids, the bad kids, the in-between kids–they all say the same thing.

    At the same time, are you the co-worker that ALWAYS has to give an opinion (suggesting a new strategy)? Collaboration and self-reflection are essential in the teaching profession as it is important to strive for self-improvement. When I read between the lines, you emphasize how valued you are by your administration as “one of their top teachers” and then go on to essentially put this other teacher down. I get that teaching is your passion and I’m glad you know and others know about your awesomeness. I’m sure he/she is annoying as they are a “negative Nancy” but if you are the teacher that always has to have a comment during collaboration time (common prep in my school) that gets annoying too.

    1. Lils

      Agreed. A little “passion” goes a long way. It sounds like you’re new to the profession and/or the school. Proclaiming one’s love of the “amazing, talented jewels” and constantly suggesting new teaching techniques might be a bit over the top. Be balanced in your collaborative approach by acknowledging the fact that other teachers may have a different perception of the classroom experience than you do, and they also may not match your level of passion and talent.

  10. human

    Ignoring it might be fine when it’s the OP that the co-worker is dumping negativity on. But, I think the OP should do whatever possible to shield her students from this. It is never justifiable to criticize a student’s body no matter what he or she is wearing, and for a teacher, someone in a position of power, to do that, rises to the level of bullying behavior. It’s really unacceptable. That d oesn’t mean the OP has to make a huge thing of it — I think a brisk, “I’ll take care of issues like that in my class,” and moving on should do it. But s/he absolutely should stick up for the students.

    1. human

      I mean, honestly! Imagine an employee violated the dress code and her boss criticized her “figure” as a result! We’d consider that sexual harassment. The power difference between teachers and students is just as stark.

  11. Anonymous

    From a (former) student’s point of view, I’ve had a teacher like this in HS. She was that teacher from hell that everyone heard about. She not only yelled at students but insulted them and put them down for any little thing. It was a very toxic learning environment and students were turned off from learning anything in that class. The school would have her observed a few times and that’s when she would be an angel. If this person is treating students in the way she is treating colleagues, the school should think about how it affects the kids!

  12. Corey Feldman

    I agree in general to ignore it when possible. But to shut it down I like to turn it around. Ask what would you suggest, or how do you think I could improve it. It will either shut her down if she has no ideas, or if she does and doesn’t feel heard and that is why she is so negative, it will give her the floor for a minute and maybe that will stop her negativity.

  13. cheryl

    I know I am over-simplifying, but one thing that has always helped me in dealing with this type of person (when I remember to, and after I’ve stopped fuming) is to say to myself, “the reason they put everybody down is that they must be really insecure and have really low self esteem.”

  14. Blogging4Jobs

    It sounds as though this negative colleague is somewhat envious of the praise her peer has received. I agree, engaging her negativity will no end well. The best option is to take the high road, be civil and continue to be the professional that is adored by both faculty and the student body. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” -JMM

  15. Kelly O

    I tend to try and view this from Cheryl’s perspective – how bad must your self-esteem be that you shoot down every idea presented without even giving yourself time to think about it?

    And I get being realistic, or trying to look at something from different perspectives. That’s one of the things I’m particularly good at. But it’s not at the detriment of exploring a good idea, or being negative when an idea is presented.

    I’m surrounded by a lot of people who knee-jerk when we have change, complain, and complain loudly when they don’t like something. It’s hard fighting that environment alone; I’m just glad the OP only has one. (Maybe Negative Nancy will find a better job for her. You know, to improve herself. Because you totally want coworkers to succeed, right? And maybe be someone else’s problem… )

  16. Brook

    OP, I’d like to sympathize. I taught in several different schools, and there was always *one* fly in the ointment. A classroom stealer, an idea stomper, a screamer, an angry gossiper, an unpredictable bipolar alcoholic… the list goes on.

    Try to be grateful that your fly isn’t in a position of power, dictating the mood of the entire school, subjecting everyone to her whims. It actually sounds like you’re in fantastic, supportive environment, and you’re lucky to have *any* colleagues that are similarly impassioned about teaching. Enjoy them, and enjoy teaching your students. Ignore Negatron.

  17. Tiff

    Well, I have made vast improvements to my internal filter so I wouldn’t say this out loud (anymore) but my face is an open book. My lips may be pressed shut, but the “Damn Debbie Downer would you just shut up sometimes?” would still be clearly expressed by my hairy eyeball, pursed lips, raised eyebrow and half closed lids.

  18. Ellen M.

    In a recent thread someone suggested holding up a pre-made sign for situations that happen repeatedly.

    May I suggest writing “Quitcher bitchin’!” on a piece if paper or taking a photo of Rachel Dratch as Debbie Downer and affixing it to a ping-pong paddle? Or perhaps just making the “wah-WAAAH” Debbie Downer sound when necessary?

    (JK, I think)

    ITA that “there is one in every crowd”!

  19. K.T.

    I had to sit across from the office pessimist once. Her desk was directly across from mine. I would always hear her slam the drawls, sigh and moan and complain throughout the day. It was so annoying and hard to ignore her. What I didn’t get is why my other co-workers sitting next to her didn’t seem to mind.

  20. MJ

    Congrats for being a well liked effective teacher! She’s just upset she isn’t more like you. Teachers like you are sooo needed in this world so keep doing what you do!

  21. Katie

    Hi,
    I will be applying for a Team Leader position. The problem is that there is one of our co-worker who is disliked by all because of the way she is with everyone. She will scream to someone in the team for everyone to hear (except the boss as she is on vacation); she belittles people on the team, steels ideas from the team and brings them to the Management and gets all the credit. Now I know when I will go in the interview room, they are going to ask me how I will handle this situation and make it better. I need your help. What do I say but more importantly how do I handle this person so she is part of the team while respecting her coworkers. She has done lots of things in the past 2 years where the team has completely turned against her and she mentionned to me that it is not the work that is stressful, it is the atmosphere of the team. Thanks for helping me with my upcoming interview as I know this question will come up for sure.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      If you become her manager, talk to her about what is and isn’t acceptable, then hold her accountable to meeting that bar. If she doesn’t, set consequences for up, including firing her if she doesn’t fix this stuff.

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