Effective Communication

How to Handle a Toxic Colleague

toxic colleague

A former professor of mine posed once posed a question in a class about leadership: “Can you work with someone you don’t like?”

Mature professionals that we were, we assured him we could.

He then asked: “Can you do your best work with people you don’t like?” Uh. No.

It’s true—the better the atmosphere, the more enjoyment, creativity, collaboration and, ultimately, better results emerge. But you won’t like everyone you work with, so how do you create relationships that allow you and your toxic colleague or team to be your best professional selves? Here are some tips for happier, more fruitful workdays.

Have a growth mindset. A colleague we perceive as incompetent can infuriate us to no end. The growth mindset, a concept developed by Stephen Brookfield, author of Leading as a Way of Learning: Lessons From the Struggle for Social Justice, is most often used when describing leaders who believe that rather than being essentially good or bad at something, their team members have the potential to become better in some area through study and practice. But the growth mindset also applies to creating a supportive environment among equals. Believing that a colleague is dense or incapable brings up feelings of disgust and causes us to write that person off.

Instead, try looking at the shortcomings of a colleague who frustrates you as points for improvement, and offer encouragement and practical guidance. If this doesn’t come easily, choose a leader who has benefited you and emulate that person. You will be a better colleague and leader for it and your coworker will probably benefit, too.

Learn how to talk about it.  Susan Scot, author of  Fierce Conversations—Achieving Success At Work and in Life One Conversation At a Time, advocates having what she describes as transformative dialogues in which you present the problem with authenticity and respect. We often hesitate to give feedback to colleagues for fear of hurting their feelings or not knowing how to put it. But keeping our thoughts to ourselves or being overly subtle exacerbates our annoyance while not helping the colleague. Anyone would rather have a friendly reality check than a bad performance review or, worse, face negative consequences without knowing why. Scot says it’s not like the Jack Nicholson quote “you can’t handle the truth.” Your colleagues can.

Take a walk.  If your conflict is with a peer, or with a manager you trust, you might want to get out of the office and talk a walk together. This is also a good approach to a more personal conflict. Those are less common then we think, but they do come up, and ignoring it or pretending all is perfect won’t make the problem disappear. In fact, avoidance usually causes the issue to burrow deeper into the relationship. Don’t let this happen! I first tried this when I had to bring up something to a senior colleague that I had been holding back for over two years because I couldn’t find a way to spit it out. Believe me, talking when you’re side by side and in motion produces much less suspense and stage fright than sitting face to face. You can’t tense up as much, and not looking into the other person’s eyes is a reminder that this talk is about what you need to voice, not about the other’s reaction. Movement engenders relaxation, and relaxation engenders a deeper level of honesty.

Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable handling the conflict on your own, then don’t hesitate to ask a neutral third-party to mediate. [tweet bird=yes]You spend a great deal of time at your job, so make that time as harmonious as possible.[/tweet]

About the Author

Lilly-Marie Lamar is a career advisor for Ivy Exec. She provided career advice to college students and professionals in the U.S. and abroad, and was a Fulbright scholar. Lilly-Marie has a degree in education from Columbia University.