Do you have a toxic colleague?
We’ve all been there: it’s Monday morning, and you’re just trying to enjoy a cup of coffee and get a handle on the workload for the week. Your coworker sidles up to your desk and starts dishing all the dirt the office has to offer. This is your toxic colleague.
They make a few pointed remarks that come off as passive-aggressive and sour your mood instantly. Whether the rumours they’re spreading are true or not doesn’t matter—the air starts to become toxic and it’s harder for you to concentrate on the task at hand. Maybe you started the day feeling motivated and upbeat (quite a feat for a Monday), but you’re now feeling uneasy and ready for the weekend…in 5 more days.
A toxic colleague can come in all varieties: gossips, green-eyed monsters, self-absorbed opportunists, poor contributors, and more. They are easy to spot, but not so easy to manage. Everyone’s experienced the negative impact of a toxic colleague and the truth is that these relationships can really throw off your productivity and overall happiness at the office. So how do you cope with this negative energy during the workday? Here are 6 strategies for keeping the negativity out.
1. Understand the Problem
First, think about what the problem is. Does your coworker take all the credit for your hard work? Do they avoid doing their share and leave you swamped? Or do they complain and gossip all the time, making it difficult to concentrate and feel content at work? Do they complain about people to HR every other day? Whatever the issue is, it’s important to have a handle on what’s bothering you so you can come up with the appropriate solution.
2. Don’t Take it Personally
We tend to think everything is about us, but when it comes to a toxic colleague, it’s not usually personal. Toxic behaviour often stems from insecurity and unhappiness and is usually not personal. If you’re taking every slight personally, think about why your coworker is lashing out—the answer is probably not you or your behaviour. If it is, you may need to consider if your behaviour is toxic as well!
3. Stop Enabling
You may be part of the problem without knowing it by enabling the behaviour you loathe. If you’re carrying the weight of a coworker who never seems to do their fair share, it’s time to stop picking up the slack. If you can’t stand the gossip your coworker spreads on a daily basis, stop engaging. You need to let them face the consequences of their behaviour and stop unwittingly enabling them to continue their toxic actions.
4. Focus on Your Reactions
We can’t control the actions of toxic people, but it’s up to us how we react to them. Instead of stressing out about how your coworker is acting, bring the focus in and consider how you can react to the situation in a positive way. Can you turn a jealous comment into a positive conversation, even complimenting your coworker on something they’ve done well? Turning a toxic conversation around can disarm a negative person and make them think about what they’re saying.
5. Give Communication a Chance
If you have a toxic coworker, you may not have actually tried talking to them. Give communication a chance! Talking privately with your coworker about what can be done to solve the problem you’re having with their behaviour can sometimes work—they may not be aware of how toxic they have been. You can take some inspiration from international peacekeeper’s tactics – be direct but neutral, and see if there’s any way you can solve the issue without escalating it.
6. Put Some Distance
If nothing else seems to be working, it may be time to put some distance between yourself and your toxic coworker. You may have to deal with them in some circumstances, but the more you can avoid the negative energy, the better.
Thinking Critically About Toxic Behavior
So often, we rush to conclusions and make assumptions about people—including toxic coworkers. Empathy and a little thought can go a long way in making a toxic situation better for everyone involved. The next time your toxic coworker gets going, stop for a moment and think. What are they feeling? Why are they acting this way? People who display inappropriate or negative behaviour are often grappling with some personal issues, and a little assistance and kindness can go a long way. As an example, functional family therapy programs (FFT) for at-risk youth have been shown to reduce felony crimes by up to 34.9% and recidivism rates by 20% in communities using this approach. We can apply these same principles to some toxic coworkers: sometimes, kindness and understanding is the best way to reduce toxic behaviour in the workplace.
Andrew Deen has been a consultant for startups in almost every industry from retail to medical devices and everything in between. He is currently writing a book about scaling up business and his experience implementing lean methodology.