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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism
  3. December 21, 2021

7 Toxic Traits & How to Deal with Them in the Workplace

You’re toxic, I’m slippin’ under

Women working
Photo courtesy of Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Toxic traits aren’t just reserved for jealous friends or exes, they’re surprisingly common among coworkers and leaders in the workplace. Although it can be tempting to brush off offenses as jokes or choose not to engage with a toxic person, if left alone, someone who exhibits toxic behavior can end up impacting your mental wellness and derailing your career. 

Licensed mental health counselor Dr. Janys Murphy Rising says toxic traits don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s important to do a temperature check of the health of any organization that you work for and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are the people I work with respectful? 

  • Do they consistently demonstrate consistent communication? 

  • In times of crisis are they able to remain supportive? 

  • In a conflict, are they quick to try to resolve it, and more importantly, do they try to be accountable for their part? 

Read more: The 20 Best Companies for The People You Work With

She says, “If all those elements are not apparent at least 80 percent of the time in your daily interactions with your organization, I would look for another position, and do what you can to take care of your mental health in the meantime. If you have access to an employee assistance program for counseling, take advantage of the benefit.” Below are seven toxic traits you might be dealing with in the workplace and how to deal with them, according to experts.

Read more: Why We Should All Resolve to Ditch Hustle Culture in 2022

7 toxic traits and how to deal with them:

1. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which one person lies in order to either gain control of a situation, another person, or both. Rising says, “It can be both subtle and insidious in that the person will insist that they are telling the truth, and the other person is making up a story, or lying.” It’s a tactic that causes victims to question their own judgement, thoughts, and behavior.

An example of gaslighting might be when an individual is in the middle of an argument and the other person says something like, "I never said that. Why are you making things up?” or “Don’t be so sensitive. Why are you acting so crazy?”

How to deal with this toxic trait:

The first step is to simply acknowledge to yourself or a trusted support person that this is happening. Rising says that while it can be painful to be lied to, it’s important to stay grounded in your truth and seek support both inside and outside of the workplace from people who are on your side and are willing to believe and validate your experiences. 

Write down specific examples in case you need to have a chat with HR down the road. It’s imperative that you not let gaslighters hold power over you. Standing up for yourself and showing paper trails of their language and behavior can make gaslighters back down. However, Rising says to take care not to provoke the person too much, as gaslighting is typically not a standalone behavior. 

Read more: Why ‘Gatekeep, Gaslight, Girlboss’ Is the Social Commentary We Need for the Workplace 

2. Impatience

Impatience is a trait that we all experience from time to time—we all get impatient waiting for the bus or can’t help but to fidget when the checkout line is too long at the store. But the trait can turn toxic in the workplace when it becomes a regular habit or pattern, impeding your workflow and productivity. If a coworker or manager is always pressuring you to rush and finish your work faster, it can leave you feeling overly stressed and anxious. 

Because impatience in the workplace is often caused by fast-paced, high-pressure environments where the demand for quick, quantifiable results is prioritized over quality, thoughtful work, it can be easy for coworkers to succumb to this toxic trait in an unhealthy culture.

How to deal with this toxic trait:

When dealing with impatient people, it’s best to explain your preferred communication style and explicitly outline what you need (and don’t need) from others in order to produce your best work. You could say something like: 

“I understand that you’re eager to see the finished product for this project—as am I. I’m confident that I’ll meet the deadline, but in order to produce my best work, I need to work undisturbed so I can focus and avoid errors.”

Licensed psychotherapist Tameka Brewington says when you set boundaries with people, make sure you follow through and identify when a boundary is crossed. If you start letting minor violations slide, your peers won’t take your needs seriously.

Read more: Are You an Abusive Boss? Watch Out for These 7 Subtle Signs

3. Micromanaging 

Micromanagement occurs when an employee is under very close supervision and scrutiny at work. Usually each task is highly controlled and checked by the boss, and it can look like anything from your boss hovering over your desk to watch you work to your manager insisting that you copy them on every single email you send to ensure it’s up to company standards. 

“[Micromanaging] undermines a person's autonomy, as well as infantilizes them. What a micromanager says with their behavior is, ‘I don't trust you or respect you,’” says Rising. 

How to deal with this toxic trait:

If your boss is a micromanager, have an open, honest conversation about your work style. You can say: 

"I know the ABC project is really important to you, and I always value your feedback. However, I find that I work best if I am uninterrupted, so I’ll reach out to you if I have questions." It’s better to over-communicate and over-deliver to a boss who micromanages.

Rising says many micromanagers will back off if you build trust and follow through on your responsibilities, but it’s possible they might forget about your boundaries at the first sign of what they view as a crisis. “Prepare to set limits around how often the person calls or emails you. For example, you might need to show with action that you mean it when you say you are not available in the evening by not responding to their seemingly urgent text.” 

Read more: Unmistakable Signs Your Boss Is Toxic & What to Do About It

4. Complaining

Complaining once in a while is part of being human. But when there’s someone in the office who is seemingly always ready with a complaint in their back pocket, it can be difficult to remain positive and enjoy your work atmosphere. 

Complainers will find fault in anything—the office temperature, the slow Wi-Fi, the outdated technology, the excessive weekly meetings, everything. Yet somehow, they conveniently never have a solution to the problems that they complain about, and they don’t care about taking the initiative to solve anything.

How to deal with this toxic trait:

Never, ever encourage a complainer. If they continuously complain and you want to deflect their comments, you can say something like: 

“The creative team did their very best on that project, so I think we should focus on applauding them for all of their time and effort.” 

Or you can suggest that they find a solution by saying something like: 

“If you’re unhappy with the current process, we’d be happy for you to propose a new one.”

5. Sabotaging

Unfortunately, there are people who will try to take credit for your work, and if they can’t do that, opt to sabotage your work instead. This can result in them verbally putting down your work or questioning the validity of it, especially in front of superiors and other powerful workplace figures. 

“Essentially a saboteur is the worst kind of bully because any attention they can either deflect from their poor work or draw attention to you feeds their own fragility,” says Rising.

How to deal with this toxic trait:

Rising says it’s important to stand up to a saboteur and gather support from other colleagues if they’ve witnessed the toxic behavior. “If you can be transferred to another project, try to do so, as the behaviors are often deeply entrenched in the person's psyche. Document what you can, and if it continues, seek help from human resources as there might be a grievance process in place,” says Rising. While you are dealing with this, be sure to have your own support in place as this kind of behavior can lead quickly to burnout for the recipient.

Read more: What to Do When the Workplace Bully Is Your Boss

6. Gossiping

Sometimes gossip is inevitable (and not always negative), but it can quickly turn toxic in the workplace—especially when it’s a ploy in office politics. Not only is it distracting and annoying, but it also kills trust among coworkers, lowers team morale, damages relationships, and impedes productivity.

How to deal with this toxic trait:

There are several routes you can take in order to stop office gossip. In general, don’t engage or give in to a gossiper who wants a reaction from you. If you’re ready to say something to a gossiper, you can try subtly contradicting what they’re saying by speaking positively about the person. For example: 

“Siya’s been a huge help to me since my first day. I regularly seek her advice and she always has the best ideas.“ 

Or, you can call them out directly: 

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been talking negatively about Siya recently. It’s unkind and it is damaging her reputation.”

If the gossiper repeatedly ignores your comments, you can always report the problem to your manager and let them handle the situation directly.

Read more: The Importance of Building Trust at Work

7. Arrogance

Sometimes confused with confidence, arrogance is a toxic trait that’s used as a defense mechanism. Arrogant people are often condescending, put others down, boast about their own accomplishments, and view themselves as more knowledgeable than their peers. 

Rising says it may help to depersonalize traits like these by realizing that the person likely is just insecure, but don't let your empathy stop you from standing up for yourself.

How to deal with this toxic trait:

Arrogant people have an extremely hard time accepting criticism, even if it’s constructive, and they’re difficult to reason with. If the arrogant person in your office is someone who you don’t necessarily have to interact with daily, try to steer clear of them. If this is someone on your team who you collaborate with regularly, set meetings with strict start and end times and a thorough agenda so you can limit facetime with them. 

“If you have trusted support colleagues or a manager at work, you can ask them for feedback about how to handle the situation. This step will demonstrate your willingness to both honor your own integrity while alerting the manager to the situation,” says Rising. 

About our sources

Dr. Janys Murphy Rising is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Washington state with 18 years of clinical experience, and over a decade teaching graduate level counselors. Janys works with adolescent transitions, substance use, eating disorders, grief, spirituality and life transitions. Her counseling helps clients learn patterns that support spontaneity, presence, and learn how to be the person you were born to be.

Tameka Wade Brewington is a dually licensed psychotherapist in the state of North Carolina. She has been working in mental health and substance abuse for the past 20 years. Her primary areas of interest include women’s issues, working professionals, and adolescents, with specialization in substance abuse, and trauma. Her title credentials are Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist, Clinical Supervising Intern, Nationally Certified Counselor, and Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor.

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Photo of Cara Hutto

Cara Hutto

Assistant Editor

Cara Hutto is the assistant editor at InHerSight. Her writing primarily focuses on workplace rights, job searching, diversity, and allyship, and she holds a bachelor’s degree in media and journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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