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The Toxic Colleague and/or Manager

Aug 18, 2007
Peter had a colleague who complained about everything that was happening at work. He disagreed with any suggestion or new initiative that came down the pipeline. His negative attitude and comments infected the work environment, creating an atmosphere of tension and exhaustion. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you ever encountered someone whose toxicity contaminated your workplace? If you haven't, consider yourself fortunate.

One of my clients shared an office with a colleague who decided it was her job to critique my client's business phone calls. She had a comment about every conversation and truly believed she was being helpful. She hadn't been asked for her opinion and her comments were often intrusive and distracting. This created a problem for my client as much of her work was conducted on the phone.

It is challenging enough when you have a colleague who creates difficulties, someone who is at the same level as you, but when it is your manager, it complicates the situation. If we use the analogy of a schoolyard, your boss may be the school bully - someone who uses power and intimidation as a way of controlling people.

Bill's boss met with him weekly, allegedly to supervise his work. He would criticize and demean everything Bill did. He would rarely say something complimentary or offer helpful suggestions. He was sarcastic and hurtful in his comments. Bill often wondered why his boss acted this way towards him. Targets of bullies often ask that question - "Why me?" Some of the reasons might be they are actually envious of you and your popularity with others, they might recognize their own inadequacies and fear exposure or they see you as a threat because you are knowledgeable in your job.

Whatever the reason if your boss is constantly critical, moody, unpredictable and often takes credit for the work you have done, you have a problem. It may be accurate that some of the criticism has a grain of truth, but you need to evaluate how much validity there is in the comments, how often it occurs and is the goal to help you or keep you subservient. Some people spend years suffering silently or complain about the situation ad nauseum, but take no action. Doing nothing is a destructive strategy. Having a situation like this at work also contaminates relationships outside of work. When one is constantly edgy and stressed from dealing with toxicity daily, we tend to be more reactive and less patient with the people who are actually our greatest supporters.

One always wants to move towards a win/win situation. The question is how to make this happen. Here are some suggestions:

First, create a list of the problems and challenges. At the same time also think of the positives or benefits that you have gained from this working relationship. (As negative as a situation is, there is often learning which occurs.) An engineering co-op student described a situation in which he had a very difficult boss. Although he wasn't there long enough to bring about significant changes in the relationship, he talked about several things he learned, including different managerial styles and what worked and what didn't. He also recognized that he would have to learn to be more assertive.

Second, have a discussion about the situation with a trusted friend, colleague or mentor and brainstorm how to best approach the "toxic" individual. Roleplay various scenarios. When you think about a situation in isolation the tendency is to come up with worse case scenarios, which then tends to immobilize people. By practicing various options one gains perspective and confidence.

Third, schedule a meeting to discuss your concerns. Be clear about what is working and what is not. If the meeting is just about criticism, people get defensive and shut down. What changes would you like to occur? What are you prepared to do differently? Take notes of what you have mutually agreed to and follow up with an email. Often, people forget or are unclear about the next steps. By writing things down, they can be clarified quicker. As well it serves to document the process.

Fourth, if you work for a company which has a human resources department or an EAP then it might be worthwhile to take the opportunity to discuss the situation with them. A 3 way meeting might be useful.

When people stand up to bullies, it diminishes their power and control. Companies want their employees to be happy and satisfied as it improves productivity and income. Have you or anyone you know stayed at a job just because the money was good? If you find excuses to avoid being at work and are tense, exhausted, cranky and dissatisfied, then perhaps you need to recognize that it is a "toxic" environment. If your efforts to change the situation have not been successful, perhaps it is time to consider a different job. Sometimes we convince ourselves to make do because change might be hard. However if we continue to work in an environment which depletes us, we end up paying the price. How valuable is your piece of mind, positive relationships and life satisfaction?
About the Author
Gail Solish provides Executive/Personal coaching to managers, directors and executives focused on workplace development and relationship management.Claim your FR-EE e-course "Unleash Your Potential and Increase Productivity and Fulfillment" at http://www.ActualizeYourGoals.com
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