How you can deal with backbiters, cynics and whiners

Recently, I wrote a column about negative co-workers. The mail is still coming in. Here is a sample:

Dear Joan:
Your last column about backbiters, cynics and whiners hit home because I thought it was just for me, since I have been wondering lately how to deal with these types of co-workers. I like my job a lot. I have worked for this company for over 20 years, but since being in this last position for nearly two years, I have been dealing with a lot of co-workers who have very negative attitudes. I try to avoid these people as best as I can, but they come to me to talk. Since we all do the same jobs, I have to put up with it, but it is really taking a toll, since I have been taking my problems home with me. I have been under a lot of stress because of this and I'm afraid it's going to affect my health soon. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with co-workers who have very negative attitudes about their jobs?

Dear Joan:
Your article last week was an excellent description of the types of individuals who can "suck the life" out of a manager and co-workers. I regularly encourage my good workers to provide feedback to the backbiters and tell them that they really don't want to hear their negative comments. This has reduced the level to a certain degree but not entirely. Please publish more of your thoughts on the ramifications of a negative work environment.

Dear Joan:
I would like to know what you think of the following situation. Your article (about backbiters, cynics and whiners) was copied and left on the desk of each employee in our office. I read the article and totally agree with you. My question is this- is it considered "politically correct" for our employer to leave a copy of this article on our desks? There was nothing attached or any memo stating why the article was directed to us. I took offense to this type of tactic, as did the others in the office. If our employer feels that someone in the office has a problem being a negative person, is it not correct to take that person or persons and talk to them directly?

Here are some tips for dealing with negative people:

·        The subtle backbiter who feigns support for a person but who quotes negative comments other people make. Example: "I like him but do you know what other people say about him?" or "I think he's qualified but someone told me that he's getting ahead because he's friends with the owner."

These clever people are trying to look innocent but co-workers eventually catch on to their undermining game. One way to counter it is to not let them blame a mysterious "they" or "someone." Corner them by saying something such as, "That's funny, I haven't heard anything like that. Do you think that about him?" Another approach is to defind the person: "I like Jim and I'm sure he got his position on his own merit." Finally, try, "I really don't want to discuss Jim. What he does is his business."

·        The cynic who is suspicious about everyone and everything. Example: "I'll bet this new idea is just a way to get more work out of us." The cynic is likely to look for the bad in everything.

A counter strategy is to refuse to get into a spitting match. They love it when people try to talk them out of their negative position because they hope they can come back someday and say, "See, I told you so!" They are usually bitter about some past incident and you probably can't talk them out of their feelings. Say something such as, "You can choose to think the way you want. Personally, I'm going to wait and see." A stronger approach is to say, "You sound bitter. If you hate it so much way don’t' you do something about it?"

·        The sarcastic joker who says "Can't you take a joke?" or "She's too thin skinned" when he or she publicly offends people with their barbs. Example: "If you were better at listening to our department's needs I might consider telling you a few things!"

Often, people try to laugh off a sarcastic comment. But if the sarcasm is frequent, is hitting below the belt, or is having a dampening effect on group meetings, it's time to stop the "joke." Talk to the person privately and ask, "Over the past several meetings I couldn't help but notice your comments about X. Have I done something that you want to talk to me about?"

·        The whiner is usually suffering from feelings of persecution. Example: "Why do we have to do it?" "They always get things their way."

The whiner is often someone who feels unappreciated, under-utilized or powerless. One of the best ways to manage a whiner (who is a good performer) is to increase the amount of praise he or she gets and give them more responsibility. For a poor-performing whiner, their manager needs to keep performance discussions focused on the employee's own performance and what they have the ability to control. They also need to be told how their reputation is hurting their credibility. Peers can counter this by encouraging action, such as, "So, what would you like to do about it?" or "Why don't you go ask her instead of wondering about it?"

On the issue of confronting negative behavior, I agree that managers who play "hit and run" with memos (or my column) on employees' desks are creating more problems, unless they discuss it or attach a note explaining their intentions. If someone is negative, take them aside privately and tell them what they're doing, how it's affecting them and others and discuss how to correct it. Calling a meeting of everyone and talking generally about it doesn't work either, since everyone knows who the guilty party is. Employees expect leaders to step up to their responsibility on this one. And keep in mind, an employee's negativity may be caused by something you've done that you need to change.

Finally, one of the best ways for you to deal with a negative co-worker is to stay happy, busy and preoccupied with your own work. They tend to seek out sympathetic ears, and if you are too busy to get sucked into a negative conversation, or you are detached, they tend to find someone else to listen to them. Choose not to get sucked into it.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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