Organizational Culture

How Successful People Handle 3 Types of Toxic Coworkers

Successful business woman meditating at desk while toxic coworker looks over her shoulder

Every workplace is filled interesting personalities —including frustrating ones.

If you feel like you’re surrounded by difficult people at the office — perhaps people who talk too much or a micromanaging boss — take heart, because you’re not alone. Studies have found that one in eight people leave a job due to problems with co-workers.

Since we spend more time at work than at home (and quitting tomorrow isn’t an option for most people) it’s worthwhile to figure out ways to get along.

Positive coping strategies may not only save your sanity, but they can also improve your well-being more than complaining ever will. In fact, learning to deal with difficult people can be a powerful way to develop your leadership skills.


Also read: Am I Interviewing for a Toxic Company?


Here are some strategies:

Type 1: The co-worker who hits you up on Slack to chat about office politics.

Gossip is compensatory strategy often used to cover low-self esteem or feelings of powerlessness. It’s likely your co-worker is communicating this way–albeit passively aggressively and manipulatively–to seek connection.

Nonetheless, hanging around gossiping co-workers is energy draining. Plus, getting embroiled in rumor-mongering can damage your professional reputation.

To disengage from this toxic cycle, use a simple formula: empathize and redirect.

First validate your co-worker, letting them know they’re being heard. By saying something like “Ugh, it is frustrating to feel confused”, you’re not agreeing with or justifying their behavior, you’re simply mirroring how they feel without getting involved or talking about other people. Your focus is on them, which is probably their favorite subject anyway.

You can then use redirection, including focusing on positives, “Sorry that’s still bothering you. For now let’s talk about how things are going with the new project” or impose a solution-based boundary like “You should talk directly with Jim rather than me to solve this.”

Type 2: The co-worker who is negative about…well, everything.

Co-workers who have a victim mentality act like being busy is a badge of honor. Workaholism isn’t healthy, so be careful not to reward or enable their behavior. Keep your own work-life balance in check so you don’t enable an office culture obsessed with productivity.

If you’re dealing with someone who constantly shoots down ideas in meetings, respond with thought-provoking questions like, “That’s an interesting point. What will help us make sure this project is a success?” This strategically interrupts their critical pattern and creates psychological safety for creative brainstorming.


Also read: How to Handle a Toxic Colleague


Type 3: The co-worker who gets too close for comfort.

When someone’s behavior is inappropriate for the workplace–like flirting or remarks about age, appearance or gender–you have to draw a line. The key to establishing and maintaining boundaries is to enforce them immediately and assertively.

That may mean pulling out a go-to phrase like “Sorry, I have to get back to work” as soon as you feel a twinge of discomfort, instead of letting the inappropriate action happen for longer than it should.

Speak up should matters get out of hand and take the right steps to escalate it to your boss or HR.

Whenever possible, try to first assume positive intent. Everyone at the office, including you, is an imperfect human being. Remembering that we all have strengths and weaknesses can be a good first step towards developing the type of empathy and emotional immunity needed to survive in a less than perfect workplace.

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~by Melody Wilding for Fairygodboss

About the Author

Fairygodboss is obsessed with improving the workplace for women with crowdsourced reviews, career advice, interview tips and job search strategies.