Working with a Toxic Colleague?

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I was working with a leadership team this week, discussing the concepts from “Cultivate. The Power of Winning Relationships” when one of the participants asked how to deal with an adversary, a toxic colleague. It prompted some interesting debate and discussion, everyone present could relate to the stress this person was feeling and the impact this toxic colleague was having across the organization.

Now, you probably don’t have any toxic colleagues in your workplace. For you, it’s bliss from 9-5. You’re disappointed to leave at the end of the day, because you’ve enjoyed the company of those around you so much, and you can’t wait to get back the following day because you miss them.

You feel pity for those of your friends who aren’t so lucky, Perhaps they just need a bit of advice – a few suggestions to help them survive until they can work in your organization. However, what advice would you give in this situation?

Here are a few suggestions to effect change:

1. Change your attitude.

This probably wasn’t the first thing that you thought of – after all, it’s the toxic colleague that has the problem; not you. If the other person had a better attitude, then you wouldn’t be reading this article. But, you see, there’s a problem with that opinion. It’s that the behavior of the person you’re struggling with, at least to a certain extent, is simply a reaction to yours.

Imagine that you are an innocent third party. You don’t work with this person or any of his or her colleagues, but you do come within sight of this little band of conflict every day. From where you’re standing, how do people act in the presence of this chronic malcontent? Do they give that person a wide berth? Do they try not to talk to him or her? Do they speak softly while allowing their eyes to flit towards and then away Mr or Ms I’ll-Bite-Your-Head-Off?

Now imagine that people treated you that way. (Remember: we’re thinking of someone you know.) What would be your reaction? How would it make you feel? Wouldn’t you be a little sensitive, a little negative, and a bit brusque?

2. Be friendly

Here’s another one of those suggestions that you weren’t expecting. The first one was about avoiding a negative reaction. This time, you’re trying to “provoke” a positive one. This goes back to your attitude. You pretty much get what you expect. It’s what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy. You only notice the things that support your assumptions. If you expect to see toxicity, then that’s what you notice the most.

Now think for a moment. What would you do if you expected the other person to be friendly back to you? You’d be friendly first, right? Think of the people you work with where friendliness among you already exists. How do you behave with them?

3. Build a relationship with that person

(The friend to whom you make this suggestion will probably think that this is taking things a bit too far.) It’s one thing to speak to that person or to even act like a friend; but to be one? Come on. Get real!

Well, you see, that’s how you neutralize toxicity. Think about it like this: You’re heaping coals of care of that person. You’re breaking through the barriers. You’re determined to draw that person out of the dungeon in which he or she works.

Let’s face it. Whatever it is that makes a person toxic, probably affects him or her more than it affects you. If you’re willing to take the first step, and the next one, and the next, and the one after that, and to keep at it until you have developed a positive relationship with that person. You may not become BFF’s, but you do need to find a way to work respectfully together, in doing so you will become an organizational antidote.

And that means that, on this occasion, it’s all about you.

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This article first appeared as a post on LinkedIn. Click here to follow Morag on LinkedIn