The toxic coworker: the one we all try to avoid, the one who wreaks havoc on the team and makes the work environment stressful and uncomfortable. No one enjoys working with this person. But — and here's a not-so-crazy question — what if that person were actually you?
And this leads to the next question: What traits, exactly, make a toxic coworker?
According to Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, toxic colleagues are bullies who influence productivity and could even have an impact on fellow coworkers' health, including loss of sleep.
"They manipulate and often control the people with whom they work," Cohen says. "We fear them because they create stress for us, they exhaust us, and with respect to our motivation, they may ultimately prevent us from working at our best." He continues to say a toxic colleague's actions are often unpredictable in terms of timing, and may be directed at one colleague, while charming the rest of the team and management.
More specifically, toxic colleagues typically possess and exhibit the following traits according to Benedicta Banga, career strategist and founder of Leadher Initiative.
- They're self-absorbed: "They are all about what they get and are not interested in the interests of others."
- They're confrontational: "Everything turns into an argument because they challenge and oppose at every opportunity."
- They're rude: "They don't take into consideration the impact they are having on others."
- They're controlling: "They want things to be done their way and unless they are, then they aren't right."
- They gossip: "They talk about others in a negative light and find pleasure in other people's demise."
- They're unforgiving: "They hold onto grudges and don't build relationships well as a result."
A colleague may or may not even realize he or she is toxic to the work environment, either.
"In my experience as an executive coach for the past 17 years, I've observed that the more toxic the employee, the less self-aware they generally are," Libby Gill, founder and CEO of executive coaching and consulting firm Libby Gill & Company, tells us.
Banga adds the behavior could be an emotional reaction triggered by outside factors. "It could be they are unhappy themselves and take that out on others," she says. "It could be they are under pressure and lacking support systems and the ability to ask for help, and so they lash out."
According to Cohen, even if an employee receives feedback on his or her behavior and were unaware of its impact on other employees, it could be a more deep-rooted problem. "They may have deep-rooted psychological issues, cultural norms that define what and how to interact with people," he says. "Or, they may simply be poorly socialized."
So how does one deal with a toxic colleague?
"Short of firing or working around them — both acceptable solutions in my view — the most effective thing you can do as a supervisor or colleague is to give them some much-needed feedback," Gill says. "Try a direct approach, such as, 'You may not be aware that you are not sharing information in a timely manner.'"
Cohen offers a few more actions one can take if the coworker is a peer.
- Strengthen your relationship with your boss: "When our bosses like us and enjoy working with us, they are more inclined to want to protect us.”
- Get comfortable speaking up for yourself: "Most bullies can dish it out, but they can't take it."
- Don't personalize it: "Beneath the swag, toxic colleagues are extremely needy. Don't play into it or they will suck the life out of you if given the opportunity."
- Ignore them: "There is nothing more frustrating to toxic colleagues than to know that they have zero power over you — that in fact you find their behavior inconsequential and tiresome."
- Identify and seek out others who may be victimized as you are by this individual: "There is both safety and power in numbers."
- Have a game plan: "If there is absolutely no reason to believe that this individual will change or that the company will recognize and punish the bad behavior, then you should consider an exit strategy."
If the colleague is your boss, however, Cohen suggests requesting a meeting with HR.
Now let's turn the tables: What if it's you who's the toxic coworker? To start, Cohen suggests apologizing to your colleagues and asking for their support. "Just like any other self-destructive behavior, the first step is to acknowledge and accept and the second is to make amends. Ask your colleagues to remind you when this behavior resurfaces and promise that you will not debate the matter."
Banga adds one should also be more considerate. "Think about how words and actions can affect others, outcomes and ruin working relationships," she says.
Banga and Cohen offer a few more actions you could take.
- Be more considerate.
- Listen more and see things from perspectives that are different from yours.
- Ask for feedback from colleagues so you can improve: "But make sure that you are seeking out colleagues whose motives are aboveboard. If a colleague is self-serving, then you may be criticized unfairly and indiscriminately," Cohen adds.
- Understand different personality types so you know how to adapt behavior.
- See a therapist if it is behavior you cannot control.
Regardless of which side you might be on — dealing with a toxic coworker or being the toxic coworker — keep in mind every workplace will always have different personalities. It's all about how you handle and respond to it all.
"You are better off setting clear boundaries, not taking their toxicity personally and focusing on establishing deep relationships with more rational and results-oriented colleagues," Gill says. "Good luck!"