• Mama Kate

Toxic coworker? Here's how to deal.

We all know them, we all loathe them. The "toxic" coworker.

It's that person in the office who flips out if you ask him to do his job. Or that girl who can't stop gossiping about her boss.

It's Henry, from accounting, whose responses are always laced with a layer of sarcasm so thick you could spread it on a sandwich.

Here's the deal: you have two options. Take the high road, or take the low road. That's it, people – no middle ground will do.

Now, before I continue, please take note: I do not have any of these tips mastered. I simply know what I should do.

Do as I say, not as I do.

And with that, here are my five tips for dealing with a toxic coworker:

1. Put your kid gloves on.

In other words... have compassion.

The harsh truth is – we've all been that person before. No, darling friend, you're not perfect. You've made mistakes you came to regret, whether your gossip made it back to its subject or you made an ass of yourself in a meeting. Or you've shot off a snappy email to the wrong person... yikes!

Recognize that we're all little kids inside who are capable of, if not prone to, making mistakes. What I'm suggesting is that you avoid the mistake of mistaking other people's mistakes for toxicity. Make sense?

You're not a toxic person, right? Probably not. Most people aren't. And when you goof, you'd like people to forgive you, no?

Give others the benefit of the doubt. Remember, they may have no idea what they're doing, or perhaps feel justified in their actions. They may have just been chewed out by their boss, or maybe they're in the midst of a messy divorce at home. Perhaps they never had a mentor at work to help them discover a self-awareness.

So my tip? Ask questions. Real, open-ended questions.

Questions about work:

"How are you feeling about that big project you're working on?"

"What projects do you have coming up?"

Provocative questions allow people to showcase their expertise on a subject while giving them the okay to vent a little. We all need that every now and then, don't we?

Or, ask questions about anything but work, if that's what the situation calls for:

"Did you hear about Target's new one-day shipping?"

"What kind of music do you listen to?"

These questions are for the benefit of both you and your coworker. Nothing breaks a toxic cycle like talking about Beyonce.

2. Talk to HR.

Oooooh, did I really say that? Yes. Yes, I did.

Though you may associate human resources with the hiring and the firing of employees, these wonderful people do so much more. They are actually there to support YOU, despite those rumors you may have heard...

Got trust issues? Yeah, so do I. But guess what? HR has formal training on these kinds of things. So why not talk to them? It beats gossiping to one colleague about another colleague, unless you like people thinking you're a gossip.

There are plenty of ways to approach this.

Ask for advice. "For a friend," if you need that extra sense of anonymity.

Request feedback. Describe a situation you encountered and how you felt you didn't do your best. Ask them how you might approach the situation differently next time.

Example: "I asked someone for a response to my email and got a snippy response, how could I have done better?"

Ask for a coaching document. A check-in document, of sorts that allows you to formally coach your direct reports.

Side note: some colleagues and I were trained this week on Inside Out coaching, or the "GROW" model and I LOVE it. In a nutshell, GROW involves asking a lot of questions in a methodical order: setting your Goal, defining the Reality of the situation, outlining Options, and defining a Way forward. Look it up for some great coaching tips!

Regardless of your approach, opening that conversation and building a relationship with HR is so worth it.

What a great segue into my next suggestion...

3. Build a relationship.

You've heard the saying: "keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

I loathe that saying. Why have enemies, at all?

I'd like to offer an alternative.

"Make your enemies your friends."

Sure, it may not be quite as poetic... but it's way better advice.

Truly, working together toward a shared goal is way easier than butting heads.

Invite your soon-to-be-friend to a come-to-Jesus discussion, of sorts, preferably outside of the office environment or over coffee.

Jump right in and lay it all on the table.

When there are issues you need to discuss, you can go about it in one of two ways. Be direct, or beat around the bush and end up sharing the same exact feedback in the end. The former will build stronger trust and break the cycle of toxicity.

Here are three of my favorite phrases for these types of meetings.

"I'd like to discuss the elephant in the room."

"My expectation is _________, yet what I'm seeing is _________. Do you think I've been unrealistic in my expectations?"

"What can I do for you?"

"How are you?"

Seriously, it shouldn't be hard to bridge the gap, and it feels great when you do!

4. Celebrate your differences.

Different personalities offer different perspectives, and finding someone with a personality opposite of yours can be a beautiful thing.

My boss and I are very different. I'm the sunshine, she's the brains. We've grown to appreciate one another for our strengths – but only because we both put in the effort to do so. It could have just as easily gone a different way.

If you've found yourself in a toxic situation with a "difficult" personality, go back and try step #3 so that you can learn to do step #4.

My point is, you might think your coworker is toxic, but maybe you guys just got off to the wrong start. Try to get to know them... and learn to celebrate a different point of view.

5. Coach them.

I alluded to the value of coaching earlier, and here I'll explain why I'm such a big fan of this approach.

Have you always had a high self-awareness? If so, consider yourself lucky. I still feel the sting when I think of the class mean girl telling me I had bad breath in the sixth grade. Or the time (yesterday) a coworker called me out for my fake laugh. I legit had no idea I'd been doing that.

That's precisely why coaching other people is valuable. Unless you have an above-average self-awareness, this external feedback can be a game changer. Wouldn't you want to know if you were making a fool of yourself?

Here's how it could go:

Break the ice: "Tim. I'd like to share something with you."

Ask for their permission: "This might be hard to listen to you, are you open to hearing some feedback from me?"

Dive in with a good old compliment sandwich: "Your a great conversationalist, but I'm noticing your emails are coming across a bit shorter than you sound when talking one-on-one; I'm afraid that shortness could be mistaken for sarcasm. Because you're so good in meetings and in talking with people, I wanted you to know how you come across in emails."

Or, just be super blunt: "Becky, chatting with you is so fun, but I'm trying to help the office feel like more of a collaborative environment, so I'll be stepping away when the conversation turns hurtful toward others. I hope you'll follow my lead."

I could go on, but you get the idea.


There are so many ways to approach a toxic situation, and they all call for talking and building relationships. And they all call for taking the high road.

Good luck, people... and happy working!

- Mama Kate

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