You’re one of the few people in your inner circle who honestly loves your job.
You wake up feeling energized. You believe in your company’s mission. You’re happy with the pay and your day-to-day duties.
But there’s one thing that really bursts your career bubble: toxic coworkers.
Good or bad, your colleagues are a part of the package deal—and they can have a bigger impact on your job performance than you realize.
A 2013 survey by employee-engagement firm TINYpulse, for instance, found that happiness at work was more heavily tied to an employee’s positive connection to coworkers than to a direct supervisor.
This may help explain why, even when everything else in your job is going well, you can still feel less than satisfied—thanks to things like Michael’s constant badmouthing and Sarah’s penchant for drama.
To help you better cope with difficult colleagues, we asked workplace experts to offer up their best advice for keeping six classic toxic coworkers from torpedoing your workday—and even career.
Toxic Coworker #1: The Company Basher
Signs You’re Working With One … Sometimes the clues can be nonverbal, like blatant eye-rolling in meetings. Other times, it’s an unabashed open admission that they’re hunting for a new job—and even outright declarations that management is handling things all wrong.
The Impact on You … Unfortunately, the most vocal people on your team can dictate how you’re perceived by others. So Negative Nancy could very well define your group—and maybe even you—as the unhappy and antagonistic one at the company.
How to Keep the Behavior in Check … Without a receptive audience, complainers don’t thrive, says Linda Swindling, author of “Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers: How to Negotiate Work Drama to Get More Done.”
So when the rants start, Swindling suggests shutting it down with a direct—but respectful—response. “Simply announce, ‘I like my job, and I like my boss,’ ” she says. “Then leave the conversation, and go back to work.”
Another helpful tact, says Jason Dukes, a life coach and founder of Captain’s Chair Coaching, is to shift the conversation to something positive—like asking about upcoming weekend plans. “The less you support negative talk, the less it will occur around you,” Dukes says.
Toxic Coworker #2: The Deadline Delinquent
Signs You’re Working With One … It’s par for the course to occasionally have to work up to the eleventh hour to meet a big deadline. But when you find yourself habitually padding timelines to account for a colleague’s constant lateness, you’ve got a problem on your hands.
The Impact on You … One person’s lateness can send the rest of the team into reactive mode. Before you know it, you’re regularly clocking late hours, putting other tasks on hold—and maybe even taking heat from your boss because the team is behind schedule.
How to Keep the Behavior in Check … It’s important to first understand the root cause for the lateness, says Dominique Jones, vice president of human resources at talent management company Halogen Software.
So have an honest conversation to isolate the issue, whether it’s that your coworker is juggling too many duties, dealing with personal issues, or simply disinterested. Listen without placing blame, and then share the trickle-down effect it has on you—and the rest of the team.
If your coworker is receptive to feedback, discuss how you can better adjust processes and assign tasks, so everyone gets the support they need to meet deadlines, Jones says.
And if you come up against resistance, suggest that the team start sharing its deadlines with management, so they know exactly where the bottlenecks occur, Swindling says.
Toxic Coworker #3: The Drama Queen
Signs You’re Working With One … Your daily Starbucks runs are all about discussing the latest office politics, plus she messages you throughout the day with tales of what’s going wrong in her department.
Bottom line: In her world, the sky is always falling.
The Impact on You … “Although it may seem harmless, gossiping in the workplace can damage reputations—and create divisiveness and distrust between coworkers,” Jones says.
Even if you’re not involved in the gossiping, being surrounded by it takes your focus off your duties, and can leave you suspicious of your colleagues. “It can crush morale and derail performance,” Jones adds.
How to Keep the Behavior in Check … Often, drama queens are looking to validate their own assumptions by eliciting a similar reaction from you, so stay neutral.
“You could either tell your coworker that talking about others makes you uncomfortable, or state that you’d rather not speculate on a particular business decision without all the facts,” Jones says.
You can also try to limit your interactions to positive social settings, where you can’t be held captive to the negativity. So consider including them in a group activity—like an after-work running club—that can help them see the company in a different light.
Toxic Coworker #4: The Fearful Fibber
Signs You’re Working With One … Your coworker tells your boss that a project is on time and within budget—even though the spending numbers and revised schedules you saw say otherwise.
The Impact on You … When your colleague’s professional mantra is “C.Y.A.”—cover your you-know-what—that puts you in a tough spot professionally and ethically.
Not only does it make you complicit in the dishonesty if you don’t speak up, but it also forces you to course-correct in secret—and potentially shoulder the blame if the project ends up a disaster.
How to Keep the Behavior in Check … Often, colleagues who lie about progress are afraid of failure or appearing incompetent.
“They don’t mind being deceitful if it means they can stay in the spotlight and look good,” Swindling says.
Translation: They are looking out for No. 1, so transparency is your only ally.
If possible, “publicly calendar the deliverables and who is assigned to them, separating job duties as clearly as possible,” Swindling says. This way, everyone has the same data to reference—and there will be less chance that half-truths can slip by.
It may also help to let your coworker know that his actions make you distrust him. “Try to get him to see that although his deceptive behavior is a quick fix to hisproblem, it affects the company as a whole in the long run,” Dukes says.
Toxic Coworker #5: The Change-Phobic
Signs You’re Working With One … How many times have you proposed a new way to track expenses, or an alternate system for managing workflow, only to hear, “But we’ve always done it this way!”
That’s not only a sign of stubbornness, but it also means your coworker will be an impediment to progress.
The Impact on You … An inability to let go of old-guard ways hinders innovation. Even one person who can’t—or won’t—adapt to a new mind-set can slow down an entire team, making you appear less efficient and creative than your cohorts.
How to Keep the Behavior in Check … Jones says this type of resistance usually signals one of three things: They’re highly invested in their current way of working; they helped create the old methods and processes; or they’re afraid of more work.
So taking the time to find out the backstory can bolster your argument for why embracing change could be a good thing. For instance, maybe you can try couching a new way of working as a great means to help your coworker shave hours off a tedious task he has to routinely tackle.
“Providing context goes a long way to helping someone along the change curve,” Jones says. “You can be empathetic, but a forward-looking view is a must.”
Toxic Coworker #6: The Clique Member
Signs You’re Working With One … They come in all shapes and sizes—whether they’re mean girls or members of the old boys’ club—but their common thread is an appearance of exclusivity that may even lead to professional bullying.
The Impact on You … Cliques foster an “us” versus “them” culture that makes it nearly impossible to form trust, collaboration and mutual respect.
At the very least, it can make you feel less engaged at work, and disconnected from others. At its worst, cliques can create intra-company rivalries that can move from the cafeteria to the conference room—potentially impacting your job performance.
How to Keep the Behavior in Check … Cliques are only as powerful as you make them, so the best thing to do is refuse to play along.
“[Cliques will] never support you, so you need your own [internal] champions,” Swindling says. “These types of coworkers are trying to control their environment through misinformation and manipulative relationships.”
Her advice: Make it a point to know who you can rely on to defend your skills. And if you are contending with cliquish behavior, try to document everything you’ve worked on that yielded positive results—so you can look out for you.
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