How to Respond to Negativity at Work

There’s usually one: a colleague or boss whose negativity about everything and everyone is not only predictable but frequent. It’s as if they go out of their way to put you or your ideas down. Like the child eager to dive into the deep end of the pool but reluctant to do so for fear of the unknown, you end up doing nothing and saying nothing; time after time you feel cowed into supine silence. It doesn’t have to be like this, though.  Here are a few ways to respond to negativity at work.

Know that negative comments are typically harder to ignore than helpful ones

Studies have confirmed that some people have a predisposition towards negativity. In his book, Choose Yourself, James Altucher shares his “30 percent rule”: regardless of who you are or what you do, 30 percent of people will love it, the same percentage will hate it, and the same percentage won’t be interested ( 30:30:30). Further studies have shown that negative emotions and feedback are easier to form than positive ones and are more resistant to change. Understanding this may not reduce the impact the negativity has on you, but it will help you to make some sense of the behaviour (it’s hard for them to change), even if you’re unable to change it.

It’s important to be aware of this natural imbalance and remind yourself of it when you’re at the wrong end of a colleague’s bark. For every negative comment you receive, think of a positive comment you’ve had from someone else.

Understand the difference between negativity and criticism

You should be able to learn from constructive criticism; by contrast, negativity offers little that is helpful, if anything. Seek out constructive criticism from trusted colleagues instead. At the same time, be open to the idea that your ideas or work aren’t as good as you think – the hallmark of a true professional is being able to receive with constructive criticism and act on it.

Keep in mind this sparkling quote by Irish playwright Brendan Behan when you are confronted with unhelpful criticism:

“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves”.

Be kind

Remind yourself of a simple truth: responding with kindness – or simply being polite and honest in your response - is an effective way of catching people off guard and diffusing their anger. If they still don’t respond well, give yourself a ten out of ten for keeping your cool.

Remember that no one can hurt you without your agreement. It’s what you tell yourself about the specific event or person that causes you to feel the emotions you develop. So, if you are telling yourself, “I’m useless and everyone knows it”, you’ll create feelings of inferiority which, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, can not only ruin your life but also your character.


It’s a cliché but it’s true: you can’t change people, but you can change the way you respond to them.  Keep in mind the above points, and remember that those who are intent on being negative and putting others down only succeed in adding more negativity to the world. Continue to focus on doing your good work and adding value to your ecosystem, all the while remembering that no-one can change who you are without your permission. 


Image source: Hals & Hounds