Two months after securing my dream job, I found myself standing outside my director’s office, ready to hand in my resignation.
It seemed out of character; this position at a prestigious London university had been my aim throughout my studies, and I had achieved it at the very outset of my career. So, why was I already prepared to throw it all away? The answer was clear: a toxic workplace relationship that had driven me to the brink of despair.
The relationship I was having difficulty managing was with my assistant, let’s call her Ashley. Despite being warned by colleagues that she had applied for the same position and been rejected due to her lack of qualifications, I was confident that I could build a strong working relationship with her by utilizing my team-building skills and gaining her trust. But as it turned out, things didn’t go quite as planned.
As the weeks went by, I found myself at a crossroads. Despite Ashley’s undeniable work ethic and her impressive handling of administrative tasks, I couldn’t ignore the growing resentment she held toward her role as an assistant. She would often take on tasks that were outside of her job description and never took a break. Overtime, I grew to feel she was undermining my responsibilities as a manager.
I began to notice that she was taking over my meetings, debriefing the director instead of me, and even stepping in to lecture before my classes. I tried to confront her, but her response was always that she was “just trying to help.” I felt as though I was being gaslighted and my dream job had turned toxic. And that’s why I found myself outside the director’s office ready to resign from a position I had once been so excited to take on.
Sadly, research shows that many of us struggle with unhealthy relationships at work. Amy Gallo, the author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People), quotes research that found that 94% of respondents had worked with a toxic person in the previous five years. Another study, by the Workplace Bullying Institute, found that 37% of American workers have been bullied at work.
Such toxicity can have a severely corrosive effect. Recent research by the Society for Human Resource Management found that one in five American workers have left a job in the last five years because of a toxic workplace culture, while nearly half of all staff have considered doing the same. The estimated economic cost of that toxicity-induced staff turnover is a staggering $223 billion.
Its human cost is difficult to measure, but it is clear that toxic behaviors can have a significant impact on employee engagement and well-being. Unfortunately, young professionals at the start of their careers are both particularly vulnerable to toxic workplace relationships and more likely to be severely affected by them. Studies show that this vulnerability increases when the young professional in question is a woman, a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQ community.
Young professionals may not be prepared for the reality of dealing with toxic coworking relationships and may lack the personal and professional resources required to navigate the situation. Instead of finding effective solutions, people at the outset of their careers may find themselves simply trying to avoid their colleagues while feeling depressed and strategizing their exit.
However, it is possible to not only survive but also thrive in the face of a toxic work relationship. By learning and implementing certain strategies, we can manage the situation and regain our confidence and passion for our work. These strategies may not magically transform a toxic relationship into a friendship, but they will equip us with the understanding, empathy, and resilience needed to address the situation effectively.
In this article, I draw on research evidence, my own experiences, and the real-life stories of my colleagues to show you how you can deal with toxic relationships in the workplace and find a way to work with just about anybody.
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY AND NIP IT IN THE BUD
Dealing with toxic colleagues can be a significant challenge for any professional. Unfortunately, it can be easy to fall into the trap of avoiding confrontation or engaging in gossip instead of addressing issues head on. However, as demonstrated by my experience with my assistant Ashley, not confronting the person directly can perpetuate the problem and prevent resolution. Taking responsibility and setting clear boundaries quickly is key to managing such situations and maintaining a healthy working environment.
Caroline, an Ivy League-educated coach and consultant, provides an excellent example of how to handle toxic colleagues. She landed her dream job at a prestigious company and had a supportive manager. However, after a merger, Caroline found herself under a new manager who resented her success at such a young age and began to make sexist comments that evidenced a deep hatred toward her. He excluded her from important meetings and made her work life unbearable.
Having never encountered anything like it, Caroline did not know how to handle the situation. She found herself consumed by thoughts of her manager’s behavior and felt powerless to change it. For five long years, she endured the abuse without taking action until, eventually, she quit.
However, after reflecting on her experience, Caroline realized that she should have taken a proactive approach and set clear boundaries to regain control. So, when she encountered something similar in her next job, she knew better and did better.
Knowing that time alone will never heal a toxic relationship, she immediately confronted the person concerned and communicated her boundaries and expectations in a clear, assertive manner. She limited her interactions with him to necessary tasks and meetings and set clear boundaries to protect herself and her work.
Nipping toxic behavior in the bud is also crucial because it prevents it from taking root and spreading through the workplace. The research of Manuela Priesemuth of the Villanova University School of Business has shown that the unchecked abusive behaviors of individuals, especially leaders, can create a toxic culture through a ripple effect. Young professionals must be particularly careful to avoid becoming part of the problem if the first work culture that they are exposed to is a toxic one.
Empathy is crucial in building positive working relationships with difficult colleagues. It involves actively listening to others’ perspectives and attempting to understand them. By practicing empathy, professionals can build a sense of connection and compassion, which can help to bridge any gaps and conflicts that may exist.
Tony Schwartz, the author of The Way We Work Isn’t Working, argues that empathy can be achieved by applying what he calls “the reverse lens,” which involves asking yourself questions such as, “What is this person feeling, and in what ways does that make sense?” and “What is my responsibility in all this?”
An empathetic approach is crucial in any high-pressure situation according to Chris Voss, the FBI’s former lead international kidnapping negotiator. When you really see things from someone else’s perspective, you might spot a pathway to a solution that may previously have been unseen. Taking time to consider how someone else views a situation can also prevent an instantaneous and overly emotional reaction that you may come to regret.
Applying empathy to the toxic situation with my colleague Ashley, I realized that she felt resentful toward me because she had been doing the job I was hired for and had excelled at it but was overlooked due to her lack of educational qualifications.
By understanding her perspective, I was able to work with her and advocate for a title change that better reflected her contributions. This open communication and empathy eventually led to great success in our work together.
When dealing with truly toxic relationships, it may be necessary to document interactions and incidents. This is especially important when you suspect you are being gaslighted, i.e., manipulated by the other person in ways that undermine your faith in your own version of events.
Documenting interactions is the advice that researcher Savvas Trichas gives about dealing with workplace bullies: Become a bee. Observing that people don’t tend to swat bees as readily as other insects, Trichas recommends making yourself as valuable and strong as possible by working diligently and having a sting.
Scrupulously following correct protocols and documenting everything you do can provide such a sting by giving you the tools that you require to hold a colleague accountable for their toxic behavior. A record of the other person’s behavior can be very useful if you need to escalate the issue to management or HR.
In the case of Caroline, who worked for a major power company in a male-dominated environment, her health suffered due to the toxic behavior of her colleague. She consulted a lawyer and was advised to document everything. She did so and went to HR with a solution. While HR is not always there to help employees, having a clear record of toxic behavior can help to protect yourself and hold those in management accountable.
TAKE A STEP BACK AND PRIORITIZE SELF-CARE
It’s crucial to prioritize your physical and emotional well-being at all times, especially when dealing with a toxic colleague. One way to do that is to set aside time for whatever makes you feel rejuvenated, be it taking exercise, pursuing your hobbies, or spending time with loved ones.
It’s also important to get enough sleep and maintain a healthy diet. Taking a step back and focusing on yourself can not only help improve your overall well-being, but it can also give you a fresh perspective on a situation and the energy to tackle it with renewed focus.
Much recent research has focused on the health benefits of practices such as yoga and mindfulness meditation. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling Emotional Intelligence, relaxation practices such as mindfulness can “enhance your ability to handle stress, which means the annoying person isn’t that annoying anymore.”
Attempts by companies or colleagues to encroach on their staff’s time for self-care should be seen as red flags indicating toxicity. Natalia told me about how her toxic manager continually interfered in her attempts to choose dates for her vacation, often claiming that the weeks in question were just too busy for her to go away. In such circumstances, drawing boundaries around the time that you allocate to yourself for self-care is essential.
Managing a toxic work relationship can be challenging, especially when you are just setting out on your career, but the strategies set out above can help. By practicing empathy, setting boundaries that nip situations in the bud, documenting interactions, and prioritizing self-care, you can find ways to survive and thrive even when facing difficult circumstances. Doing so will help you personally and stop toxicity from spreading through the workplace, contributing to a healthier and happier environment for all.
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James Dyson believes his biggest successes were born from failures