Toxic Co-Workers and How to Handle Them

Have you ever worked with an individual who reminded you of Pigpen from the Charlie Brown series, except instead of having a cloud of dirt following them around, drama followed? As a leader it’s easy to think that it must be your lack of management skills, communication skills, or leadership skills that are the problem. Over time a pattern emerges, you realize you are struggling with a unique type of employee—the toxic co-worker.

These individuals can be very difficult to spot, and often they have some great exterior traits that are socially engaging, being charismatic and entertaining.  However, the toxic cloud becomes apparent over time.  As a leader, I’ve managed hundreds of individuals, each expressing their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. None of us are perfect, but the key difference is that toxicity follows an individual from company to company, role to role, and team to team. At first, you might believe their behavior is about you, your leadership or your own weaknesses. Eventually, it becomes crystal clear there is a pattern with this individual. They would have problems regardless of who they work with.  Based on my experience, I’ve categorized three common types of toxic employees that seem to surface repeatedly.

The Victim

The victim is an individual who finds a way to blame others for their mistakes. They have mastered this mentality and rarely own or openly admit their own failings. They require others to point out the obvious because they lack the personal awareness and insight to see how their own actions influenced or caused an outcome. They blame a perpetrator for their perceived injustices, and they seek out the support from a “rescuer” to affirmation they have been unjustly wounded.

The Drama Queen

The drama queen generally leaves a wake of emotional drama behind them. Others report hurt feelings, frustration, anger and pain in having to interact with this person. Drama queens (male or female) often have mood swings and are very unpredictable in performance and personality. Their moods influence others around them and leave people confused as to what causes that person to treat them differently from one day to the next. Life always seems to be consumed by the drama queen and other’s needs are less important as their own.

The Aggressive Competitor

The aggressive competitor is someone who has a hard time working collaboratively with others. They tend to prefer to work alone and be the master of their own domain. They show open competition that can translate to aggression and hostility. They master the art of criticism, condemnation, and judgment (CCJ). CCJ energy, either blatant or subtle, permeates their social interactions in one form or another. You can hear CCJ in their choice of words, and you can feel CCJ in the emotions they express. CCJ is about the need to minimize others to maximize themselves.

Steps to Managing Toxic People

There are four key steps I learned over the years to help leaders navigate these personnel issues in the workplace.

Step One: Open confrontation. Toxic people lack either personal insight about how they impact others, or they are aware and don’t care. With either situation, openly bringing their unhealthy behaviors and the consequences of their behaviors on others to light is critical. Leaders cannot shy away from having this critical conversation.

Step Two: Documentation. Toxic people won’t remember past conversations, past insights, or past corrections. They will always have a new excuse, projection, or rationalization for their behavior. Your ability to show prior conversations in writing will be critical to moving them up or out.

Step Three: Clear expectations. Toxic individuals usually can pull themselves together for short periods of time, but it’s very hard for them to maintain permanent personality changes. Clearly defining the behaviors and actions required of them will hold them accountable to maintaining standards past the short term.

Step four: Clear consequences. Toxic individuals need to understand the ramifications of their toxic actions. They need to have no ambiguity on the consequences if they choose to continue these detrimental behaviors. Leaders must enforce any stated consequences because if leaders don’t, the toxic individuals gain the upper hand and their behaviors will not improve.

These four steps seem basic, but over and over again I’ve seen exceptional leaders get blindsided, manipulated, and roped into the world of toxic individuals. This creates a struggle to lead, and it’s very common for leaders to even blame themselves for a “lack of leadership.” Remember, toxic people are typically socially gregarious and even fun to be around, so it’s very hard to decipher the full impact of their behavior on their colleagues. Seeing the truth takes time and perspective.

Don’t sit back and hope a toxic person will get better on his or her own. These individuals need your active management, coaching, mentoring, and accountability. With your leadership vigilance, they can choose to become a more productive and positive employee and team member.  At the end of the day, it is your responsibility as a leader to provide the tools that give every employee the opportunity to be successful.  If the employee refuses to change, you will have the documentation for dismissal.

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