Toxic Coworkers? Staying Mentally Strong and Keeping Your Boundaries

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

Have you ever felt so frustrated with toxic coworkers that you considered filing a complaint, quitting or maybe indulged in a vengeful thought or two?

Regardless of your industry, or your particular job role, difficult colleagues are inevitable and the way you handle toxic coworkers or a toxic workplace experience could impact your emotional well-being, your workplace experience, relationships, and even your career.

In this article we’re going to talk about 3 techniques for dealing with toxic coworkers. They include:

(1)   Emotional Agility

(2)   Effective problem solving

(3)   When to call it quits

Emotional Agility

Remember, you are ultimately in control over your feelings. Your toxic coworkers cannot control your behaviors, thoughts, or emotions, but you can.

Let’s start with emotional agility. Emotional agility refers to your ability to be agile—or quickly able to adapt and pivot—in response to different emotional stressors. For example, Your coworker barges into your office and blames you for a mistake on a report that wasn’t even your fault. If you are not emotionally agile you may quickly fall into anger, spiral down into self-criticism, or develop anxiety that hangs over your head like a cloud waiting for the next event.

On the other hand, if you’ve strengthened and toned your Emotional Agility ‘muscles’, you’ll notice your initial reaction and then be able to quickly shift and adapt so that you feel in control and able to respond in the best way you see fit.

Emotional agility is associated with less stress, improved job performance, and better attention to detail (Harvard Business Review).

Emotional agility is strength, resilience, and is a skill that you can learn, strengthen and optimize—no matter your job, position, or phase of life.

P.O.W.E.R. is a mnemonic for the 5 steps in changing emotional responsiveness, including:

  1. Proof
  2. Opposite Action
  3. Write Your New Story
  4. Emotional Renewal
  5. Repeat

Here’s the full exercise in more detail:

(1)   Proof: The first step is to list the emotion(s) you are feeling and then look for proof. Oftentimes our emotions are tied to memories, judgments, and associations that are not related to the facts of the situation. Challenging your assumptions about the situation will help you change your emotional reactions to your circumstances. Once you’ve got an idea of the thoughts that are behind your emotions, you can examine those thoughts and examine if those thoughts are based on facts that can be proven, or if they are based on emotional worries. Then go to the next step.

(2)  Opposite Action: Oftentimes our emotions are tied to memories, judgments, and associations that are not related to the facts of the situation. Challenging your assumptions about the situation will help you change your emotional reactions to your circumstances. Opposite action asks us: What emotions do not fit the facts and what emotion would you like to feel considering the facts?

(3)  Write Your New Story: This step is where we describe this event from a new perspective given the facts and the emotions that you are choosing to adopt. The more you tell yourself the truth, the more your brain will begin to integrate that truth. There is an old saying that goes: “The way you wire it will become the way you will fire it.” Mindfully wire your brain to tell your new story.

(4) Emotional renewal: When you have deconstructed what you are feeling, why you are

feeling that way, when you identify the facts and create your new story, it provides an opportunity for emotional renewal through problem-solving.

(5)  Repeat: Practice makes perfect. As those feelings come up, check your thoughts, look for the truth and find proof, write your new story and embrace your chosen proof by bringing it into your awareness of your experience. Power comes from practice, rewiring your brain, and taking control of your emotions.

Effective Problem Solving

There are passive and direct ways to deal with toxic coworkers, and in some circumstances, one strategy may be more useful than the other.

Passive problem-solving: Sometimes the best solution is to not engage with your coworkers directly, instead, put your frustrated energy into what you can control. Focus on doing your job to your best ability and model the behavior and integrity that you would like to see in others.

Direct problem solving is often necessary, when, unfortunately, passive problem-solving is insufficient. Workplace abuse and toxicity is a serious problem, and speaking up is an act of bravery and integrity, as my colleague Dr. Christina Wyman wrote in an article published in Next Avenue and Forbes: “Toxic whistleblowers should be applauded.”

To effectively use direct problem solving, we first have to identify the type of toxicity that you are dealing with, and then you can utilize specific strategies that may be more effective given your particular colleague.

Here are the 5 primary types of toxic coworkers and problem-solving solutions for each:

(1)   The Gossip: Gossip can range from a casual conversation or report about another person, or sharing highly private bits of detail about another person. The key features of gossiping are that the person in question has not publicly shared said information, verified its accuracy, or given others their permission for discussion. Gossiping is a form of “artificial intimacy,” which is a form of interpersonal connection that is not truly authentic or intimate. Here are some possible responses you might consider if you encounter The Gossip at work: “Oh wow, is that a fact?” or “Did [insert person’s name] tell you that you could share this?” “That sounds like gossip, and I don’t want to hear it.” Gossip is a form of what is called, “artificial intimacy.” Read more: https://www.themuse.com/advice/how-to-deal-with-the-5-most-negative-types-of-coworkers

(2)   The Competitive: The competitive-type coworker embodies several problematic traits: They put themselves before the team, may take credit for others work, steal the spotlight, undermine colleagues, discredit offerings from coworkers, or even throw others under the metaphorical bus in order to make themselves look better to management. With colleagues who fall into the competitive realm, the solution is three-pronged: First, understanding empowers creative solutions. Start by seeking to gain an understanding of the motivations of your competitive colleague. Maybe they are driven by fear, poverty, insecurity or they are highly perfectionists. Second, identify if there are any creative solutions to enable you to work collaboratively with this colleague. If not, establish emotional distance from this co-worker so that you are able to understand them and their motives but not be emotionally affected by them. Read more: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/13/ask-therapist-esther-perel-how-to-deal-with-a-competitive-co-worker.html

(3)   The Passive Aggressor: These types of aggressors are often difficult to spot because the toxicity of their behavior can be intentionally obfuscated. The passive aggressor. Tactics used by the Passive Aggressor may include gaslighting, cynical or pessimistic behavior, frequent complaints about workplace culture, and behaving with hostility. The best way to deal with the Passive Aggressor is to confront problems with them directly using empathy and tact, aligning with them in order to create solutions that make them feel heard and respected while also holding them accountable to a more positive workplace environment. Read more here: https://www.healthline.com/health/passive-aggressive-personality-disorder and https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-be-yourself/202010/5-ways-deal-passive-aggressive-people

(4)   The Pest: There’s always that coworker. The Michael Scott (reference) of the office: Annoying, missing social cues, making annoying or inappropriate comments, and maybe they’re also a little whiny, they complain, or cause more frustration and wind up testing your patience. Dealing with The Pest provides you the opportunity to test the limits of your patience, and can help you tonify your problem-management skills. In dealing with The Pest you may want to deal with them directly and/or indirectly, depending on their particular flavor of pesty-ness. The key is to be very clear with your boundaries. This may pertain to their proximity to your workplace, the duration of time you are willing to spend with them at work, or even regarding non-work-related conversation topics. You are going to want to be straight, direct, and empathetic with these types. Read more: https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/5867-ways-to-handle-annoying-co-workers.html

(5)   The Hostile: One of the most difficult types of toxic coworkers is the hostile corker. These types can be rude, cruel, and threatening. The most important thing to remember when dealing with these types of coworkers is that your needs and boundaries must be a priority. You can assume that there will be a conflict with these individuals and being prepared will help prevent you from being caught off guard and put into a damaging situation. Here are 3 steps to dealing with The Hostile Coworker: Step 1: Take the high road. When they deliver low blows, maintain professionality. Do not get wrapped up in the emotion or drama. Throwing their hostility back at them will only fuel the fire and make matters worse. Staying in your calm and collected self will also help you later if higher management needs to get involved. Step 2: Practice Radical Empathy: Radical empathy contains the radical because it is empathy that is given when the other person’s behavior does not deserve it. Typically hurtful people are hurting people, and if you can understand where they are coming from, you may be able to identify solutions that target the root of their behavior instead of strong-arming them into social compliance. Step 3: Get a third party involved. Sometimes you just can’t win, no matter how hard you try. This is why you need to know your limits at the beginning, once you hit them, it’s time to reach out to your manager or human resources representative. Read more: https://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-living/5-ways-cope-with-co-worker-from-hell/

How to know when it’s time to move on:

After all is said and done, it comes a time where the negatives outweigh the positives. The circumstances have made it clear that putting up a healthy boundary is both necessary and protective. We all have our breaking point, and ideally, you can identify the bounds of your limits so that you don’t have to hit yours.

If you feel like the time has come, where you simply feel that your workplace has grown too toxic for you to continue showing up day after day, this list is for you.

Here are 6 signs that you need to employ your exit strategy:

(1)   You feel bullied or harassed.

(2)   You feel at risk of mental or physical harm.

(3)   You have communicated your needs and you aren’t being heard.

(4)   You’ve enlisted the appropriate necessary help with insufficient results. For example, A human resources department either does not exist with your company, or they are ineffective at creating satisfactory resolutions.

(5)   You have made reasonable personal adjustments to your behavior and expectations.

(6)   Your negative workplace environment is bleeding into other areas of your life.

You’ve been putting your emotional, mental and physical health at risk, you’ve done your best to create solutions and yet your situation has not made significant improvements. You feel demoralized, depleted and you’re wondering if it’s time to move on.

If you resonate with any of the above, this is your push. It’s time to explore your next chapter.

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first.

Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.