How to deal with toxic colleagues

·6 min read
Photo credit: Josh Shinner
Photo credit: Josh Shinner

When a friend confided in me, this year, that she was leaving her lucrative ‘dream’ job, it was for a depressingly familiar reason: she had a toxic colleague, her line manager, who bullied, patronised, and generally destabilised her over the course of two years. Sadly, she was not the first person I knew who had quit a job to escape an unpleasant co-worker.

We now discuss and opine on workplace anxiety as though it were innate to the modern workplace, but rarely do we address the fact that it can frequently derive from very specific stress triggers: our colleagues.

"There is a real reluctance to admit that you have employees causing conflict, but this is really the crux of the problem," says Tessa West, associate professor of psychology at New York University and author of new book Jerks at Work: Toxic Co-workers and What to Do About Them. "You spend more time with these people than you do your own family, so it makes sense they can cause a build-up of anxiety."

West’s book identifies seven distinct types of toxic colleague, or ‘jerk,’ from those who pilfer your ideas (‘Credit Stealers’) to the Machiavellian meanness of the ‘Kiss Up, Kick Downers,’ who exhibit poor behaviour towards juniors, reserving hard work and charm only for their superiors. It may paint a bleak picture of office warfare, where ambition breeds a Darwinian competitiveness, but West believes this culture can be challenged if we actually pay attention to how we respond to, and work with, others. Surprisingly, this is something we are almost never taught. IT training? Yes. People training? Not so much.

"Not enough companies run a course on how to have productive conversations, how to negotiate, give feedback or resolve disagreement at work," says West. To start with, she says, we need to look at the way we communicate. Email is an enabler of poor interaction. It can be tone deaf and blunt, and the misunderstandings it engenders have only been exacerbated since we have been siloed from one another during the pandemic. "What you end up with is a huge gap between what people read into an email and what they're actually trying to say," she says. "If you feel a colleague is behaving badly based on their email, try and supplement it with some face-to-face conversation, even if this is on Zoom."

West outlines similar coping mechanisms for each type of toxic working style. A key tactic is to understand why your colleague is a ‘jerk’ so you can learn how to manage your interactions. ‘Neglectful Bosses’ for example, often only engage with you in intense spurts of panic, as they are characteristically spread too thin. Their sudden deluge of demands will cause you great stress, but in pre-empting how a boss like this behaves, you can limit the damage. "It may seem counterintuitive, but if you ask less of them and offer to take on more, this connects them to you and they will be less likely to contact you in a panic," she says. "You almost need to manage upwards with them." To root out ‘Free Riders’, list in meetings what each person has specifically contributed to a project, which will expose their lack of input. In order to checkmate the ‘Gaslighter’, she suggests making strategic alliances to offset the damage of their lies.

The most important tactic, however, is to cultivate friendships at work. They are, West says, the ‘antidote’ to those who will make you miserable. "Not everyone has to be someone that you trust with your deepest, darkest secrets, you can make more utility-based relationships," she explains. "These people can offer you backup with ‘Bulldozers’ who talk over you in meetings or help support you against ‘Credit Stealers’ by making sure your ideas are properly recognised. ‘To tackle toxic colleagues, it’s important you do not feel alone."

You can, of course, directly address a workplace aggravator. When approaching a ‘Micromanager’ she says: ‘Don’t go in with the problem, talk around it. One way to do that is to think about what your manager's goals are, and what yours are. Where is there a gap and how do you close it?’ You may, of course, reach a stage where you feel the need to report a colleague for their poor actions. When doing this, West stresses the importance of gathering "actual evidence of their behaviour, not your impressions of their behaviour" as well as other people who may have suffered at the hands of the same co-worker. "There is power in numbers."

Photo credit: Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar

Sadly, few people are brave enough to confront their toxic colleague. Many are too scared of the unequal power dynamics to report a senior ‘jerk’ or believe the actions of their work aggressor are – though anxiety-inducing – too subtle to be worth it. This causes what West refers to as a "bleeding of talent," when people like my friend leave companies that ignore the bad behaviour of colleagues who have made their lives hell. It is why West’s book is especially useful for senior managers. Swotting up on the difficult personality types you may have on your payroll will make them easier to spot and deal with. "The biggest mistake bosses make is they vastly underestimate how comfortable people are talking to them about these problems," says West. "So, they need to be vigilant about what is actually going on in their team."

Of course, there is always the possibility you may read the book and realise that you are the ‘jerk at work’… "We’ve all been that person at one point," West says consolingly. "Hopefully now you know, you can stop!"

What type of toxic colleague do you have?

Kiss Up/Kick Downer

Polite to those above them, a nightmare to anyone below, and competitive to an Olympic level.

Bulldozer

Frequently terrifying ‘go-getters’ who will take over meetings, teams and even decisions.

Credit Stealer

A wolf in sheep’s clothing who will surreptitiously take ownership of your ideas.

Free Rider

Well-liked and friendly, they are experts in getting rewarded for doing nothing.

Micromanager

Task masters with limited patience and no respect for your time or boundaries.

Neglectful Boss

Long periods of absence are followed by sudden bursts of panicked micromanaging that will keep you on edge.

Gaslighter

A grand-scale deceiver who aims either to get ahead or to cover up bad /unethical work.

'Jerks at Work: Toxic Co-workers and What to Do About Them' is published on 20 January. Pre-order now.

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