by Rich Hein

9 tips for dealing with toxic coworkers

Aug 10, 2015
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Negative people in the workplace can take a toll on both your sanity and health. But before you point fingers ensure you've done you're part to build a healthy relationship. Here experts discuss techniques for dealing with difficult behaviors.

No two people are exactly alike, but people do they do share traits – and those traits aren’t always positive. Some prefer drama or negative attention. They are everywhere, including the workplace. They might be on your team or sit in a nearby cubicle. It could be your boss, a vendor, direct report or a coworker. They’re combative, critical or nonproductive.

Unless you are very lucky, some probably work with you. You aren’t likely to change them, so the best you can do is come up with a plan to mitigate the misery. We spoke with IT leaders as well as a mental healthcare professional to find out the best strategy to help reduce the drama and negativity in your work day.

Don’t label people, label behaviors

There is a danger in labeling people as toxic, according to Pamela D. Garcy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, career coach and author of the book, “How to make time when you don’t have any: A new approach to reclaiming your schedule.” Instead she recommends labeling the negative or toxic behavior. That’s not to say that it isn’t an employee’s responsibility to behave well, but first you should return power to yourself, she says.

Understanding the behavior will help you identify the root of the problem and will likely help you build a strategy for having a more productive relationship with the person, whether it’s your boss, a co-worker or a direct report. “Labeling and rating people limits you. You cannot see the potential in front of you because you’re blinded by the label. Label the behavior instead of the person, if possible — even if only as a mental exercise,” says Garcy.

Are you part of the problem or solution?

It’s easy to say it’s all the other person’s fault, but there are two sides to every coin. Are you contributing to the toxic behavior? Do you let this person’s toxic behavior upset or frustrate you? Are you being pulled into the downward emotional spiral? More importantly what can you do to prevent this from happening?

“Be introspective. How are you contributing to the undesired behaviors and what is within your control to improve the situation,” says Dustin Wells, chairman & CEO of Headspring, a provider of enterprise software strategies and development. The bottom-line is don’t let your action or inaction add make a bad situation worse.

Change your perspective

Some things are out of your control. Chances are you aren’t going to change this person, so your best bet is to focus on what you can control. That requires a change in perspective. Without the right perspective, warns Pamela Rucker, chair of the Technology Advisory Council for St. Jude Research Hospital and chair for the CIO Executive Council’s Women in Leadership board, every issue may feel like a personal affront.

“Changing your perspective helps you cancel out the negative story you’ve told yourself about why the person doesn’t like you, or why the person is working against you. If you can change your belief system at the root, then everything else that comes out of that will change, “she says.

Taking some time for yourself and changing your own perspective can help you adopt a more level-headed approach. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on this person’s behavior and get sucked into an emotional tailspin. Instead try to think of a solution. “You have at least two choices — focusing on the problems or focusing on creating solutions.

Staying away from people-rating and focusing on problem-solving will help you. If you change your perspective to focus upon solutions, you’re more likely to gain solutions. People-rating tends to stop you in your tracks… “says Garcy.

Style clash or toxic behavior?

Another important factor, according to Rucker, is to ensure you’ve made an important distinction. Are these people difficult to work with or toxic?

Difficult employees are those you say are opinionated or hard to get along with. They are sometimes protective of their turf, overzealous or stuck in their way of thinking. “It can seem like you’re never able to get on the same page with a difficult person, and at times, it feels like every conversation you have with them is hard, says Rucker. However, she notes, that many times when you get to the heart of the matter, it may simply be a result of style clash and you’re way of doing things may be contributing.

“I’ve found out that in many cases, the source of my difficulty in working with individuals can be a matter of relationship or style. This took a while for me to figure out over the course of my career, because I took people’s behavior personally, and thought when people behaved badly they were deliberately being jerks and trying to give me a hard time. What I realized, though, was that I had a lot more to do with the difficulty of the interaction than I initially thought,” says Rucker. She says she needed to step back and develop stronger relationships with certain people and take the time to understand their style and way of doing things. When she did, the result was a more productive working relationship.

Toxic employees, on the other hand, are dealing with more than just the ordinary issues of relationship and style. These are the employees who can spread negativity in your organization like a cancer. “Whether it’s anger, fear, distrust, shame, hurt, abandonment, you name it, the toxic person has something inside of them that hurts those they come in contact with, and damages the fabric of a team, “says Rucker.

Build a better relationship

Rucker also notes that she needed to work on helping these individuals get to know her in return. Learning this lesson has allowed her to flip many difficult relationships into successful outcomes. “The more I developed relationships with people, understood their style and learned how to communicate with them in ways that resonated with them, the easier it became to work with others, ” says Rucker. “I had to realize that to other people, I was the one that was difficult to deal with. I was the one that was deliberately misleading, I was the one that had a takeover mentality, and I was the one always looking for a fight.”

Set boundaries on your time

You may assume a coworker can control your emotions and suck you in, but people often-times have more control over the situation than they may think, according to Garcy, “Often there is at least a small moment when you have a decision to make. There’s that microsecond of freedom when you make a choice; that’s moment when you can say to yourself, ‘I don’t want to encourage or engage in this drama.’ At that moment, decide that you’re going to do whatever you can to politely create a boundary. Make it your practice to gently and politely tell this person what you will and won’t do. It will probably take a lot of repetition. Focus upon your own behavior. Realize that it is going to take time before this person takes your boundaries seriously and learns that they are there.”

Since you can’t change the other person’s behavior directly, the safest bet is to tell them what you are going or not going to do. For example, you might try saying something along the lines of, “I’m going back to work now,” or, “I’m not going to spend my work time on non-work items.”

If this person is someone who you know is going to take up a lot of your time, Rucker recommends trying this approach: “I set the tone when I start talking by stating, ‘I only have a few moments, but I want to catch up with you on how things are going. What’s the latest update with your issue?'” This will let the other individual know that you are concerned, but also prepares them for you to move onto another subject without taking up an inordinate amount of your time.

Identify the real issue for you

Is the coworker’s behavior impacting your work? If the answer is yes, try to communicate with the coworker at a time and in a place that allows your coworker some dignity. Then explain the situation.

“The formula I usually give to a coachee in this circumstance is [to] relax yourself so that you can practice assertive communication with your co-worker, seek a win-win solution, talk to yourself optimistically throughout the challenging moments, and increase your own daily self-care,” says Garcy.

If you feel like you’ve exhausted those avenues than maybe it’s time to talk to your manager or supervisor and get some assistance from them.

Grow your emotional intelligence

Whether you’re an IT leader or an entry-level help desk analyst, emotional intelligence will help you understands people’s motivations and their behaviors, allowing you to empathize with them and perhaps change your perspective.

“Emotional intelligence helps you deal with difficult or toxic people from a rational standpoint, allowing you to focus on the facts of the relationship by recognizing and managing your emotions as compared to those of the difficult person. It is important that one understands the situation properly and doesn’t overreact or take things personal,” says John DiCamillo, CTO and head of infrastructure & services for Arup, an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists.

This doesn’t happen by itself. There are many avenues for professional development in the area of emotional intelligence like a career coach or leadership seminars. Do your part and continue to educate and grow. “Emotional intelligence is a multiplier effect for both the individual and the business. It can’t replace technical excellence, but it can multiply the business advantage for the company. And, it can multiply the effectiveness for the individual,” says Larry Bonfante, founder of CIO Bench Coach and CIO of USTA.

Take care of yourself

One of Garcy’s recurring theme is self-care. It might seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked. “Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods, exercise, spend time with positive people, and reconnect with yourself,” says Garcy. Doing so can only increase your odds of a better outcome and will help you lead a healthier, more manageable lifestyle. Find ways to reduce stress levels in your own life, like yoga, meditation, exercise or a self-help book. For others it may be golf or fishing. Whatever you do to relax, make sure you are investing enough time in your own wellness.

Final Thoughts

“It’s important to recognize that not every challenge will have an immediate solution, so be patient,” says Garcy. Successful people will work toward a long-term solution, rather than a short-term release of stress.