Dealing with a toxic coworker is a uniquely difficult situation: You probably don’t have the ability to cut off a relationship with that person, as you would a friend or romantic partner. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to accept the status quo indefinitely. In fact, it’s crucial to find a healthy way to navigate a difficult working relationship. Left ignored, it can become perilous for you, your team and your company’s bottom line.
In a seminal book by psychologists Alan A. Cavaoila, Ph.D., and Neil J. Lavender, Ph.D., called Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job: Working with Narcissists, Borderlines, Sociopaths, Schizoids and Others, the authors highlight a staggering stat that’ll make you feel less alone as you traverse this tricky terrain: Of the 1,100 employees the duo surveyed, 80 percent of them reported experiencing moderate to severe stress as the result of dealing with a toxic coworker, whether they were a boss or subordinate. And a Harvard School of Business survey of 60,000 employees showed that difficult employees also stymie productivity: 80 percent of employees lost work time because they were consumed by a coworker’s rudeness; 78 percent reported a decline in commitment to the company; and 66 percent said their own performance suffered in reaction to a troublemaking employee.
To avoid becoming one of those startling statistics, these steps will help you manage your challenging coworker in a healthier, saner way.
Practice Compassionate Directness
One of Thrive Global’s core values is compassionate directness, which requires approaching people — and difficult conversations — with compassion and empathy, rather than letting a negative situation fester. Mandy O’Neill, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at the George Mason University School of Business, puts it this way: “It involves recognition of others’ perspectives, and some of that includes embracing the negative emotions people are experiencing in the workplace.” Leading with compassion and empathy is more effective, she says, because it creates a humanizing exchange between colleagues that paves the way for bringing out our best work.
We tend to think we’re helping people by protecting them from critical assessments of their work, manner or conduct. But we’re actually inhibiting their growth. In fact, studies show that 82 percent of employees appreciate feedback, whether it’s negative or positive, and 65 percent reported wanting more feedback than they were currently getting. Therapist Bina Bird, M.A., L.M.F.T, told New York Magazine’s “The Cut” that she recommends having the conversation face-to-face and in a non-confrontational, casual, collegiate manner, which will require you to turn down the flame on your emotion. Bird also recommends refraining from using accusatory language, which means opting for “I” instead of “you” phrases. For example, instead of saying “You’re saddling me with your work and I’m sick of it,” try: “I have so many projects on my plate this week, so unfortunately I won’t be able to chip in with your presentation, but I’m really looking forward to hearing how it goes.” Or maybe someone keeps vital information to themselves, undermining your success. You can say: “Going forward, please be sure to alert me to information that bears on my output. It’s in the interest of the whole team, including yours.”
Compassionate directness also encourages a two way conversation. A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed most of us aren’t as self-aware at work as we think we are — we both over and underestimate our assertiveness, for example. Giving your difficult co-worker the opportunity to offer their own feedback will make them feel less attacked and create a more collegial and equal exchange.
Change the Conversation
It’s important to remember that you can’t modify someone else’s behavior, only your own. If you have a co-worker with a mildly annoying habit, like someone who attempts to pull you into gossiping or venting sessions that chip away at your morale, don’t engage, says Marlene Chism, executive consultant and author of Stop Workplace Drama and No-Drama Leadership. She suggests steering the conversation away from negative gossip. For example, if a coworker expresses disdain for a mutual colleague’s work ethic, you might say: “I hear you, but I don’t see it that way.” Another tactic is to encourage the gossip to address their grievances head-on with the person they’re bad-mouthing. You could say, “‘I’m curious if you’ve ever spoken to her about this? Sounds like it could clear things up.’”
Alert Your Manager or HR
Despite all your best efforts, if the offender fails to modify their behavior, it may be time to tell your manager. The Society for Human Resource Management, in collaboration with the Harvard Business Review, recommends proactively addressing the situation with your boss. Ask him or her to “hold a meeting to set up team norms and begin to address some of the challenging behaviors and conflicts on the team,” writes Abby Curnow-Chavez, co-author of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor, and Authenticity Create Great Organizations. But Curnow-Chavez warns that the meeting should not be a public forum to lash out at the toxic employee. Instead, she writes, “it should be a real and authentic interaction, in which team members can gain insight into one another’s perspectives, set clear standards of expected behavior, and increase peer-to-peer accountability.”
If your manager isn’t able to help, and/or you are in a situation that has escalated, and your colleague has become abusive or is seriously affecting your ability to do your job, it may be time to speak to your workplace’s Human Resources department.
This story has been edited to reflect new factual information.