How to Deal With Toxic People at WorkNone By Homaira Kabir
French philosopher Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Positive psychology says relationships are an important pathway to flourishing. As the most social animal on the planet, what are we to make of this?
The answer may lie in the emotional contagion of the relationship. Positive relationships calm us, delight us, and empower us. They help families flourish and organizations succeed. They make us better versions of ourselves and bring happiness and meaning into our lives.
And then there are toxic relationships that consume us and leave us drained. The ones that cause us daily stress, where our best intentions fall by the wayside and we become embroiled in behaviors that are uncharacteristic at best. And that’s because toxic people defy all reasonable attempts at compromise and collaboration.
Surprisingly enough, these people are easier to manage as family or friends, largely because we have more tools at our disposal. We can dig deeper and help them get to the core of the misery they spread. We can hold their hand, stroke their arm, or offer a shoulder to cry on as they process their emotions and gain a better understanding of their behaviors.
Toxicity in the workplace takes the difficulty to a whole new level. Unlike family, we’re less willing to forgive because we’re not bound by blood. Unlike friends, we can’t see them go like passengers on a train because it’s not our call. But does this mean we need to tolerate their presence while our blood boils, or cringe every time we pass them in the break room?
Luckily, no! We can step away from our instinctive response and come up with a more enduring plan.
Limit Your Exposure (to the Best of Your Ability)
Do what you can to limit your exposure to your toxic colleague. Don’t feel compelled to initiate a conversation simply because they walk into the kitchen while you’re filling up your water bottle. A polite "hi" is all that’s needed. Hanging around is at your own risk. If they engage you in conversation that’s turning hostile, talk slowly and deliberately—it reassures your mind that you’re safe and keeps you from getting embroiled in needless negativity.
Don’t Suffer in Silence
This doesn’t mean actively starting a campaign against those who are toxic! It means seeking support to help you stay strong, relieve stress, and maintain a healthy perspective. However, don’t fall into the trap of burdening your healthy relationships with talk of the toxic person. An occasional laugh or sigh is fine—and often needed—but constantly having them at the top of your conscious awareness drains your emotional energy and leaves little for more positive pursuits.
Look After Yourself
Negative (and positive) emotions are contagious. To save yourself the grief of being pulled into their negativity, pay special attention to what helps you feel positive and energized. Remember: It takes a lot more of the good to counter the bad, so don’t be stingy about the time you spend out in nature, or pursuing your passions, or engaging in activities that make you feel alive.
Spin Your Own Story
Given the stresses of present-day workplaces, it’s not easy, or risk-free, to have a heart-to-heart with the toxic person. The next best option is to spin your own story around their behavior by assuming that it’s a consequence of past hurt. This is a form of reappraisal that helps change your perspective on them so that they stop getting on your nerves. The tyrant at work can suddenly look like a victim who needs your empathy more than your wrath.
The VERY Last Resort
If you’ve tried all of the above for some time and nothing seems to work, you can revert to what may have been your initial reaction—fight or flee. You may decide to change your job if the emotional drain is affecting your health and your relationships. Or you can take them on by standing up for yourself, after you've evaluated the power dynamics, documented everything, and sought adequate support.
Remember, though, that leaving is rarely required—and fighting back has its own set of negative consequences. What works best is the two-pronged approach of avoiding them when you can, and reappraising their behavior when you can’t.
It seems that both Sartre and positive psychology have it right. Others can become hell when their presence consumes us and drives us toward behaviors that bring out our worst qualities. But without relationships that help us feel seen and appreciated, we suffer and spread suffering. And that’s what transforms someone into a toxic person in the first place.
Homaira Kabir is a positive psychology coach and cognitive behavioral therapist. She offers courses and coaching to help women develop the self-confidence and inner strength to identify and achieve their biggest and boldest goals. You can take her free quiz on learning to grow authentic self-worth at her website.
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