“I’m so sorry you have to work on this garbage project with these horrible clients”

A reader writes:

My question is how to deal with unbearably negative workplaces when you have no power within them, and it’s not really appropriate for you to say anything to anyone.

I’m an in-office contractor (fewer than 20 hours per week) for a client, and the culture is SO negative. Every assignment I’m given is done so with an air of “I’m sorry you have to deal with this horrid project” (for a very standard, not-horrid project), and client requests are similarly phrased, “I’m sorry they’re so unreasonable” (they’re not). Some people curse and complain over any tiny inconvenience, like office equipment not working properly. It’s like when one employee is spiraling and you know they’re about to quit or get fired, except it’s everyone.

As the former owner of a toxic job I really do sympathize, and I try my best to not engage with the behavior and act as positively/productively as I can, but the attitudes are making me dread working with them. It’s amazing how much more difficult a job gets when someone tells you how hard it is! However as a person who’s there less than half the time, and a contractor to boot, it doesn’t really feel appropriate to mention it.

I’d like to stay on the project, and would love any tips you have on how to cope!

This is tough when you’re a part-time contractor and thus don’t have the type of standing to say “hey, this is making work life really unpleasant” that you’d have in a more secure role.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t say anything — it just changes what’s appropriate a bit.

In your shoes, I’d try just cheerfully countering your colleague’s remarks about how dreadful everything is. When they apologize that you have to deal with a “horrid project,” you say, “Oh, this is fine! I actually really like doing X!” or “Oh, X isn’t so bad! I’ll start on this and have it back to you by Thursday.” When they apologize for reasonable clients, you say, “I like working with Lily! Don’t worry at all” or “Nah, she’s fine! I love her stories about her goats.”

You have to do this in moderation though, since you don’t want to become known as someone’s who’s annoyingly pollyanna-ish and won’t ever acknowledge legitimate problems.

Another tactic is sincere confusion: “Have you found Lily difficult to work with? I haven’t run into any issues with her.” You have to deploy this one strategically though, so that you don’t sound like you’re being contrary or implying you’re better at dealing with the client than they are.

There’s a chance that by doing this, people will pick up on the fact that you don’t share their outlook and may stop spewing negativity all over you … if for no reason other than that you won’t be a satisfying audience to vent to.

But all of this is in tension with the fact that as a contractor, you want to fit in, at least to some degree … and there’s potentially a danger that highlighting how differently you see things will alienate some of them, which potentially can matter for things like contract renewal. It can also go the other way, though — you can end up being seen as the client whisperer, the person who can handle tough situations with aplomb, and someone who’s admirably unrattled. I don’t know which of those your situation will end up being, so you’d want to watch for cues about whether your cheeriness is a welcome break for people in a pit of negativity or whether it’s annoying them.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Snark*

    Apparently I wrote this several years ago while sleepwalking!

    The other thing I found really helped was this: these are not my coworkers. This is not my business. I am here to provide a service, for which I and my employer are paid. What’s going on here, the quality of decisions being made, the attitudes, the slipshod BS? This is not my problem. I have great coworkers and excellent bosses, and they are my colleagues. This is my client. They can be as dumb and messy as they want to be, and I care only as far as I keep getting paid.

    1. GreenDoor*

      I agree with Snark. Frame it in your mind as “this is not a job I’m going to get emotionally vested in.” When I was in a similar situation, I kept an adage in mind: The eyes believe themselves; the ears believe other people. Whenever I’d get a “and you know how she is…” or “and we all know how That goes” kind of comment, I’d do a mental self check and ask myself if I’ve actually experienced the comment for myself. If the answer is no, I gave the situation the benefit of the doubt in my own mind.

      Also, if you can get away from the negativity during the day – like going for a walk on your break, or taking lunch solo, or starting earlier than the permanent employees just to start the day on a peaceful note, do that. It’ll help break up the negativity of the day.

    2. Light37*

      Sometimes you have to remind yourself that this is neither your circus nor your monkeys, and you don’t want the circus or the monkeys even if you could have them!

      1. starsaphire*

        That philosophy was a huge help for me when I was doing a lot of temp work early in my career. I’d moved to a new area, so not only was I unfamiliar with the local politics and so forth, but I was also only at the jobs for a week or two at the most.

        Perfect excuses to let everything non-work-related just roll over me like the proverbial duck. If someone tried to drag me in, I’d always look confused and say, “Which one is Cruella, again? I haven’t learned everyone’s names yet,” or something like that, and change the subject to “I’ve finished the Anderson files; what do you need next?”

        I get that you’ve probably been there long enough that you should know who everyone is by now, but don’t be afraid to be a little on the Pollyanna side, IMHO.

  2. TootsNYC*

    I often think you can make personal appeals to individuals on personal grounds. Like asking a favor.

    “Could I ask you not to refer to tasks in that way? I find that kind of framing makes it hard to enjoy doing the task.”
    Then no matter what they say to justify, or to say “you really enjoy this?” say, “Nevertheless.” And maybe add, “I’d take it as a personal favor.”

  3. Stacey McGill*

    Well … just keep in mind that as full-fledged employees, they’re likely seeing a piece of the business that you’re not privy to as a contractor. Things like dysfunctional management, bad processes, bad communication, etc., affects the full-time employees in a way that it doesn’t have an impact on you, quite as much. (This is definitely true for the contractor I work with, at least.) So, if your colleagues are constantly complaining and venting about stuff that doesn’t make sense from your standpoint, bear in mind that it could be accumulated aggravation, if you will.

    I think Alison’s advice is spot-on.

    1. Junior Assistant Peon*

      I’ve seen this myself with new hires wondering why all the longtimers had such negative attitudes. The negativity was justified – we had been through a merry-go-round of frequently changed managers.

      1. Purrsnikitty*

        I’ve been the newcomer in this situation. Everyone was so eager to tell me how everything was horrible. Loaded with optimism for New Job, I just thought “wow, I’ve been there myself in Last Job, but I’m sure this isn’t so bad”. I even thought I wouldn’t let things be as bad in this job (bit of Superman syndrome there…)

        Six months later, I had joined the chorus of “woe is us!”. Two years later my mind was crushed by all the negativity (every lunch with the team devolved into “woe is us” with no sign of solution). While it’s nice to vent a bit, after that long, it just ruined me. One more year of this and I realized that 1) things were not going to change, 2) moaning about it just served to emphasize the depressing situation. Thus I mostly stopped complaining, except for rare steam-overload moments.

        Along the way, I noticed how coworkers (aaaand me, at times) would latch onto any new person, including contractors, to rant in a somewhat creepy “One of Us!” fashion. One thing I’m sure about is that agreeing with such behavior only leads to validation of the negativity and invites more of it. I’m not sure how positivity would be received. When I was positive at the very beginning, people would mostly eye me with a “poor him, he doesn’t know what he’s in for” look. As a consultant, you might get a free pass as people will realize that you can remain more detached than employees and not take that as a rejection of the local negative culture.

  4. Hiring Mgr*

    Just to clarify, is this the OP’s employer, or a client of the employer that OP work with onsite? If the latter, then OP really doesn’t have to be as invested in the others’ attitudes i think..

  5. nnn*

    If you want to come across as valuable to this client and wouldn’t mind doing more of the kind of work they’re complaining about, you could say “I find I don’t mind it at all – do feel free to send more of this kind of work my way!”

    (As a staff employee, I might even take this as an opportunity to trade the work they’re complaining about for the work I like least, but as a contractor you might not have this leeway.)

    1. Artemesia*

      I think this is your wedge. Work on being the person who is amazing at working with the tough clients and difficult projects (although you don’t find them those things). So it is like ‘Well I love a challenge and so am happy to tackle this for you’ (implication being that, yeah this is extra tough work but I can take it off your plate and make your life easier). Same with the clients they disparage ‘I don’t mind working with difficult clients, so keep sending them my way.’ You aren’t denying their reality, you are just positioning yourself to fix the problems and you are also perhaps in a good position when it comes to negotiating the next contract price because you are developing a reputation of being magic with the ‘hard stuff’. Also helps you create a better frame in your own head whether it is ‘I can do the hard stuff they have trouble with’ or. ‘I am really pulling the wool over their eyes on this one.’

    2. Parenthetically*

      Yessssssss, this is truly brilliant. Make yourself indispensable — The Guy Who Can Handle Anything.

  6. From That Guy*

    Wow, this is a tough one. Sorry (no pun intended) you have to go through this on a regular basis. I think gently pushing back, as Alison suggested is spot on, however be as brief as you can be. And the other comment regarding you not seeing the entire picture is spot on as well. Attitude does make it all work, so keep yours level. Good luck, from your tone I believe you have a handle on moving in the right direction.

  7. Jennifer Juniper*

    OP, maybe expressing empathy and listening to them vent would help. I know that can be difficult, but it can’t hurt to be seen as a good team player. You can do this without agreeing with their negativity.

  8. GreenDoor*

    Something that helped me a lot in a similar workplace was to take those horrid clients or the godawful tasks (that everyone else moans about but that you actually like) and proactively volunteer to handle them. You’ll be doing work on tasks/with people you like…and you’ll also look like the office hero for taking on the “horrible” stuff. Build yourself up even more by commenting that you’ll “take one for the team” or “step up to the plate for this one” even though you’d enjoy it regardless.

  9. Sleepytime Tea*

    Sincere confusion is my go to. Partly because if there IS something ridiculous that would be helpful for me to be aware of, it gives people the opportunity to share it. But yeah, sometimes people are just ridiculously negative. As long as people don’t come to me constantly just wanting to have a bitch-fest, sometimes it’s better to ignore it and just go on your merry way. I will sometimes say things like “oh, I’m a silver lining kind of person” when people are complaining to me about something that is really unreasonable, and that kind of cuts them off so they aren’t in my face with it all the time. Heck sometimes I can turn it into a bonding experience by sharing actual horror stories.

    Be the change you want to see! Continue to approach thing positively.

  10. DaffyDuck*

    Attitude really is catching. I think Alison’s advice is spot on, but would also like to suggest saying something positive even if it isn’t about work. Any positive interaction or small talk (I’m so impressed you hike XYZ trail! What are you planning next? or I love your earrings!) can rewire many people over time so instead of seeing you and thinking “work I don’t like” they think “positive thought” instead.

  11. Fortitude Jones*

    I’m in this kind of workplace now and have been for about 16 months – I’m looking to leave. I’ve never in my life seen such drama queen behavior from a group of adults. I came from a law firm environment and a claims environment, the latter of which was literally dealing with life or death situations, so when my current coworkers are constantly moaning about how hard their projects are or how annoying one of our sales team or ops members are, I have to roll my eyes. They don’t know hard! Lol.

    I’m grateful for this job, if only because it showed me that I really need to find a full-time work from home job. I can’t deal with other people or their self-made drama on a regular basis.

    1. Rumbakalao*

      I think it’s a little unfair to say “they don’t know hard.” Maybe you’re used to more difficult environments, but that doesn’t mean that what your coworkers are doing isn’t also difficult. That’s like having someone complain about rolling an ankle and then responding with a story about how you once broke your leg two years ago. Well yeah, but that doesn’t mean ankle man hurts any less.

  12. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Part of it is removing yourself from it emotionally so they aren’t draining your positivity with their negativity. Which can be easier said than done but how I’ve learned to cope with general humbug humans that come and go from my life on many different levels.

    I envision them as those cartoon characters who have a dark little cloud pouring rain on their head everywhere they go while I’m over here under the sun. Of course they’re grouchy, they’re wet and miserable. So I just smile and nod a lot. I also just internalize the responses that Alison has given so that I don’t bother them with my sunny disposition.

    I recently took on some duties that were previously done by a Stormy character and I immediately realized every “difficult” vendor she had dealt with was pleasant. The problem is she hated her life/job so naturally hated everyone connected to it. That’s sad but that cannot be fixed by me or anyone else, most people in that situation is in that “misery loves company” world.

    I agree with Snark, remind yourself that these are not your coworkers, you’re there for a job and you’re there to get work done. These are just grouchy grouches who live in garbage cans and that’s okay, that’s them and they aren’t going to change [please remember these people never ever change unless they decide they’re tired of being miserable and I’ve love to meet someone who did that because I sure haven’t yet].

  13. mskyle*

    I say go full Pollyanna if it doesn’t feel terrible! You don’t *want* to fit in with this office culture, because it’s miserable. You probably don’t want to keep working there for any longer than necessary. You can’t count on insanely negative people for a good reference, because they’ll talk about you exactly the same way they talk about your perfectly nice clients. It might be fun to be the most fun person in the office! Make your positivity as over-the-top as their negativity!

    1. polkadotbird*

      I would be so keen to have someone share goat stories with me.
      You should share some on the weekend thread!

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Stories are wonderful but also pictures and videos…and office visits please.

      Who needs a shredding company when you can bring in goats to do the work for you ;)

  14. ArtsNerd*

    Is it an option to keep the project but not onsite? I know it depends on the work but being a contractor does give you more standing to work remotely than an employee. That can mitigate your exposure to the negativity.

  15. Lynn Marie*

    co-worker: “so sorry to dump this horrible project for this nasty client on you, but unfortunately here it is”
    You: “hey, no problem!”
    The end.

  16. Living it!*

    Oh my. This is my reality right now, only it’s my only office mate. She’s eligible to retire any time now so that is my “light at the end of the tunnel”.

  17. Rumbakalao*

    My last job was like this. It gets really draining and when you’re surrounded by the negativity all the time it’s easy it find yourself joining in too.

    I think it’s helpful to think about it as coworkers who are experiencing a legitimate difficulty, so you can have at least a bit of compassion, but can’t finder a stopper for the negativity leak. That way you just avoid the area until you can get away to somewhere else. You’re very unlikely to be able to single-handedly change the negative nancy office culture.

  18. polkadotbird*

    “There’s a chance that by doing this, people will pick up on the fact that you don’t share their outlook and may stop spewing negativity all over you … if for no reason other than that you won’t be a satisfying audience to vent to.”

    I think that’s key – be a nice but a boring, unsatisfying person to vent to.

  19. MissDisplaced*

    All good advice.
    The only other thing I might suggest is where you sit. If you have a choice in seating arrangements, try to sit far away from the main Negative Nancys so you don’t have to overhear them and aren’t drawn into these conversations.

  20. LaDeeDa*

    One of the greatest benefits to being a contractor or a consultant is you don’t have to care about the culture. You have been giving so much great advice, I have nothing to new to offer. I like to meet negativity with what I call “sweet and stupid” “That’s what I am here for!”

  21. KoKoPuff*

    I find myself in a similar situation at work when my supervisor or one of the attorneys needs something done “last minute” (but I still have a reasonable amount of time to accomplish it, I just didn’t know about it days in advance). They’ll act very apologetic and seek reassurance that they’re not being unreasonable, when to me, they’re really just asking me to do my job, so it’s totally fine! I’ve found that just by acting cheerful and getting it done, because again, it’s my job (and I do enjoy my job), I have developed a reputation for being easy to work with, reliable, and the go-to person for things that need to be done quickly and correctly. This gives me a lot of capital and good will to work with if I need to adjust my schedule or ask for some other favor. So I say just keep being cheerful and pleasant when it’s warranted! Also, if there is a situation that is really concerning where you have to speak up, you might have an easier time getting it taken care of, since they’ll know you’re not a person who is generally negative or a complainer.

  22. Adminx2*

    Maybe already said- but being a contractor you might not know the specific ongoing tensions on the inside structures which have made things so difficult. But yes I have been in the position to have to say “I’ve never found that difficult.” and “This is the stuff I enjoy doing!” to some negative people.

  23. Jack V*

    It feels like the attitude to take is: there are a lot of problems people are suffering in the office, but the work you’re doing is fine. Sympathise with them, but if anything say, hey, my part of this is fine, I’m happy to commiserate, but can you be less negative about my own work?

    Like, either there’s significant problems that don’t directly impact you, like a terrible boss you don’t have to deal with, or the culture has just gone into a negative spiral. But either way, it’s useful to be sympathetic to the people it does affect, but also important that you don’t get dragged into those attitudes yourself. Ideally you’ll hit a “same side” attitude where they think something like “oh god, this place sucks so much, but hi OP, good news, this project was weird but it’s ready for you to do your magic now so hopefully it’ll be good from here, enjoy.”

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