Tactics to deal 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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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