Toxic Coworkers: Dealing with Debbie Downers


When I started an internship at a small nonprofit in the National Press Building, I thought I was on my way up to journalist heaven. I was ready to learn. I was ready to give it my all. But I wasn’t ready to work with Debbie Downer.

Debbie Downer loved to gripe. She could suck all the air out of the room. The worst was when I had to ride the elevator with her. There was no escape. I had to stand there and listen to her go on and on.

She’d say things like:

“This is the way the rest of your life will be. You’ll go to a pointless, soul-sucking job, and at the end of the day, what will you have to show for it? Nothing.”

Hmmm. Not exactly what a young ambitious intern wants to hear.

Debbie Downer also liked to ridicule me. Her favorite phrase was:

“Even a homeless person could do your job.”

Have you ever worked with a Debbie Downer? The only pleasure they get out of their jobs is making other people feel bad. They hate what they do all day long. And they think you must be insanely stupid for not hating work as much as they do.

It may not always be this extreme, but with the economy in low gear, many employees are stuck in jobs despite needing a change of scenery. Working with someone who loathes their job is not such an uncommon occurrence. It can be frustrating to be deflated over and over by someone else’s negative attitude. So how can you deal with a Debbie Downer? Here’s a little advice, straight from the trenches.

Manage Your Expectations

Dealing with Debbie Downer can feel a lot like handling a mean older brother or sister. On some level, they may actually enjoy bringing you down and undermining you. When you’re dealing with someone like that, there probably aren’t any magic words you can say to change their behavior. You can’t just flip a switch and get them to stop.

Try a few different methods to deal with their behavior, and see if anything helps. For example, you could try listening. You could try avoiding them altogether. In my own case, I wish I had defended myself more often. When Debbie Downer said disparaging things about me, I tended to ignore it. It was so embarrassing; I just kind of stuck my head in the sand and hoped the storm would pass by. This tactic allowed her behavior to continue. She thought she could walk all over me, and she was right.

The most important thing is to try not to take it personally. Remember, their behavior isn’t a reflection of you. Debbie Downers are unhappy for a lot of different reasons. It isn’t your responsibility to fix their lives or change their attitudes. All you have to do is (cue: Tim Gunn) “make it work!”

Don’t Jump to Conclusions

You never know…Debbie Downers may change over time. People go through ups and downs, and their behavior and thought patterns won’t always stay the same. Although Debbie Downers may not transform overnight like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or as part of a New Year’s resolution, they still have hope. Allow a little room for the unexpected.

Keep in mind that the most disgruntled employees are often the ones who care the most. They probably started out just like you. They were once passionate, creative and hardworking, but somewhere along the way, they came up against some walls. Their frustration just kept brewing and growing until they could no longer manage it appropriately.

Try to avoid judging them as a person or making too many assumptions about how they will behave in the future. Debbie Downers may surprise you. They probably have a lot of wisdom to share. You can still learn from them (even though it may not always be such a fun process).

Find Some Allies

It can be totally draining to deal with someone else’s negativity. To maintain your own sanity, it is essential to find some allies. Looking forward to seeing a friend’s smiling face can keep you going strong even when work is a pain.

Confiding in a trusted friend or loved one can help you cope, but make sure you don’t spend all your free time complaining about the guy who is always complaining. Don’t let work issues bleed into the rest of your life. Make the most of your free time. Intentionally nourish yourself with things that bring you joy. By keeping your own personal life positive, you’ll be less affected by frustrations at the office.

After all, there’s nothing like a Debbie Downer to remind you to let go of the need to please everyone all the time. Don’t base your self-esteem entirely on your career. You are more than an employee or an entrepreneur. So keep your confidence up and look at it as a learning opportunity.


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Sarah Nagel is lucky to live in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. She works as an editor by day and a freelance writer by night. Connect on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/sarahnagel.

Discussion

  1. Jestep on the 17th June

    I’ve met many people over the years like this. One of the more interesting things I’ve observers is that for whatever reason, many times these types of people don’t realize that they bring everyone around them down. Whether it be some deep rooted psychological problem, or just the lack of any tasteful social skills, some people are just extraordinarily negative. Many times when someone finally snaps and tells them off, which will almost always happen, it’s the first time anyone has let them in on the secret the rest of the world knows.

    I think your advice “make sure you don’t spend all your free time complaining about the guy who is always complaining” is spot on. By focusing, even a little on this person, you just further spread their negativity.

    My advice would be to let them know if they don’t have anything good to say, you really don’t want to hear anything from them. Give them a friendly “good morning” when you come in, and no further interaction is necessary. After that just ignore them and go on with your own life. There’s no use wasting time on people that make the world a sadder place.

  2. Janet on the 17th June

    Great article! Setting limits early is definitely the way to go. It can be difficult but better than being caught in the trap of listening to negativity all day long.

    Sometimes these folks can be very manipulative, especially if they have a lot of emotional baggage. It’s good not to be caught up in that or worse, become a target.

  3. Terry Smeader on the 7th August

    Yes we all meet people like this. The issue I believe is that they are unhappy with their own lives and want to bring people down to their level.

    I would say just ignore them because if you let it bother you they have succeeded in lowering your status.

  4. Bellejarre on the 7th November

    Debbie Downers seem marginally preferable to Yuppie Uppers — people who wear you down with their relentless enthusiasm and cheeriness even in the face of unending spreadsheets and nasty deadlines.

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