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Dealing with Toxic Co-workers or Bosses

Toxic co-workers or bosses can create big problems at work. As a workplace conflict transformation consultant, coach, and trainer, I have assisted many of my individual and organizational conflict clients who have had issues with toxic people in their workplaces.

What are signs that a coworker is toxic?

There are a number of signs that a coworker is toxic, including:

  • Constantly complaining about coworkers and supervisors.
  • Presenting as a victim, believing they are being mistreated or unfairly singled out for criticism. Nothing is ever their fault and they never take responsibility for any problems.
  • Indulging in malicious, often petty, gossip about coworkers, supervisors, or direct reports, particularly stories that make them look good while denigrating others.
  • Disrupting or undermining other people as they try to work.
  • Taking credit for the work of others.
  • Making themselves seem indispensable, so it is very hard to get rid of them despite the deep cost of keeping them.

 How can you prevent yourself from getting sucked into a toxic worker’s or boss’s death spiral?

  • Recognize that they are toxic from the signs listed above.
  • Protect yourself by limiting contact, being courteous when you can’t avoid them, but otherwise not engaging or reacting.
  • Visualize protective light surrounding yourself and colleagues.
  • Remind yourself that it is them, not you, and give yourself positive messages.
  • Get support (without gossiping) from optimistic fellows.
  • If you can switch desks, jobs etc to get away from them, do!

It is not easy to deal with toxic people, and staying out of their way can be a valid option. But, If you assume all the fault is theirs, you may be missing out on a self-learning opportunity. It is important to look at your own perceptions and biases as well.

How do you know if it is you or them?

If someone has a very different work style, culture, or definition of appropriate behavior, we may think they are toxic or bad from our narrow perspective. In that case, it is not so much about their behavior as our assumptions or shadow spots. If that is true, curiosity and openness can help. Ask yourself:

  • Why am I getting triggered and reactive?
  • Is it really them or am I being influenced by assumptions or past experiences?
  • Are there other ways to interpret what is happening?
  • Can I show up differently, listen with curiosity to their perspective, and interact with them differently?

It is possible that by posing the questions above, you can begin a different and more helpful relationship with that person, making them an ally rather than a difficult enemy. I have worked with many leaders in corporations and non-profits who were able to turn these relationships around. But it does take some willingness from the other person as well. Without that, avoidance, detachment, and self protection are wise moves.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE

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