Updated: Nov 4, 2021
As one of my mentors likes to remind me, “One thing is certain: you will always have to work with people.” Toxic people at work is something we all deal with sooner or later. It might be a client, a peer, boss or business partner. Personally, I have had experience with all of these at various times. The common denominator among toxic people is behavior that has a strong negative impact on others’ emotional and mental wellbeing.
Of course, no one can force another person to respond in a particular way. However, we all influence each other. How you respond can make all the difference, not only for yourself, but for all those who work with you. Here are the 10 most common toxic behaviors and a suggested remedy for each:
Also referred to as the Whiner, Complainers focus on what is not working, rather than what is. They deliver a constant stream of negativity about everything from unreasonable expectations to ineffective resources or processes. Their complaints can be nit-picky and repetitive, but they are always seeking an audience to validate their discontent under the umbrella of realism. The result is disruptive to forward momentum.
Debating a true Complainer rarely succeeds—in fact, it often amplifies their discontent, in large part because they feel unheard, as well as putting them on the defensive by trying to create false positivity. Instead, it is possible to diffuse their need with recognition: “I hear you, and if I were you, I might feel the same way.” Alternately, you may invite refocusing on a solution: “What would you do differently?”
Whether they are speaking about a client, a co-worker, department or a boss, the Gossip is intent on building rapport and feeling in control by sharing information that is negative and inappropriate to divulge. Trust and security are quickly undermined when salaries, mergers, layoffs, addictions, divorce, affairs and a host of other juicy topics are discussed out of the proper channels. This is a direct result when leadership does not share information in a timely or direct manner.
The simplest (and most difficult) thing to do when we are the Gossip’s audience is to disengage without making them defensive in the process. We all know that if someone gossips to us, they are just as likely to gossip about us. This undercurrent of discomfort is at the root of the toxicity. Your best move is to get as far away from the drama as fast as possible.
Don’t share in the gossip, first and foremost. Secondly, move to change the subject. If neither of these work, tell the Gossip, “I feel uncomfortable discussing [name] when they aren’t here. Would you mind if we change the subject?”
Bullies are often bosses, but not always. It can easily be a client or team member as well. The hallmark of their behavior is humiliation, embarrassment or disrespectful comments, usually in a public forum. Another, less familiar bullying tactic is to keep others off balance by changing stances without warning, creating uncertainty. Not only is this unprofessional, it establishes a culture of fear and shame. Bullies threaten and coerce loyalty and obedience, which points to their own lack of confidence in their ability to gain collaboration any other way.
The best way to respond to a bully is to call bullsh*t. Not every personality is comfortable with assertive behavior. Nonetheless, standing for yourself will shine a light on what is really happening, and gives confidence to others in your organization who may also be suffering in silence.
If the bully makes inappropriate public comments, then respond with, “I am happy to discuss this privately at your convenience.” If the bully is your boss, and insists on continuing, you may need to say, “I want to hear your feedback, but this forum isn’t the right place.” You may need to document behavior of changing stances, or take your grievances to HR, certainly.
Critics find fault with seemingly everything, from appearance, to behavior or ideas. The obstruction or destruction of self-esteem in others is a result of low self-esteem in the Critic. The Critic may be extremely productive themselves, and even positive in many situations, yet when it comes to relinquishing praise and support, they fall short.
The best way to deal with constant criticism at work is to practice detachment. While you may want to shut down their feedback, try to remain open, and listen carefully. Be willing to consider whether the criticism is fair. Nothing implies you must take criticism personally, or agree with it. Additionally, ask some clarifying questions. Often this not only helps you, it helps the Critic see their view with fresh insight.
The Blamer simply refuses to take responsibility for their own efforts. They are constantly pointing the finger at a peer, client, boss, or even their own conditions as a reason they didn’t succeed. Everyone misses the mark occasionally, which is why it is necessary to see what could be done better next time. That is the hallmark of a growth mindset. Blamers, on the other hand, are terrified of the negative consequences of mistakes. They will throw others under the proverbial bus and destroy relationships before they will accept any role in the outcomes.
The most important response to a Blamer is to not accept mis-assigned responsibility, nor attack them, pointing out that it was their fault. Instead, focus on what was learned and the best solutions to correct the situation.
Micromanagers, by definition, find it difficult or impossible to delegate effectively. They simply cannot and will not let go of the process. Micromanagers believe there is only one right way to do tasks, and perfection (rather than excellence) is the only option. Their lack of trust that others will do everything precisely right creates a high state of anxiety in everyone involved. Not only that, it creates obstacles to growth, including the micromanager’s own resulting overwhelm.
Be aware of the difference between situational micromanaging (the manager is under some sort of unusual pressure or you may have inadvertently broken trust at one point which needs to be addressed) and a true Micromanager. A true Micromanager is consistent. If this is the case, then you may find it helpful to beat them to the punch, and over-communicate on your progress, as well as laying out your plan, step by step. You may want to bring your observations about the micromanaging behavior to them, as long as you can do it calmly, and keep the focus on possible solutions.
The same individual who tried to cheat off your test at school can show up at work on your team. They might miss deadlines so you need to pick up the slack, or refuse to ask questions when they are uncertain, thus making costly errors by guessing. They steal other people’s ideas or content, trying to pass it off as their own, or misrepresent their abilities. As a result, the incompetent is extremely dangerous to the organization from a legal and quality assurance standpoint.
The Incompetent can only exist in a culture that is willing to turn a blind eye, which is demoralizing to the more qualified team members. Ask for background information, and proof of work, and always verify accuracy.
There are two types of Liars. One says things that are utterly untrue, and they know it. The other withholds the truth, without understanding the damage they are doing to themselves and their reputation. Both Liars are manipulating the situation out of fear and/or low self-esteem.
Ideally, when you know someone is either lying directly or withholding information, the best thing to do is to address the communication proactively, without attacking. For instance, you can remind them of what they said (or didn’t say), and then share your understanding of the truth, and inquire if your understanding is true. If they persist in their lie, or become defensive, it may be time to escalate your response to HR. Naturally if the Liar is a client or a boss, then you may need to end the relationship, since trust is exceedingly difficult to rebuild in this type of toxicity.
Often misunderstood, politics in the workplace uses power and networking to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals in the organization. There is nothing inherently bad about using individual influence to serve personal interests. Where it becomes toxic is when this influence is wielded at the expense of others or the organization itself. The politician’s highly competitive personality is often devious and destructive to all interests but their own.
This is one of the most dangerous toxic personalities at work, and the one I most commonly am asked to help with by my executive coaching clients. The Politician delights in using (and misusing) their power in order to mask a deep neediness. The best response with a Politician is to observe them carefully, and seek to identify what need or lack they are hiding. This allows you to work with them without losing ground yourself. There may be times to take a stand and go toe-to-toe with the politician, much like the Bully, but pick your battles carefully, and spend more time observing.
If you are experiencing any of these toxic personas at work, keep in mind that every situation has nuances. As a result, there may be other more appropriate remedies for your unique experience. To find out more about your situation please contact me to set up a personal strategy session.