Handling Toxic People in the Workplace

by Chuck Rice
BRIO Employee Development LLC

Fulfillment at work depends on the ability to have pleasant, non-toxic interactions.

Do any of these descriptions sound like someone you know at work?

- Tends to gossip and/or shift blame;
- Every day around them feels like an Oscar-nominated drama;
- Somehow, they are always the victim;
- Coworkers expect the worst from them;
- People are always helping them do their work.

These are just a few examples of toxic behavior in the workplace. Toxic people may know they’re being manipulative or hurting others—the problem is, they often don’t really care. In fact, they may even improve their techniques to get what they want. Sometimes, these techniques are very subtle.

Understanding the Tricks of the Trade
Some of the manipulation techniques toxic people may be using on you include:

  • Withdrawal of affection or acceptance. Toxic people cannot stand people they can’t control. They may withdraw affection and acceptance when you say something they don’t agree with.
  • Fact flooding. This “smarter than you” attack tends to work wonders on people who have low self-esteem. The helpless look.
  • The toxic person makes others feel personally culpable for their problems and may use their projected helplessness to take advantage of innocent people.
  • Negative humor. Those snide comments and mean remarks aren’t just jokes—they are meant to disempower you and make you feel weak without them.

We can all share stories about a toxic boss, coworker, acquaintance or even a relative. Understanding what they say and do, how often and in what setting, while interesting, is not the best use of your time. Knowing how their toxicity makes you feel is far more important—because feelings drive behavior.

Concentrate on the behavior that you choose to accept; place your intentions where you want them. If your fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, it can become difficult to reason. Take a breath, ask how important it really is, and let it pass, nonjudgmentally. Sounds easy, right? Not necessarily! As with any skill, it takes practice. This is a great opportunity to practice mindfulness—and I encourage you to do some reading on that subject.

Effective Impression Management
We all want to look good in other people’s eyes: to put our best foot forward, to be clever and smart, and to have people like us. This is sometimes known as impression management—a conscious or subconscious process in which we attempt to influence the perceptions of others about a person, object or event. We do this by regulating information during social interaction.

Success as a valued team member requires some ability to practice impression management. We need be aware of how we appear to others, but we also want to be straightforward and authentic. Self-awareness is essential.

But effective and authentic impression management is not easy. Like all social skills, it must be developed and practiced continually. Senior leadership must recognize this and coach people accordingly when dealing with toxic people. A comment such as “You handled that situation with Cathy in a very positive and direct way—I particularly noticed your neutral body language” can go a long way in helping people grow.

Toxic people think in a very different way. Take, for example, the famous research study asking people which scenario they would prefer: making $50,000 per year while your peer makes $60,000, or making $40,000 per year while your peer makes $30,000. The results suggest that toxic employees generally prefer less money if it means making more than their peers. Why is that? There are many potential reasons, but fortunately, it’s not important for you to know why. Ask yourself: Who am I? What do I value? What do I stand for? It is important to ask these questions to avoid becoming a “social chameleon” who simply goes along with the crowd.

We must focus diligently on our interactions with others, which requires practice and enhanced listening skills. The real talent is not only self-awareness, but recognizing the “otherness” in others. We need to think about the consequences of our statements and behavior. Self-disclosure is an important part of forming a good relationship with others, but trust must be present to do that. The toxic person has no trust.

Have you ever witnessed a toxic peer having an inappropriate emotional outburst? Emotions are important in connecting with others, but our emotional displays must be regulated and moderated. How you react to your emotions is within your control. It’s important to recognize that self-control drives self-esteem.

Fulfillment at work—and in close relationships—depends on being able to have pleasant, non-toxic interactions. If you’re stuck with the opposite, your fulfillment may be less than ideal, but your ability to succeed doesn’t have to suffer. When a toxic peer’s behavior affects your performance, it indicates the need to make real and constructive change.

Toxicity at the Top
We tend to think of toxic people in terms of their general negativity and tendency to cut others down, thus disrupting one’s self-confidence and causing fear of assertion. At work, however, a toxic supervisor may display their aggressiveness or hostility in the form of constant demands that keep you in perpetual stress mode. While it might be difficult, focus your efforts on playing the impression management game. Ensure that your ability to be a good team player shines through daily.

New research shows how toxic people manage to take charge and rise to the top—the key to their “success” lies in their personalities. Their toxicity may not be evident at first, but once they start their rise to the top, they’re hard to stop. The University of Singapore’s Klaus Templer conducted an investigation into this issue, describing his theory using the so-called “dark triad” of personality traits. These include the tendency to exploit others (Machiavellianism), to have little feeling or regard for their fellow human beings (psychopathy), and to seek, to an extreme degree, being the center of attention (narcissism). Templer believes that just one of these central qualities is needed to define the toxic worker. When I hear the word toxic, I think of “hazardous” and “fatal.” That seemed a bit much with regard to the workplace, until I read the following passage by author Bryant McGill:

“Toxic relationships are dangerous to your health; they will literally kill you. Stress shortens your lifespan... There is an undeniable mind-body connection. Your arguments and hateful talk can land you in the emergency room. You were not meant to live in a fever of anxiety, screaming yourself hoarse in a frenzy of dreadful, panicked fight-or-flight that leaves you exhausted and numb… Seek help or get out before it is too late. This is your wake-up call!”

So do your best to surround yourself with non-toxic people. By not involving yourself in workplace dramas or feuds, you are less likely to adopt some of these toxic traits. And remember: what you allow will continue, so stop allowing it—or it may be time for a new workplace. iBi

Chuck Rice is founder and CEO of BRIO Employee Development LLC.

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