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3 strategies for dealing with a toxic coworker

Whether that colleague creates a minor annoyance or serious dysfunction, addressing these problems can be awkward and anxiety-provoking.

3 strategies for dealing with a toxic coworker
[Photo: FroggyFrogg/iStock]

Of all the challenges of working in an office, dealing with a toxic coworker is one of the hardest.

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Whether that colleague creates a minor disruption (like gossiping about other employees at work) or creates more serious dysfunction (like ducking responsibility and blaming other people for their mistakes), addressing these problems can be awkward and anxiety-provoking at best. In some cases, a toxic colleague can color your entire experience at the office, making it impossible to do your best work.

On my podcast, the Jordan Harbinger Show, I’ve interviewed dozens of experts about how to manage difficult relationships at work. Over the years, I’ve gleaned a few key principles that can improve your relationship with a difficult coworker.

It all begins with owning your experience.

Recognize your role in the dynamic

The first step in dealing with a colleague’s problematic behavior is to understand your role in the dynamic. Even in conflicts where the other person is objectively at fault, you still have a role to play—at the very least, in the way you respond to the situation.

Take the example of the colleague who ducks responsibility and blames other people for their mistakes. Blaming other people when things go wrong is, of course, a highly problematic pattern. But if you investigated your part in that dynamic, you might find that you play a role there too.

For example, maybe you tend to take on too much of a project yourself, believing you’re the only one who can get the job done. That in turn boxes your colleague out from contributing fully, shutting down opportunities to give them a sense of ownership in the work.

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At the same time, you might be overly critical when you discover one of their mistakes, which in turn makes them point the finger elsewhere to save their own skin. And if you work in a highly competitive office, the company’s culture might be reinforcing that behavior—an environmental factor you’re overlooking when you hold someone personally responsible for their behavior

It’s also possible that failing to confront this coworker’s behavior head-on is only compounding the problem. In that case, your desire to avoid conflict—which, if you think about it, is also a form of ducking responsibility!—is actually fueling the dynamic. Once you identify your role in a difficult situation (even if that role is tiny), you immediately open a window onto a possible solution, by addressing your own thoughts and behaviors first.

Maybe you make an effort to give your colleague more responsibility, which reduces their impulse to avoid the work. Maybe you approach their mistakes with more patience and understanding, which makes them feel secure and empowered to own them. Maybe you even catch yourself engaging from time to time in the same behaviors that they are, and you decide to work on yourself first, so you become a model for the standard you want them to embrace.

In many cases, resolving these conflicts doesn’t actually require two people; it only requires one. You can choose to be that person, knowing that your side of the dynamic is the only one you directly control.

Of course, as we all know, addressing your own behavior doesn’t always fix a toxic coworker. At that point, you can be sure the problem really does lie with the other person and therefore warrants a conversation. For many of us, that conversation is incredibly intimidating. When it comes to addressing toxic behavior head-on, how do you even begin to approach the subject?

Lead with honesty, empathy, and curiosity

Once you decide to confront a difficult coworker, you’ll want to approach the exchange with candor, respect, and a genuine desire to understand the problem. That way, you can create a safe, productive environment to resolve the issue. That begins by honestly articulating your experience of the behavior in question.

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“I’ve noticed that you’ve been taking a backseat on team projects lately,” you might say to the avoidant colleague. “That means I’m taking on the lion’s share of the work, and that other people are getting blamed when a problem comes up in your workstream. I’m starting to find that frustrating and unproductive, so I thought we should have a chance to talk it out.”

The key with this approach is to be specific without being petty, honest without being vindictive. Identify the problems as you see them, but make it clear that these are your perceptions. That will make the conversation much more approachable and give both of you permission to discuss your experiences openly. It’s also important to avoid blaming or shaming the other person, which can be tempting, especially if you’re in the right.

“I know your intention isn’t to make other people look bad,” you might tell the colleague who ducks responsibility, “but when you shift the blame for a mistake, you’re hanging someone else out to dry, when we could work together on the solution.”

When you frame things this way, you resist the urge to make assumptions that create additional toxicity on top of the problematic behavior. You also make the conversation far less threatening to the other person and invite them to recognize their behavior without feeling punished or misunderstood.

Next, make an effort to truly understand the other person’s position. After you articulate your experience of the problem, get curious about theirs. The key is to pose a couple of questions that open the door to a conversation. Some helpful questions include:

  • “Am I off-base here? Am I missing something?”
  • “Do you think I’m being unfair or unreasonable?”
  • “What’s your experience of the situation?”
  • “Can you help me understand why you’re doing what you’re doing?”
  • “Have I done anything to contribute to the problem?”

When you pose these kinds of questions, you signal that your position isn’t the only one that matters. You open the door for the other person to confirm or qualify your perspective and possibly help you see things differently. You also create a tone of empathy and respect, which dramatically increases your chances of changing the behavior and repairing the relationship.

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At that point, your colleague will either recognize your point of view and agree to address the problem at hand, or they’ll disagree with your position and dig their heels in. Unfortunately, the second scenario is all too common (as most professionals know), which brings us to an important final question: How do you deal with a toxic colleague who refuses to change?

Look for productive ways to cope

When we can’t fix a colleague’s behavior, we’re left with two choices: Leave the situation entirely, or find a way to cope with it. For many of us, accepting that we ultimately can’t change other people is the hardest part of this process. But once we do, we often end up discovering new and better ways of responding to problematic behavior.

Of course, there are productive and unproductive ways to cope with a toxic coworker. Productive ways include redirecting that energy into your own development, spending time with colleagues who enrich you, and embracing basic mindfulness practices, such as breathing, accepting your thoughts and feelings without attaching judgment to them, and turning the toxic behavior into a reminder to focus on the aspects of your work you can control.

With these coping strategies, many people discover that a colleague’s negative behavior actually helps them do their best work—once they learn to harness it the right way.

Unproductive ways to cope include developing a grudge against your coworker, gossiping about them to other colleagues, and responding to their behavior with hostility or judgment. These responses might feel better at times—they might even be justified—but they only create more dysfunction in the long term. This can be a tough pill to swallow, especially if you feel that you’re in the right. But if your goal is to create the best relationship possible, you’ll eventually realize that this approach will only turn you into a toxic colleague too.

If you still find yourself struggling to cope no matter how hard you try, it helps to focus on the one major gift of dealing with a toxic colleague: witnessing a great example of how not to behave.

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When you know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of toxic behavior, it’s much easier to commit to healthier, more productive patterns in your own relationships. You turn the source of dysfunction into a case study and use your difficult colleague to become a better person, colleague, and manager to those around you. That’s how you “win,” even when you’re stuck in a difficult dynamic at work.

As the old wisdom goes, the things we can’t change often end up becoming our best teachers—especially in the workplace.


Jordan Harbinger is the host of The Jordan Harbinger Show, where he deconstructs the playbooks of the world’s most successful authors, entrepreneurs, and artists.

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