Tactics to deal with toxic people in the workplace

4 minute read
Most people have encountered a difficult person at some time in their career – and the costs can be highly detrimental, from sleepless nights to poor mental health. So how can we feel less stressed when dealing with people who push our buttons? The People Space turned to Amy Gallo, author of Getting Along – How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People), to discover some tactics

Dealing with toxic people in the workplace

Toxicity is endemic in workplaces. Research by Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, finds 98% of people have been on the receiving end of uncivil mistreatment at work at some point in their career. Meanwhile, a 2009 study by Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway found 94% of people reported having worked with a toxic person in the last five years, while 87% said team culture suffered as a result.

So it’s likely anyone reading this article will have worked with a toxic person at some time in their career. And, as well as the physical and mental impacts of working with difficult people, the stress of dealing with difficult people dampens our creativity and productivity, degrades our ability to think clearly and make sound decisions, and causes us to disengage.

These responses, says author and Harvard Business Review contributing editor Amy Gallo, are a normal reaction to conflict. “Neuroscience shows us that when we feel threatened our brains do not work in the most high-functioning way. We get into ‘amygdala hijack’ – our safety mode kicks into high gear. In this moment, when interacting with people, we are not our best selves. It can feel like a threat to our identity, our career, to the harmony we expect to have with colleagues or to our values. We don’t make great choices.”

Gallo identifies eight common toxic archetypes:

Toxic archetypes

  • Insecure boss
  • Pessimist
  • Victim
  • Passive-aggressive peer
  • Know-it-all
  • Tormentor (someone you expect to be a mentor and to help you who instead is set on doing the pposite)
  • Biased co-worker
  • Political operator

But before we rush into trying to live in a “disagreement free utopia” it’s important to realise there is no such thing as a conflict free team. In fact normal, healthy conflict has many benefits. Research finds healthy disagreement produces:

  • Better work outcomes
  • Opportunities to learn and grow
  • Improved relationships
  • Job satisfaction
  • Creative friction
  • Inclusive work environment

Indeed, Harvard Business professor Linda Hill talks about creative abrasion and how innovative companies have a strong culture of disagreement. The key, though, is that disagreement focuses on the idea or process rather than the people.

Statistics on toxic workplace

However, even if we show up ready to engage in such healthy disagreements we can often face challenging people, says Gallo. Indeed, we ourselves may sometimes display such behaviour. We therefore need to develop strategies to enable us to get out of the amygdala hijack and remain calm enough to ensure we make good choices during such interactions.

To deal with each of the toxic archetypes she first suggests asking the following questions:

  • What is the behaviour I am seeing and what is problematic about it? Is it just annoying or is it badly impacting me/the team/organisation
  • What might explain it? While we will never know for sure, try to imagine what could be going on for that person.
  • What questions should I ask myself?
  • What tactics can I try?

The end goal is interpersonal resilience, says Gallo. The chances are there are many other colleagues with whom we have positive interactions in our workplace, so don’t let this one person consume us in a way that challenges our wellbeing and resilience. To enable us to do this Gallo has developed  seven guiding  principles:

Guiding principles

  1. Focus on what we can control
    It is tempting to think that if we could just convince this person to be a different person or stop taking credit for our work, all will be well. But we don’t have control of that. We can raise awareness of the impact that person is having on us, but people only change when and if they want to. So focus on what we can control: our thoughts, our feelings, our reactions. Model the behaviour we want to see. Try to change the dynamic, not the person
  2. Our perspective is just one perspective
    We believe we are seeing the world clearly and that if someone sees it differently they are wrong, not educated and so on. However, we have just one perspective. Remembering this will mean we can start to see the other perspective
  3. Rely on empathy to see the situation differently
    Try to view the situation as an outsider. This can break you out of a focus on the story we have told ourselves and shift the dynamic
  4. Be aware of our biases
    Bias plays a role in how we interpret difficult behaviour. We tend not to give people like us the benefit of doubt. For example, research finds gender plays a large role in how we interpret someone’s ability to be assertive, with women being penalised for being more direct. So look at how our biases are impacting how we see the situation and our interpretation of the situation
  5. Experiment to find what works for us
    There isn’t a five-step process for dealing with a tormentor but we can tweak and learn from things we try. Look for “pattern-breaking action”. The chances are we and the other person have got into a pattern of behaviour, so look for something that shifts the way we and they see the situation
  6. Avoid making it us versus them
    The more we see ourselves as on opposite sides of the table then the more polarised it will be. Rather than this, see the situation as us and them versus the problem we are trying to solve
  7. Be – and stay – curious
    Curiosity puts us in a more open stance. Our certainty that our colleague is toxic is the enemy of change. We can’t have a growth mindset without being curious about the other person, the dynamic and ourselves. It is hard to stay in a curious mindset when in mental hijack but we should constantly encourage ourselves to ask more questions – how would others see this situation, what if I am wrong in how I see this and what don’t I know about the circumstances this person is under?

Work relationships are hard and if the toxicity amounts to bullying or harassment then the situation is clearly one that needs to be reported. But in dealing with difficult people overall, these tactics can help us to prevail on our terms.

Getting Along – How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) is available now from Harvard Business Publishing. Find your nearest stockist here

Published 23 November 2022
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