Coping with Toxic Coworkers

What do you do when you have a boss who is a bully? What about a boss or supervisor who is such a bad organizer that their chaos and mismanagement affects your ability to do your job well, but if you were to address this with them, you risk reprisal or retribution? 

Maybe it’s not a supervisor but a toxic coworker. These can range from bullies to complainers, as well as those who are in constant competition with their coworkers. You find yourself measuring all your words when speaking to these people or going out of your way to avoid them altogether. 

While we know that we can’t expect to get along with everyone we ever work with, some people test our patience (and even effectiveness) beyond what might be reasonable to have to endure. The tension can spill into your time out of work, negatively affecting your entire life. Trying to deal with the situation head on can lead to even more work and stress and wasted energy, and the outcome may not change (or it may change for the worse for you).

You might think you can get toxic coworkers fired, but new rulings by the National Labor Relations Board grants rights to workers to be unhappy and unpleasant at work, no matter how it might impact the workplace. The ruling came from a case involving T-Mobile, and ultimately, it says that an employer has no right to control how employees express themselves, even if they do so negatively. 

With this in mind, if the situation at work becomes unbearably toxic, the best and easiest solution may be to find a different job. Unfortunately, that option may not be viable. If that’s the case, you must find a way to cope with the toxic person.

The best way toward coping is to first get an understanding of the motivations behind these types of toxic people so that you are more equipped to deal with them.

Many people in leadership roles are insecure and constantly feel threatened by the presence of someone who may be more qualified than they are. In order to mask this inadequacy, people may put on a tough or abrasive exterior. Oftentimes, these people are filled with self-loathing, and this self-loathing only feeds into the cycle of contempt.

Contempt is often associated with what is called “dispositional” envy, as well as anger and pride. This type of contempt can take two courses—either as exhibiting coldness and establishing superiority, but it can also display as being self-deprecating and emotionally fragile. The latter is associated with low self-esteem and projecting that others expect perfectionism from them. 

Therefore, a strategy for coping with these toxic people would be to acknowledge their subjective experience. That may be the last thing you want to do, but it can be an effective option. To do this, you would have to let toxic (insecure) people express themselves without interrupting them. Understand that insecure people are not always acting out of anger—their actions may be prompted by anxiety, and they do not have the coping skills to deal with the stresses of their life (or position). If you allow these people to speak their feelings, you will be seen as less of an obstruction—less of a threat. 

Remember that you will almost never have control over the way others feel, and it’s almost impossible to control coworkers’ behavior. If you let people vent, maybe you’ll find there’s actually a way to help them (if you can) and come to a solution. If nothing else, their vitriol may be deflected away from you as a result, and you may be able to go about your day in relative peace. 

If you are trying to deal with a difficult person, remember that they are not likely to listen to the concerns of others—usually, toxic (and insecure) people are only tuned into their own personal state. The trick is to match their frequency—whatever their specific concerns and levels of concern might be—and align yourself with them and then act as if you’re talking yourself down, when really you’re defusing your coworker (or boss). With this approach, it is important not to seem didactic, which your threatened boss or colleague will surely pick up on. If you can help these people to be in better control, they will be more receptive to any feedback you have to offer them. In fact, they may even solicit your feedback if they feel they can trust you. The only thing to watch out for in this circumstance is a potential for codependence; the toxic solicitor becomes needy, and soon comes to you anytime they want to gripe, taking up your time and energy once again. Therefore, be receptive and gentle but don’t hesitate to set firm personal boundaries as well. 

If you are suffering from toxic coworkers or workplace bullying, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or visit my website, www.pfeifferphd.com

Copyright © 2017, La Jolla Light