Even in the most harmonious of workplaces, there are likely to be one or two employees who threaten that harmony. Toxic co-workers may come in the form of supervisors, department heads, clerical employees, or anyone else who is assigned some function within the office or other place of business. Learning to recognize and deal with toxic co-workers is not only essential to keeping your job, but also your peace of mind.
The first step in dealing with toxic co-workers is to learn to recognize them. In some cases, this is easy to manage. When a coworker is very vocal in criticizing the efforts of others or obviously takes delight in spreading rumors, it takes very little in the way of discernment to realize that the individual is a divisive force in the otherwise happy group. However, a toxic coworker may be much subtler, sometimes by masking the criticism in verbiage that on the surface appears to convey concern and caring. While the words may be sweet, the outcome is rumor and innuendo that can undermine the reputation and the confidence of others. Look for the results of the individual’s actions as well as how those actions are instigated, and it will be much easier to determine who is at the root of the workplace discontent.
Once you have a good idea of who is spreading dissension and distrust, begin to insulate yourself from reacting to the actions of toxic co-workers. This means not allowing yourself to be visibly affected by criticisms and subtle barbs that are thrown your way. While you may be boiling with indignation on the inside, remain calm and professional on the outside. Realize that now may not be the time to confront the offender, and allow yourself time to calm down. After regaining a more balanced frame of mind, it will be easier to determine how to confront and diffuse the situation, without contributing to the problem.
Dealing with toxic co-workers requires that you attempt to look at the situation as an uninvolved third party. This helps you to set your own emotions to one side and assess the situation in a more clinical manner. This is actually helpful, in that you may notice some small detail that allows you to get some insight into why the co-worker is so negative. Uncovering the root cause can often make it easier to develop a strategy that minimizes the negativity and possibly help the co-worker incrementally change his or her attitude and become part of the team.
Keep in mind that failing to deal with toxic co-workers rarely works. Trying to ignore the problem is more likely to encourage the toxicity, since the co-worker may interpret the silence as agreement with his or her negative statements and behavior. Confronting the co-worker and thus providing some degree of resistance is sometimes enough to make him or her feel that maybe there is a different way of seeing and doing things around the workplace, and begin to challenge their own perceptions.
When confronting toxic co-workers, always use an approach that does not involve returning fire. Instead, ask questions that encourage the co-worker to think of solutions to the issues he or she is raving about. The idea is to change the focus of the co-worker from negative thoughts to participating in the creation of a better working environment. This may come as somewhat of a shock at first, and there is bound to be resistance. Over time, consistently asking for input on how to make things better can begin to bring about small but noticeable changes in how the toxic co-worker interacts with others.
In some cases, no amount of reasoning or attempting to turn the bad attitude into something more positive will work. This is especially true when toxic co-workers take a great deal of glee in damaging the reputations of others. Prepare documentation related to these toxic activities and confront the originator directly. Make it clear that unless things change, the activity will be reported to a manager or supervisor who can take action.
Make sure you are aware of any company politics or existing relationships between the toxic co-worker and upper management that could be used against you. For example, if the negative influence in the workplace happens to be a relative of the owner of the company, chances are you will be the one who is disciplined and possibly terminated from employment. If this situation exists, keep as calm as possible while you look for employment elsewhere. Removing yourself from this type of hopeless situation will minimize the strain on your nerves and allow you to move on to a situation where there is a better chance of being happy with your place of employment.