It can take only one toxic employee to destroy a hard-earned, positive company culture. Leaders who don’t address the issue head on are at risk of fostering a destructive workplace.
When someone works in an abusive environment, the results can be devastating for both teams and individuals. Research reported in Harvard Business Review shows that abusive climates destroy bonds between team members, which means employees are less likely to help and support each other. But the impact of toxic workplaces goes well beyond the office. Employees report feeling emotionally drained, experience lower well-being and even increased conflict at home.
Breakdown in Trust
When you think about the core of all relationships, whether with a significant other or a coworker, it comes down to trust. If there is a toxic worker situation, typically there has been some sort of breakdown in trust. They are lacking trust and don’t want to repair the relationship after a breach of trust.
Toxic coworkers tend to alienate their colleagues, but it can be difficult not to let them affect the quality of your own work, especially if you have to work closely with them or even consider them to be a friend.
Identify the Toxicity
Just because a coworker gets on your nerves doesn’t mean they are toxic. Toxic behavior can be identified through words and body language. If you feel drained, powerless or negative after interacting with them, it could be a sign they are toxic.
Here are some behaviors that can indicate you are dealing with a toxic person in the workplace:
- They try to manipulate you.
- They are masters at procrastination.
- They lie.
- They purposely undermine the capabilities of others.
- They disregard boundaries.
- They don’t follow through on commitments. They aren’t accountable because they don’t do what they say they are going to do when they say they will do it.
- They insult or bully others.
- They complain a lot.
- They spread misinformation, rumors or gossip. If they have a problem with you, they won’t come to you directly, but rather talk about you behind your back.
- They hide information or omit things to potentially sabotage you. They aren’t transparent.
- They hold grudges.
- They have a victim mentality.
- They always put themselves first.
- They judge quickly and potentially inaccurately without any adaptability for change.
- If there is a misunderstanding or miscommunication, they attack you personally.
- They negatively campaign against you. This could be proactive through their actions or it could be more subtle.
- They thrive on finding fault and negativity.
- They are not collaborative.
- They are passive aggressive.
- They gaslight you.
How to Face a Toxic Coworker
People typically respond to these types of behaviors in one of two ways:
- They either seek to avoid the person as much as possible, or
- They try to repair the relationship with the person.
The healthy course of action is to try to empathically understand where the breakdowns are occurring through that person’s lens. You want to help them understand the breakdown from your perspective, but at the same time, gain an understanding of it from their perspective so that you can both try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
By trying to see their perspective you are problem-solving on both a relational and tactical level. You are making the situation better for them, but you are also improving the situation for yourself.
My Toxic Boss
Early in my trading career, I had a manager who treated me differently than anyone else on our team. Each day, we would come back from the floor after the trading day was done, and Jeff would use a different tone with me than my coworkers. He would be gruff and aggressive while giving me the least desirable assignments, and if there was ever a need for someone to stay late, I was always given that honor.
I was perplexed. I wasn’t the most junior person on the team so it couldn’t be considered hazing to the rookie. There was no context to make his behavior acceptable. I worked hard, produced solid results and always went above and beyond in my job. I was also very young, so I tolerated the situation for an entire year.
One day, I decided that I had to fix it. I called for a one-on-one meeting with Jeff. I told him, “I don’t know what I’ve done to offend you or what work I’ve done that isn’t acceptable, but I need you to give me feedback on what I could be doing differently or better.”
His response was “Nothing. You’re doing great. I don’t have any negative feedback.”
What? This shocked me.
I asked him why he treated me so differently than the rest of the team, and he denied it. Once I listed all of the ways he did, he was quiet. He told me he was completely blindsided by my accusation and needed time to process it. The next day, he said after discussing the situation with his wife, he realized that his behavior was due to the fact that he was uncomfortable working with a female trader. He found it awkward to have a woman on his team in what had traditionally been an all-male industry. This wasn’t the first time I encountered such a reaction since I was one of the first females to attend Lane Tech High School in Chicago in 1971.
I suggested to Jeff that he simply treat me like everyone one else on the team – and if it meant “like one of the guys,” I was fine with it. Certainly, the guys in the trading pit did! From that point on, our relationship changed dramatically. He was able to put aside my gender, treat me as an equal, and I was able to thrive.
That conversation was tough for me to initiate, but it was necessary to repair the relationship and drive us both forward in our careers.
The ability to be effective while having conversations that make you uncomfortable is a very important skill to have in business and quite frankly, in all of your relationships. We call these “crucial conversations,” and they usually involve high stakes, varied opinions and strong emotions. I work on this skill with my executive coaching clients a lot because I find even some C-suite leaders have difficulty having challenging conversations.
Having a crucial conversation with a toxic coworker may sound unpleasant but if handled correctly, they can have a positive impact on the dynamics in your office. However, there are certain times when you should avoid confronting the toxic coworker and that’s typically in cases involving personality disorders like narcissism.
In the case of a narcissist, you want to observe them, stroke their ego, challenge carefully and learn which conversations they will receive well. There’s a very informative Harvard Business Review article called How to Work for a Narcissistic Boss that outlines strategies for understanding exactly what you are dealing with in these types of situations.
Unfortunately, most people will encounter a narcissistic boss at some point in their careers because there are a large number of narcissists who become leaders. As always, one of the most important things you can do is take care of yourself first.
Tips for Remote Workers
Even though we aren’t currently physically working together in offices, toxic behavior can still manifest itself in the remote world. If you think someone on your team has toxic tendencies, they are likely suffering from some type of insecurity. That’s what allows them to create a distance between themselves and others.
Try to facilitate more intimacy by making some kind of connection personally. Perhaps you and your colleague both share a love of cycling, or you both have young children, or you both enjoy gardening. If you can connect on a different level with that person, you have a better chance of lowering their reactivity and increasing your kinship, therefore making your workplace a more pleasant environment.
Personality differences are natural and necessary for any team, so there’s bound to be some conflict. But it must be managed properly. Our team coaching services can help your team members understand each other and leverage their differences so that they can work together and achieve high performance.