Community//

How to (professionally and effectively) deal with toxic people at work

You teach people how to treat you

Photo courtesy of Pexels

The effects of toxic people are some of the biggest distractions we can face in the workplace (as if there aren’t already enough!). Engaging with toxic people is a waste of time. It drains your energy, puts you in a negative mood, distracts from your work, occupies space in your already busy brain and can ruin your mood. Unfortunately we all face toxic people at some point in our careers, and sometimes even throughout our entire careers.

There are many types of toxic people in the workplace… manipulators, bullies, gossips, negative people, sabotagers and those whose presence just sucks the life out of a room.

Although dealing with toxic people can be uncomfortable and difficult, it’s more difficult at work than in our personal lives. In our personal lives, we can choose our friends and who we have contact with, but it’s more difficult to do so in the office – we are forced to see them for at least 40 hours a week and to work with them on a daily or project basis. Even if you don’t have to work directly with a toxic person, just their presence alone can physically and emotionally impact you – both in the office and even after hours.

Studies have found the following effects of even just one toxic person in the workplace:

  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Increased stress
  • Lowered productivity
  • Higher turnover rates
  • Sleep problems
  • Poor mental health
  • Rude behaviour is contagious
  • …And (unfortunately) more!

As you can see, the effects of toxic coworkers are serious, but the good news is that you can do a lot to limit them! Dealing with toxic people takes time and practice, and here are some tips on how you can do so both professionally and effectively!

Limit engagement (tactfully)

Toxic people can spread negativity, gossip and create problems – leaving you feeling drained, down and overall crappy! The more you engage with a toxic person, the more they will engage with you.

Some simple tips to tactfully limit engagement are:

  • Use verbal cues: Respond in short sentences and un-enthusiastically, or to be even more direct, stay silent – don’t let the silence make you uncomfortable – instead, use it to protect yourself!
  • Cut off the conversation with a pre-planned excuse: “I have to get to a meeting” or “I have a deadline” or “Can we chat later?” Don’t apologize for cutting the conversation off and by the time later comes, they will likely have moved on to someone or something else.
  • Re-frame what they’re saying in a positive way: “Jennifer’s good intentions can sometimes be misunderstood” or “It’s easy to mistake Mike’s passion for aggression”. Doing so will show the toxic person that you don’t think the same way that they do.
  • Be direct: If all else fails, and the toxic person persists, directly tell the person that you’re not interested in having this discussion. For example, if you are new to an organization and a toxic coworker is bashing it, politely tell them “I understand your frustration. I really want to be happy here, and having discussions like this will make that difficult.”

All of these methods can be awkward! And they also take a lot of confidence, but once you’re confident in yourself, in your role and have established yourself in the organization, it will become easier for you to tactfully limit engagement.

Reward good behaviour

Whether or not you are in a position of power, you can use your confidence to reward good behaviour, thereby showing toxic people that you won’t tolerate or engage with their poor intentions. Some simple ways to reward good behaviour:

  • Be intentional about who you spend time with: Spend more time with the good people (those who are like you!), and less time with toxic people. This will send a strong message to those around you.
  • Use praise when someone’s being positive or shows positive behaviour. You can do this whether or not you are the boss through both physical and verbal cues: smiling, agreeing, engaging with and working more with positive people.
  • Use your body language: Physically turn your body away from a toxic person. Take a step back when they approach. Move to the side when they walk by. This will consciously and subconsciously tell the person you’re not interested in engaging.

Protect your work and your reputation

The most difficult of the toxic types is the sabotager, especially if they have somehow become powerful in the organization. You may worry about distancing yourself from someone who’s both toxic and powerful for fear that they may sabotage your work and your reputation – and you should be – because this is a dangerous type of person to have in the office. Here are some tips on how to deal with them:

  • Limit engagement as mentioned earlier: through verbal cues, cutting off the conversation, re-framing or being direct – all in a tactful way. You are the average of who you spend your time with!
  • Don’t respond to triggers: Responding to triggers will only make a toxic person more toxic. For example, if a toxic person embarrasses you on an email string – don’t reply. Instead and if appropriate, address the issue with others in person, and one-on-one. Otherwise, just ignore.
  • Build strong and positive relationships with others: Aligning yourself with other non-toxic people in the organization will help you position yourself in a positive way. There is power in numbers, and having the support of others who are like you is key.
  • Let your work speak for itself: Great work and a great attitude can’t be ruined by a sabotager. All you can do here is let your work speak for itself, and show your best face to the rest of the organization. Doing so will decrease the chances that a sabotager can ruin your reputation.

Closing the loop

Yes these methods can all be awkward, but they are also highly effective in keeping the effects of toxic people at bay. It can be challenging to show disagreement, distance yourself or to stay quiet when someone is over-engaging. However, doing so will limit the impact a toxic person has on you in terms of stress, productivity, and overall happiness both at and outside of work.

You teach people how to treat you, and setting clear boundaries will keep you out of the toxic person’s way. Each time you practice setting boundaries, you become stronger in your role, develop in your career, increase your confidence and the amount of time you spend on what’s really important – doing great work with great people.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.