Working with Toxic Colleagues

By Mila Koljensic

Toxic colleagues can make your professional life very difficult. We’ve all been there. Every one of us knows at least one person who has had a negative effect on our desire to go to the office on a daily basis.

Face it – we spend nearly a third of our lives at work (when we have a full-time, onsite job). Personally, I’d rather be friendly and collegial with people at work; however, sometimes that can be an unreasonable goal. Toxic colleagues can be frustrating and discouraging, but these attributes can be mitigated with understanding, patience, and a bit of empathy. We might not be able to manage our toxic colleagues, but we can manage how their toxicity affects us – both in our professional and personal lives.

Identifying a Toxic Colleague

Naturally, none of us are going to get along with everyone all the time. However, in the spatial confines of a workplace the negativity is more apparent when the toxic people are your coworkers. Many people have at least one toxic coworker that they come into contact with on a daily basis.

You may be surprised to learn that toxic coworkers are relatively easy to spot. Their behavior is often characterized by rudeness, disrespect, confrontation, aggression, blaming others for their mistakes, greed, unsatisfaction, sarcasm, ridicule, and they can be overly controlling

Toxic workers place unnecessary stressors on colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates alike. If they are in a position of authority, they tend to make unreasonable requests and overreact to simple mistakes.

Dealing with a Toxic Colleague

If they attack you, don’t react or retaliate with attacks. That just makes the situation worse. It’s important to ignore the negativity as much as possible. Here are a few strategies to manage a toxic coworker. Let’s start!

At the risk of sounding a bit cliché, communication is key in reducing conflicts at work. Human relations, tasks, demands of the job, and the impact “other duties as required” may have on your ability to eat lunch are things that go home with you. A toxic coworker – especially one in your department – can make even a fulfilling and enjoyable job quickly descend into the pits.

If you feel your coworker is a toxic influence on your work, consider talking to them about your concerns. Again, communication is crucial in diffusing ongoing animosity, competition, and one-upmanship that a toxic coworker brings into the mix. Especially if they have made you the target, their desire to control and manipulate can be detrimental to both your career and personal life.

As I said, we all know at least one of these people. Right off the top, I can say that one advantage of working with a malicious, manipulative person is developing a thick skin. That attribute lets us shut off, ignore, and block whatever they’re dishing out. Also, having a thick skin at work allows us to keep our real and authentic character at home.

More tips to help you cope…

Being in the presence of a toxic coworker every day at work is exhausting. In a situation like that, you need all the help you can get. Here are some things you can do to make it better for yourself.

Learn about them.

It may be possible – though perhaps not at first – to learn more about their behavior and their thought processes. Watching how they move and interact with others may be difficult, but if you do, you can gain some understanding into their problems and develop a plan to deal with them.

Take notes during the day while observing the behaviors of your toxic coworker. Review these notes later to develop a clear perspective and to see if they reflect your own feelings.

Understand what is going on with them.

One of the most effective ways to deal with a toxic coworker is to acknowledge their distress. If they become fixated on a particular issue, it is a sign of psychological distress, and this should be acknowledged. By understanding their motivation, you will be able to make an informed decision and prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.

Develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Toxic colleagues can drag an entire company through the mud. By adopting the strategies listed you can protect yourself.

Before speaking to the toxic coworker, take time to develop your own coping strategies. By focusing on your work, you can stay calm and avoid getting stressed out. Taking a break from work for a few hours can help you avoid toxic coworkers, as well as keep your own work and health in check.

Avoid engaging with them unnecessarily.

If you’ve been able to identify a toxic coworker, try to avoid engaging with them. Often, they will disagree with you or dig in their heels when you try to talk to them. The distance will help you to keep your integrity and positivity, allowing you to serve as a role model for your team. Your positive coworkers will respect your efforts and your decision to keep out of the toxic person’s circle.

If you choose not to – or your job duties make it impossible to – distance yourself, the toxic person may defy, ignore, and manipulate you, casuing serious damage to your career.

Besides, you won’t be able to focus on your work and your personal life if you keep interacting with them. It will affect your productivity and your overall health.

Try talking it out.

Sometimes you can make it work by setting up meetings with your toxic coworkers. These structured encounters will help your team build trust and increase accountability among members.

But don’t make it a ruse! It’s better to have real, authentic interactions between team members. Creating a positive environment in the workplace is a must for your career.

Talk to your managers about it.

When you’ve been able to separate the toxic coworker’s behavior from how it affects you, proactively suggest to your manager that the group determine work expectations and standards. Analyze – with a critical eye – all the negative practices and toxicity in the work environment.

Team meetings – especially when planned as an opportunity to build team and camaraderie – should never aim to ambush your coworkers or throw them under the bus. As a force for positive change, everyone on the team should be invited to present practical solutions for the problems everyone is facing.

While toxic colleagues’ behavior can have a negative effect on your career, you can help the team to succeed. By acknowledging the unhealthy behavior, you’ll be able to hold them accountable for their actions.

It is possible to get through to a toxic coworker, but it’s never an easy process. If you feel like your coworker is making you miserable, try to focus on the positive aspects of the workplace.

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