I heard the description ‘toxic person’ a while before I found someone who fitted what I thought it meant. That wasn’t because I worked in some fantastic Utopia where everyone was happy and upbeat all the time, it was because I simply didn’t recognise what a toxic person was. In fact, one of the issues with dealing with a toxic co-worker is the way in which they tend to become one over time. It is a sort of slow build that evades your radar.
Another issue is that a toxic worker is not necessarily a difficult one, or someone who you would not consider an otherwise pleasant and friendly person. They have often simply become that way over a series of slow slides into an attitude that is not good for them or anyone around them.
There is a lot to read about dealing with toxic people in the workplace, and one piece of advice that seems common to all of them is to try and avoid them which is easier said than done because we usually don’t have the choice of whom we work with. This article is not only about how you could deal with a toxic personality, it also suggests a few methods of helping them to perhaps change a little of their own attitude based on yours.
• Recognise you have an attitude to work. This is harder than you think because we spend a lot of time in the workplace so it becomes second nature to us. Recognising you have control over your attitude and choosing how you approach your day will give you control over it. Nobody enjoys being miserable so choose not to be. Of course, you cannot control some things like returning to a heavy workload after a pleasant weekend, but you can choose how you react. The person who doesn’t do this soon ends up with Monday morning syndrome. Isn’t it better to deal with the stress of Monday still in the good mood of Sunday? This will soon transfer to those around you.
• Do not do gossip and get involved in rumours. Workplaces are usually awash with gossip and tittle-tattle. While it isn’t always easy to change the subject if someone is determined to chatter, you can do some subtle things to help both you and the gossip-monger avoid indulging in this toxic habit in the first place. There is an old saying that truth is the enemy of gossip and it is very true, so try to gently introduce the idea of the rumours not being true into the conversation. Why not simply mention that the subject of the gossip is a friend and you think it doesn’t sound like them or perhaps ask for details that you know will not be there? If it’s appropriate, just firmly say that you are not keen on gossip so could you please talk about something else. It takes two people to gossip so if you don’t take part it will soon stop.
• Focus on the positive. Take whatever the toxic person is moaning about and turn it on its head. A whinge about working conditions can be countered with a comment about a good part of the job. If someone feels they are not valued at work, then ask if they have had a review recently and perhaps they should ask for one. It is difficult to maintain the negative approach when it is highlighted as positive.
• Laugh and joke. Simply not taking the person too seriously will work wonders. Change the subject to something light hearted at every opportunity because it will soon become apparent that you are not interested. The toxic person will either need to join in with your mood or move on to someone who will join theirs.
• Suggest a solution. Most toxic people have no answers because they just want to enjoy the ride of a good old moan. We all need to have a bit of a grumble now and again, but when it becomes a way of life, that's when we become toxic ourselves. Instead of joining in and agreeing with the moan, suggest looking for a solution. Use phrases like ‘what could we do about that?’ or ‘maybe there is another way of doing it then’ to lead to a solutions-based discussion.
Sometimes there is simply no way of dealing with a toxic personality because all they want to do is destroy the mood of everyone, and that can spread, making the whole workplace difficult. However, most people are not like this, and often the reason they are behaving in a toxic way is because it has become a habit for them. Breaking a habit is hard but with a little help from their work mates it is possible, and everyone will be happier and more productive.