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Working with Trolls: 3 Positive Ways to Deal with Negative People

just a guy with glasses and a mustache making a grimace face

My co-workers and I called it the “Not Really Game.” Anytime one of us suggested anything, work-related or not, our team member Todd* would quickly negate it. We started offering up a con-statement one day and a pro-statement the next, just to see what Todd would come up with.

Here’s a a real-life (I kid you not) example:


Me: “Wow, Hannah is running a marathon this weekend. That must be really hard.”

Todd: “Not really. [blah blah blah -fill in some bull here about training, etc. -]”


Me: “You know, I think if anyone trained, they could run a marathon.”

Todd: “Not really, because [blah blah blah].”

Todd’s contrary opinions were as dependable as death and taxes. In meetings, Todd prided himself as being “devil’s advocate,” but in reality he was just a run-of-the-mill troll. It didn’t matter the subject; He’d automatically disagree and spew  reasons why. It was not only annoying; it was seriously hindering. Projects with Todd took twice as long (giving new meaning to the term “project creep”). If Todd didn’t agree with an action, he simply wouldn’t do it. He’d procrastinate or come up with some lame excuse why the task couldn’t be completed. 

The easy solution would be to fire Todd, but we all know how difficult it is to move people on. Plus, like many trolls of his ilk, Todd “managed up” well. To managers, Todd painted himself as the savior of the group due to his infinite wisdom and foresight. To everyone else, Todd blocked, demeaned and frustrated.

The Not Really Game other team members and I constructed was a back-handed way to help save our sanity. It wasn’t the kindest or wisest solution, though. Here are 3 constructive ways to deal with the troll in your office. 


Establish communication boundaries on individuals and groups. Make rules of engagement inherent in office culture. E.g., in meetings, we asked for 1 “con” per person. In other words, we didn’t entertain a litany of dumps from one person on why a project wouldn’t fly. Challenges like staffing, hardware, or physical space limitations were acceptable subjects. Complaints like “I’ll have to change my lunch hour from 11:30 to 12:00” were shut down. Eventually Todd learned to keep those knee-jerk negative responses to himself. Hint: Be prepared to restate the rules every. single. meeting.


Trolls don’t work like the rest of us. They lack empathy, they don’t tire of arguing, and they have a deep-seated need to feel superior, even in the tiniest of endeavors. If we called out Todd on his inconsistency, he’d simply say we misunderstood him the first time, or worse – he’d insist that he was right in both cases! Winning an argument with him just wasn’t possible. We learned to let Todd spew. At times we’d ignore his response and keep discussing or we’d drop the subject entirely, stopping all conversation. Hint: grow accustomed to awkward silences.


Some days the only thing that keeps you going is the promise of a better life. Working with negative people is draining and is unsurprisingly one of the top-listed causes of employee attrition. Actively work on your career. Don’t let your résumé gather dust. Document every win and every lesson learned at work. Manage up, too. When you’re surrounded by negativity, it’s essential to have hope in eventual escape. Do whatever you have to do to keep that faith. Motivational books? Cat posters? Do it. Do it all. Hint: Find like-minded, positive people & groups online to help you along.


Do you have any dealing-with-a-jerk advice beyond the hard and fast Internet rule of “Don’t feed the trolls?” Any stories to share or any relevant groups? Let us know in the comments.


Also posted on Linnkedin. 

Todd’s name was changed, as was Hannah’s, to protect the not-so-innocent.

Photo Credit: Daniela Vladimirova on Flickr. That’s not Todd. That’s just some nice dude who is Movembering.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • mike 5 March 2015, 11:34 pm

    ” (giving new meaning to the term “project creep”)”

    I laughed out loud at that one…