Let's face it; if you are working in any organisation and you are not the boss, you must have come across a toxic colleague or a boss. Everyone, from people working in the fast-paced corporate sector to people holding government jobs, has encountered at least one such person throughout their career.
You know the kind. They're the office bullies who accuse others of not getting the work done and threaten peers and juniors without proper evidence. They annoy, pester and shame others and discuss everyone's personal lives. These toxic people defy all logic and behave immaturely. Neither can you avoid them, nor can you expect them to play nice.
They raise their voices for no reason, shake their fists and sometimes even get physical. Or they're the tantrum throwers in meetings, the too-demanding bosses who do not understand the concept of weekends, the micromanagers who keep following up but do not allow you to complete the work, the passive-aggressive co-workers with constant backhanded comments or the underminers who are acting out of personal or professional jealousy – the list goes on.
All too often, toxic behaviour is tolerated because it's hard to nail down what exactly constitutes toxic behaviour and hence does not fall into the purview of Human Resources. Although many leaders trumpet their commitment to creating a safe workspace, not many would take the initiative against these toxic individuals.
Management, however, should be paying close attention if the teams are presenting toxic traits as such during meetings. Sigal G. Barsade, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, found in her research that groups as a whole, can catch emotions and that one member's bad or good mood infects the rest of the group in significant ways. Groups develop common emotions, called group affect. That means one toxic apple can spoil the whole barrel.
What do the experts say?
Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management who studies this topic told Harvard Business Review, "There's a difference between a difficult employee and a toxic one. I call them toxic because they cause harm and spread their behaviour to others."
In the same article Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown and the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace is quoted as saying, "There's a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating or putting down teammates. Oftentimes, the behaviour doesn't run against anything legal, so you can't fire them if others in the organisation don't agree that a line has been crossed."
Here are the ten things you can do to deal with toxic people:
Limit your exposure
It is difficult to avoid your colleagues at work entirely, but you can limit your exposure to that one spoiled apple. Setting limits with a negative person at work can soothe your mind and keep it focused on the work at hand. However, do not be impolite.
Don't get drawn in
Toxic people are, by nature, complainers. So, when they start complaining, the trick is not to get dragged in. Remember your time at work is limited and you should not waste your productive hours listening to someone else who will not contribute to your professional or personal growth.
Don't get personal
As mentioned before, toxic or negative people are natural complainers. Try not to get mentally affected by the conversation, which might cause emotional trauma. Negative people are irrational and create a negative environment which gets the brain all confused and drained. They keep reminding themselves that the comments are not directed toward them.
Set clear boundaries
Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. All sorts of people will come in and have to learn how to manage difficult situations. So, to do that, avoiding conflict is a successful way to go. Live another day, fight tomorrow is the motto, and they always redirect conversations to work-related matters if it gets out of topic.
Protect your work and reputation
Gossiping at the workplace is not the right path to a high-achieving career. So, prioritising the work is one of the critical things they do in their mind to stay ahead of the gossip.
Understand that the more irrational and off-base someone is, the easier it should be to remove one from negative situations. Don't try to beat toxic people at their own game. Distance yourself from the drama and only interact with them as if they were a science project.
Maintaining an emotional distance requires awareness. Think of the situation this way: if a mentally unstable person approaches you on the streets of Dhaka and says he's the President of Bangladesh, you would just walk past them. So when you find out that a co-worker is engaged in similarly derailed thinking, sometimes it's best just to smile and nod. If they want to engage, it's better to give the thought some time to plan the best way to go about it.
Don't get distracted by the drama
Don't get sucked in by the drama. Even if a co-worker is spinning a web of lies, they note down the illogical parts and later check the facts to understand if there is an iota of truth in what is being said. Directly reacting in front of the toxic person might lead to office drama of the unnecessary variety.
Document everything if a case needs to be raised
You might fall victim to some shenanigans of these toxic people at work in many situations. In these cases, try and understand the pattern and keep the records of incidents with details in case any future complaints need to be raised. Toxic people follow a pattern, and documenting the incidents can protect the victim in the future.
Explain the consequences of being toxic
One should try to be friendly yet logical and explain to the toxic person that the behaviour is unprofessional. If the message is not getting delivered, one should also explain the consequences of unprofessional and unethical advances at work as per company policies. Best to keep a record of these communications in case the toxic co-workers are seen crossing the limit way too many times.