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Getting Along With Toxic Co-workers: Stress, Bullying and Inappropriate Behaviour

Updated on October 3, 2014

Let me ask you the question: can you get along with toxic people (and get positive results)?

If you’ve ever worked with a toxic person then you must know full well the kind of frustration and rage that they can engender. (I still remember with, erm, fondness, the annoying co worker who harangued me re: the necessity to ‘open up both my ears’ while on the phone, i.e. to listen to the person I was actually talking to while being able to recount back every word she had gabbled at me without taking account of that fact. I also remember her fury – including putting up a ‘talk to the hand’ hand sign – when I tried to talk to her while she was on the phone. Sauce for the goose, eh?)

Yes, toxic co-workers can make you bat-**** crazy, and that’s for sure. But can you get past it, and on into a productive future, without mass homicide and ‘going postal’ entering into the picture? Can you learn to let their outpouring of craziness just wash over your head, and develop a thick enough (and sufficiently carcinogen-proof) skin so that it just washes off and passes you by? Maybe you can even develop a modicum of affection for a clearly nuts and troubled person who vents at all and sundry the whole day through. They’ve got their troubles too, right? (Okay, maybe I’m the nuts one at this point.)

What Does The Literature Tell Us?

Certainly a relatively recent review of the literature by Carsten K.W. De Dreu has put forward the question of whether workplace conflict can ever have positive results. Well, can it? Based on my own experience, I’d say maybe on a personal level it can. If we’re not talking about outright bullying at work and harassment (which is a nightmare I would never presume to describe as ‘positive’ as that would be an insult to the victims of this kind of rubbish), I’d say that dealing with a ‘challenging’ colleague can maybe get you to test your own boundaries, beef up your capacity for self-assertion, maybe grow a little as a person.

Trouble From Toxic People

Do you know any toxic people?

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But for the company? Ahahaha. Me, I don’t think so. If two domestic cats are busy spitting at each other, are they bringing their owner any mice? No, the mice, they’re playing. It’s a good day for mice.

(What conclusions did the De Dreu study come to, I hear you ask? Uh, pretty much that workplace conflict has zero positive results for the organisation. Nooo, I hear you say. Really? Really.)

In my experience, maybe you can sometimes work in spite of, and produce positive results alongside, an annoying co worker (as long as she’s not actually black-hearted and evil, and it's not actually a case of bullying at work.) But it’s hard to see how working with toxic people could ever be described as a positive experience, rather than just one more obstacle to peak performance to jump over.


De Dreu, C.K.W. 'Conflict In The Workplace: Sources,Functions and Dynamics Across Multiple Levels Of Dynamics'. The Psychology of Conflict and Conflict Management in Organizations. Editors: Carsten K.W. De Dreu, Michele J. Gelfand. Psychology Press. 27/08/2007.


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