There’s an old saying my mother used to repeat when my younger sister and I would break out into a fight: “You can’t pick your family.” Much like a dysfunctional family, the workplace can also be a breeding ground for chaos.
Most of us have as much control over who our colleagues are as we have over choosing our siblings. Like the family black sheep, some coworkers can simply be toxic, straining working relationships and hindering job performance.
It’s likely you’ve come across at least one–if not all–of these personality types throughout the course of your career:
- The poor sport who storms off when his ideas aren’t the ones chosen
- The dead weight who drags the whole team down with poor performance
- The constant devil’s advocate
- The loner who prefers to work alone and doesn’t share ideas with others
- The politician who is more interested in his own career than what’s best for the team or the company and who takes credit for others’ work
These individuals drain your energy, push your buttons, and cause workplace morale to suffer.
Psychologist Paul White, coauthor of the new book Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment, says these toxic individuals can not only breed a pessimistic work environment, but can negatively impact productivity and decision-making.
“When there are unhealthy people within your organization, you’re not just fighting the market and your competitors, you’re now fighting internal battles between departments and individuals just to get something done,” he says.
Fortunately, White says, dealt with appropriately, toxic coworkers can change and become assets to the organization. Follow these three strategies if you find your work environment feeling a little contaminated:
“It’s really easy to focus on other people, and that can take a lot of time and energy,” says White. Rather than expending energy concerning yourself with the behavior of others, focus on what you can do and make sure you’re doing your job as well as you can.
One of the indicators of toxic individuals’ behavior is that they’re highly self-centered. White advises stealing a page from their book and look for ways to protect yourself from their wrath.
When dealing with the politician coworker, for example, who is apt to turn a discussion into a he-said, she-said debate, inviting a third party to participate in meetings and keeping documentation of discussions is the best way to shield yourself from their drama.
One of the hallmarks of toxic individuals is that they rarely take responsibility for their actions, and instead blame others or circumstances for what’s happened. Excuses include: “My dead weight colleague is just having a bad day; I should give him a break and take on his part of the project,” or “my loner colleague refuses to work with the team because I must have done something to upset her to cause her to not want to work with us.”
“One of the things humans are really bad at is misattributing the reasons for others’ behaviors,” says White. The best way to deal with toxic coworkers is to hold them responsible for their own actions. Avoid justifying their behavior and stop taking personal responsibility for their actions. Chances are, they do enough of this themselves.
Define what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t–then communicate with appropriate boundaries. White offers the example of the dead weight coworker who hinders the performance of the team. This individual may be late in getting his or her tasks done and that makes the responsible employee nervous, so they pitch in to help. Or their work may have a lot of errors in it that makes it look bad to the client, so their team leader will spend time correcting the errors for the sake of the team.
At some point, the individuals picking up the slack must decide how much extra work they’re willing to take on to compensate for their dead weight team member. Setting boundaries and communicating them about what actions they’re willing to do–and what they aren’t willing to do–will not only prevent burnout from the rest of the team who is already doing their fair share of the work, but will avert resentment and force the individual to change their toxic behavior, or risk being outed for their poor performance.
Focusing on the negative aspects of a toxic coworker’s behavior when confronting them is unlikely to result in change, and will only serve to exacerbate tensions.
White recommends affirming a positive aspect of their negative characteristic and providing a positive alternative to their behavior instead. For example, you may wish to say to the constant devil’s advocate: “I appreciate that you really think through all the possible reasons why things won’t work; however, it would be helpful to me if you could occasionally make a supportive statement or say what’s good about the project.”