You may not love your job, but mostly, days are at least tolerable. But an OK day at the office can get much worse when you have a colleague who won’t stop complaining about how bad it is.
They grumble about how their holiday wasn’t approved, how bored they are, how much they hate their boss. Before long, you start to notice how this person’s constant complaining makes your workday actively worse. Over time, you may even start disliking your own job more, viewing the company in a negative new light.
In other words: your colleague’s discontent at work is contagious.
We know we the opinions and attitudes of those around us can sway our own moods and and perceptions. Just as motivated, cheerful colleagues can inspire us, an office Eveyore can bring us down – and over time, even spread discontent through a team. Unchecked, disgruntled workers can shape colleagues’ views of the workplace negatively, creating an environment in which even more workers may hate their jobs – including you.
There’s evidence to suggest that certain attitudes and behaviours can spread from one person to a group of people quite easily, especially in work contexts: for example, employees are more likely to engage in immoral acts, like lying or stealing, if they work alongside others who commit such acts.
But subtler forms of workplace negativity – like a colleague who just doesn’t like their job and is vocal about it – can also send ripple effects through teams.
Hemant Kakkar, assistant professor of management and organisations at Duke University, US, attributes these ripple effects to a psychological phenomenon called social contagion, wherein attitudes and behaviours spread among others, who then take on those traits. He says this can happen to emotions, too – both positive and negative.
Emotional contagion occurs when we, as social creatures, recognise emotions in others and subconsciously mimic them. “For example, when we see a coworker in a bad mood after a meeting, it tells us that something did not go right in the meeting,” he says. “Emotional contagion is most likely to happen when one does not have a definite opinion about the situation and the person who’s displaying certain emotion is someone you respect or are close to.”
That chimes with research by Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at US analytics firm Gallup, who has studied worker engagement across the US during the pandemic. He says there are three types of workers: people who are ‘engaged’, who both like the job and perform well; people who are ‘not engaged’, who may not like the work, but still show up and perform; and ‘actively disengaged’, who both dislike the job and don’t perform (and in fact, actively look for a new job).
Harter says those who are actively disengaged spread that disengagement to others, particularly those in the ‘not engaged’ group.
This means a colleague’s griping can worm its way into your brain, even if you’re not actually unhappy in your job. “The more you hear it, the more you start thinking about it yourself," adds John Trougakos, associate professor of management at the University of Toronto. They plant the seed in your mind and in others’ minds; soon enough, multiple people could have the same negative opinion.
“There’s strength in numbers,” says Trougakos. “When you have two, three or four people saying the same thing to you, it strengthens [the spread of dissatisfaction]. People get locked into the mindset.”
Having lots of friends at work doesn’t necessarily insulate you from the spread of negative opinions. Harter says while workplace friendships can help keep engagement up, they can also be a potential vector for grumbling. “These social connections can either be gripe sessions – people take their discontent and spread it – or people can stay together, and be very innovative,” he says, banding together to come up with solutions to make things better.
Kakkar points out, however, that emotions or sentiments are particularly catching when the person communicating them is someone you see as influential, either personally or professional; complaints from a charismastic team leader or the office star performer will likely have a wider effect.
And working from home isn’t a barrier to the spread of negativity.
“If you go to a meeting in person, and you see half the people pulling out their laptops and doing all kinds of other work during the meeting – that’s a symbol for disengagement,” says Terri Kurtzberg, professor of business at Rutgers University, US. Likewise, “if you’re on a Zoom call, and people just don’t bother turning their camera on, and don’t really answer questions and you don’t even really know if they’re really there – you’re going to take that as a sign of disengagement” – and will be more likely to osmose that feeling of disengagement in your own behaviour.
There’s a range of effects on teams in which negativity is spreading. At best, workers’ satisfaction with their role, team or company could dip; at worst, unhappy workers could end up looking for jobs elsewhere in a mass-quitting phenomenon known as turnover contagion.
So, how can we stamp out the spread? If you’re in a situation in which you’re relatively happy, there are strategies you can implement to try and shut out other people’s complaints: classic tips include aligning yourself with positive people, creating boundaries with others and redirecting the conversation toward positivity. “Focus your energy on those who are engaged, which will be much more satisfying,” says Kurtzberg.
It’s important to remind yourself that you don’t know the full context to your colleagues’ griping, adds Kurtzberg. “Maybe the complaining that someone else is doing is based on all kinds of complicating factors in the way their job – or other parts of their life – are playing out, that are different from your own,” she says.
But experts also say a crucial thing to keep in mind is if people are unhappy in your team, it’s often a much bigger problem than one disgruntled worker. “It might not be one bad apple – it might be bad organisational practices,” says Trougakos. For example, workplaces pressuring people to stay online late, bosses emailing people at 2300 or conditions being kept in place that allow burnout to run rampant. However, that means some of the burden falls on companies to improve their cultures, and it’s difficult to know if employers will embrace change – or even notice low morale levels among employees in the first place.
For now, if you’re stuck in the office (or on Zoom) with a whiny colleague, beware the possibility they could influence your own mood. “Misery loves company,” says Trougakos. But you don’t have to jump on the wagon with them.