Is someone in your workplace wreaking havoc and no matter what anyone says or does, their behavior is just getting more intense and discordant? Sometimes we may find ourselves feeling the contagion of their negativity and become thoroughly bewildered by behaviors that make no sense.
In working with toxic colleagues in a variety of settings, over time, common behavior patterns become evident for these dysfunctional individuals. They generally have difficulty living within the rules of reality, they deflect responsibility, and disconnect actions from the results that come from their choices. If you work with people, you will interact with toxic individuals. How do you handle the unpredictable and inappropriate actions of co-workers? Here are a few ideas.
- accept the fact that you can’t change them
- set clear boundaries
- get affirmation from functional peers
- keep in mind that behaviors will catch up with toxic people
- expect them to respond normally
- accept false guilt
- take it personally
- be surprised if they deny their actions
You’re trying to get through to someone and you think, “It makes so much sense! Why don’t you get it!” Working with a toxic colleague can make you feel like screaming at their stubbornness or what appears to be downright stupidity. Yet the truth is, no matter what you say or do, it’s unlikely the person will listen or change. You’ve got the experience and wisdom, and your life is in a lot better shape, but this person just blows you off. After doing what’s kind and forthright, don’t lose sleep over it.
Be definite about what you will and will not do. You may hear, “You need to fix this because you helped make it go wrong” or that if you were a good person “you would help me out just this once,” even though you see a pattern of bad choices. Most of us try to change the other person or give in to their demands, yet giving in reinforces their dysfunctional patterns. Carefully think through your boundaries and then clearly communicate them.
While dealing with a toxic colleague, you may feel “fogged” and wonder how well you’re handling the situation. Perhaps you thought you had things figured out, but now you’re not so sure. Are you thinking clearly and responding appropriately? Check in with thoughtful colleagues who can help you think things through.
The more dysfunctional a person is, usually the harder it is for them to advance, especially in healthy organizations where employees and leaders are held accountable. Bad behaviors will catch up with toxic people, so keep in mind that you only can do so much.
No matter what you do, you may find yourself blamed or second-guessed or told you did the worst possible thing when you actually did something good. They may get angry if you talk to them and offended if you don’t. To survive such attitudes or the wide variety of other dysfunctions, the sane approach is to give up expectations of getting healthy responses.
You may be blamed for someone else’s problems or made to feel blame for not doing enough—even though all you could do was damage control. Many dysfunctional people are good at loading guilt on others; ease it off your shoulders.
In toxic situations, gaining emotional distance isn’t always easy. Yet as a soldier isn’t surprised when someone shoots at him, a manager shouldn’t be surprised when upsetting things happen. Personal attacks and noxious behavior can jar our equilibrium, but try to gain perspective by considering the source.
Toxic colleagues have difficulty living within the rules of reality, most notably, with the relationship between choice, responsibility and consequences. They tend to deny they’ve made a poor choice, preferring to make excuses or blame others. A favorite phrase is “It’s not my fault.”
Does all this sound hopeless? Can’t people change? Yes, they can. But they have to decide they want to change. And often, individuals with severely unhealthy patterns have to hit the wall of reality — that their beliefs about life and their way of living doesn’t work because they don’t match the way the world works. In addition, many struggle with mental health issues that distort their perception of reality and block efforts to bring about change.