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How to Deal with Toxic People at Work

Updated on September 29, 2016
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I'm a business communications coach who teaches writing, speaking, and leadership skills to adults in the midst of a career change.

Stressed out because you work for a control freak? Does a co-worker's behavior make it hard to do your job? Learn more about what to do when your boss and co-workers have toxic personalities.

Help! My boss is a control freak and I don't know what to do! I can't afford to quit my job right now but I don't know how much more stress I can handle!

Having to deal with toxic people at work can take a toll on your physical and emotional health.
Having to deal with toxic people at work can take a toll on your physical and emotional health.

Having to deal with someone with a toxic personality can have very real consequences for your emotional and physical well-being. Spending too much time with toxic people can lead to feelings of self-doubt and hopelessness. Toxic people don’t just affect the your mood and outlook, they can also affect your health, robbing you of energy and inducing physical symptoms such as nausea, tension headaches, migraines, anxiety, and compromised immunity.

In your private life, toxic people should be avoided at all costs. People who are emotionally toxic can drag you down. They waste your precious time and energy. If you want to live a happy, healthy, stress-free life, then you really have little choice but to let go of the toxic people in your life. But what do you do if your boss is one of those toxic people? Certainly you can’t just say “Adios,” and show him the door. He signs your paycheck!

Find out about the most common toxic personality types that show up in the workplace. If you know the type of negative personality that you have to work with, you’ll have a better chance of keeping these difficult people from hindering your ability to do your job. You'll be less likely to take what they say and do personally because you’ll know that their bad behavior is all about them and not you.

Grumpy people are just one of many different toxic personalities in the workplace.
Grumpy people are just one of many different toxic personalities in the workplace.
If only control freaks at work were this cute!
If only control freaks at work were this cute! | Source

Here are some of the most common types of toxic personalities that can be found in almost any workplace. Do you recognize any of these disruptive office characters?

The Control Freak: Control freaks in the workplace are condescending and rude. They are dismissive of other people's ideas and creative solutions. They brag about being perfectionists and think that the only way to supervise people is to watch every move their employees make. They are difficult to work for because they are constantly peering over your shoulder, waiting for you to slip up. They believe that being an effective boss means they must know what is going on, every minute of every hour of every day. They have a hard time letting go of things and they aren’t good at delegating effectively because they don’t trust anyone to do the job correctly the first time.

Pessimists aren't the only ones who can be disruptive at work. People who are eternally optimistic, even in the face of real crisis, can be a distraction when real world problems and the focus needs to be on problem solving, not wishful thinking.
Pessimists aren't the only ones who can be disruptive at work. People who are eternally optimistic, even in the face of real crisis, can be a distraction when real world problems and the focus needs to be on problem solving, not wishful thinking.

The Pessimist: The pessimist worries constantly and won’t hesitate to tell you how unfair life is. She is suspicious of other people and she has a hard time letting go of mistakes from the past. The Pessimist is toxic because she blocks progressive thinking and creativity. She shoots every new idea down until her employees simply stop putting their best thinking forward. A pessimistic boss drains her staff of energy and creates an atmosphere of hopelessness. She is a hard person to work for because she is never satisfied with the work you do.

The Relentless Optimist: Most people would prefer to spend time with someone who has an optimistic outlook and tends to focus on the positive rather than the negative. But at some point, too much optimism being spouted by the boss can lead employees to start feeling resentful, especially if there are real barriers to getting their jobs done. Magical thinking and hoping that everything will work out rings hollow when it’s not backed up by the type of meaningful planning that leads to steady progress. If your boss is a relentless optimist it can feel as though he’s not going to listen to any of the concerns you have about very real workplace problems.

The Martyr: The Martyr in your office is the one who never stops telling you how hard he’s worked and all the sacrifices that he has made to get his work done. The martyr is disruptive because he is constantly trying to focus the attention on himself. He believes that life is nothing more than a competition to see who has it the worst. He believes that making people feel guilty is an effective motivational tool. By attempting to make you feel sorry for him and all the work that he has to do, he thinks you’ll click your heels together and snap to it.

The Meddling Boss: Do you have a boss who likes to cut into conversations, seems to pop up out of nowhere as if checking up on you, and often asks you to “report” on what other people in the office are doing? If so, then you have a boss who likes to be at the center of the flow of information. He thinks that keeping tabs on what everyone is saying and doing at every minute of the day is an effective way to keep people in line.

The truth is that a manager who inserts himself into everyone’s business isn’t being an effective manager. He’s creating a toxic work environment by sending a message that he doesn’t trust his employees. He may try to override good decisions that his employees are making in favor of implementing his own ideas. A meddling boss thinks he knows best; but if he is not careful, his actions could have unexpected negative consequences.

The Cheapskate: Having a co-worker who is careful about how she spends her money is not a problem for most people. After all, many of us are in the same boat when it comes to managing our finances. We need to make every penny count when times are tough. A co-worker who is a cheapskate, on the other hand, can make the people she works with feel resentful. The cheapskate is the one who shows up at the potluck lunch without a dish to share, time and time again. She’ll avoid pitching in her fair share for a group gift to a co-worker who's having a baby or getting married. A cheapskate is a difficult person to work with because she operates from a place of scarcity, rather than abundance.

If you have a boss who is a cheapskate, you’ll feel it when the tools and resources you need to do your job are consistently held back. A penny-pinching boss will often miss big picture opportunities. He’s focused on quick-fix budget cuts that make the books look good for the short-term. But over time, his failure to take a long-term approach to spending means that investments in infrastructure, staff resources, and durable office equipment will actually cost him, and you, more money down the road.

Which of these personality types do you think is the most difficult to deal with?

See results
Toxic people at work are often explosive and highly volatile. Like dangerous chemicals around your home, toxic personalities need to be handled with care.
Toxic people at work are often explosive and highly volatile. Like dangerous chemicals around your home, toxic personalities need to be handled with care.

One of the most aggravating things about working with a toxic personality is the impossible notion that this person can't see how badly he is behaving. How on earth could your boss not know that he's coming across as a bully, a narcissist, or a downright jerk?

A recent article in The Globe and Mail provided some interesting insight into this apparent willful ignorance of proper modern day office culture. In the article, Steve Jacobs, lead author of The Behavior Breakthrough says, “Many leaders also have shortcomings they don’t know about, and these can diminish their effectiveness – or even derail their careers. Large, global studies have found that executives rate themselves as considerably more effective leaders than do their co-workers. For many, this gap in perception stems from the relative absence of trusted individuals who understand the executive’s work and who can – and will – offer honest, objective feedback.”

How do you cope with a toxic co-worker or a difficult boss? First of all, don’t try to change your boss, because you can’t. The only thing you can really do is change the way you look at the situation. Your attitude is what will get you through, not your efforts to curb your boss’s bad behavior.

  • Be a role model. Another way to cope with a toxic personality at work is to shift your focus to being a competent leader in the office. If things at work are going sideways, maybe you're the one who can take the lead and steer everyone in the right direction.
  • Remember that a bit of understanding goes a long way. Without excusing your co-worker's disruptive behavior, see if you can put yourself in his or her shoes for a moment. Sometimes having empathy for someone else is the only way to keep their unhealthy behaviors from affecting you. Why? Because when you take the time to understand the circumstances that are making someone act out in disruptive ways, you are less likely to take what they say and do personally.
  • Consider your options before you quit your job. Think carefully about whether or not quitting your job and moving on is the best approach to dealing with a toxic co-worker, a bully boss, or an unhealthy workplace culture.Look at all of your options before you decide to throw in the towel and quit your job.

Seek outside help if necessary. If you are dealing with a boss or co-worker who is constantly harassing you, you are not alone. Learn more about how to recognize workplace harassment and what you can do to stop it.

© 2014 Sally Hayes

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  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Toxic people in the work place can be a problem but with helpful tips it sounds an easy way to cope.

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