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Toxic co-workers do exist, and most workplaces have them. How difficult a co-worker is for you to deal with depends on your self-confidence and your professional bravery at work.

Dealing with toxic co-workers is easier when he or she is just generally annoying or when the behaviour affects multiple persons. However, dealing with them becomes complicated when they are attacking you by stealthily criticising you or undermining your professional involvement. In a nutshell, learning to deal with toxic co-workers is a must for your career success.


One Thing In Common

Toxic co-workers come in every imaginable variety. I’m sure the following will ring a bell: some talk constantly and never listen; some must always have the last word; some fail to keep commitments; some criticise anything that they did not create.

At the same time, things get even more difficult when some compete with you for power, privilege, and the spotlight. Your boss plays favourites and the favoured party lords it over you. People start to form circles and leave you out. Toxic people and situations, such as these, exist in every workplace.

They all have one thing in common – you must address them. Regardless of the type of difficult situation, dealing with toxic co-workers or situations is a must.


Why It’s A Must

If you are constantly complaining about toxic co-workers or situation, you can quickly be seen as a whiner. The management will wonder why you are unable to solve your own problems, even if the management is part of the problem. Your situation won’t get better by leaving problems unaddressed, it usually gets worse.

Firstly, people go into a moment of surprise when they are treated unprofessionally. So, if you take some time to understand exactly what is happening to you, you will conclude that you are not alone to face adversity in the workplace. Once you are fully aware of the situation, deciding to live with it will not be an option anymore. This will prevent you miserably going to work each day.

Don’t postpone your actions in preventing this, or you’ll become so angry and feel so much pain that your efforts to address the situation become irrational. It’s better to address the toxic co-worker early while you still have some neutrality and emotional control. Do make sure that you aren’t fooling yourself to avoid conflict.


How To Deal With Toxic Co-Workers

If you have been working for some time now, you might have experienced workplaces in which all sorts of dysfunctional approaches have been tried to deal with a toxic co-worker.

Putting an anonymous note on the person’s desk is not a feasible option. Confronting the person publicly can often lead to more disaster. Putting dead cockroaches in the person’s desk drawer can leave you fired. So, let’s look at more productive ways to address your difficult co-worker. Here is a five-step plan in which you can learn to deal with a toxic co-worker.


Step 1: Self-Examination

Are you certain that the other person is the real problem and that you’re not exaggerating? Have you always had trouble with the same type of person? Do you recognise that you have a short fuse with the same type of person?

It’s good to always start with self-examination to determine that the focus of your attention really is a toxic co-worker’s bad intentional actions.


Step 2: Situation Exploration

Follow up with exploring what you are experiencing with a trusted friend or co-worker. Think of ways to address the situation. When you are the victim of an attack, or your boss appears to support the inappropriate actions of a toxic co-worker, it is often difficult to objectively assess your options.

Pay attention to the silent agreement you create when you ask another’s assistance. You are committing to act unless you agree actions will only worsen the situation even more.


Step 3: Have A Private Conversation

Now it’s time to approach the person with whom you are having the problem for a private conversation. Talk to the co-worker about what you are experiencing in a personal “I” communication. This is an approach that focuses on your experience of the situation rather than attacking or accusing the other person.

The key is to be pleasant and agreeable as you talk with the other person. They may not be aware of the impact of their words or actions on you. They may be learning about their impact on you for the first time. The goal of the conversation is to reach an agreement on positive and supportive actions as both of you go forward. Be specific by focussing on the one or two actions that upset or hinder you the most.


Step 4: Follow-Up

After reaching a consensus, don’t forget to follow-up after the first conversation. Pay attention to whether the behaviour has changed, gotten better, or worse?

Let’s say that the situation has not changed. What you want to do next is to determine whether a second conversation is needed and whether it will have any impact. Decide if you want to continue to confront the difficult person by yourself. Depending on your situation, if something drastic is needed, move to step five.


Step 5: Time To Involve Others

If you have given your best and tried the above-recommended approaches with little or no success, prepare to talk with your boss, because you are going to intensify the situation. Address the issue not as an interpersonal problem, but as an issue affecting your productivity and progress on projects.

Having such a plan to address the issues is important, and it’s wise to involve the toxic co-worker’s supervisor as well. Know that a good boss is likely to bring the toxic co-worker and his supervisor into a three or four-way conversation at this point.

Whatever you do, don’t gather other employees who might have an issue with the toxic co-worker. Remember that you want to solve your problem, not make it look as if you are ganging up on another employee. Know what works with your boss.


Last Option

If all else fails, and I hate to say this, you can quit your job.

“What, flee, you ask? But, I’m not the employee causing the problem. I‘m not the toxic co-worker. All I tried to do was my job.”

Yes, you’re right. But what price are you willing to pay to stay? Your mental health, happiness and success? You need to decide whether the good in your current situation outweighs the bad or vice versa. If the bad wins, redirect your energy to leaving your current employment. Don’t be too stubborn – you’ll be glad you did.


  • How often do you come across toxic co-workers?
  • How is or was your experience with them?
  • How did you handle them?


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