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The Toxic Coworker Survival Guide: How to Stay Sane & Thrive

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Research suggests that most workplaces have at least one toxic coworker.

They might be small in number, but these individuals are enough to turn any workplace from a fantastic place to work to a complete nightmare. In this article, Tessa West, author of Jerks at Work, helps identify the 6 types of toxic coworkers and how to deal with them.

You can also watch our video below to learn how to stop toxic coworkers and how to deal with difficult people at work!

What is a Toxic Coworker?

​​A toxic coworker creates havoc for everyone around them at work. The person might be adding more work onto others, displaying rude behavior, or simply not doing their share of the workload. Fortunately, toxic coworkers are not all bad; sometimes, they’re just having an off day.

Still, knowing how to handle these personalities can make working at your job that much easier. Here’s how.

The 6 Types of Toxic Coworkers & How to Deal With Them

The Free Rider

The Free Rider: "I like my job! But I don't actually like the work part."

The Free Rider is a coworker who “tags along” for the ride, usually planting themselves in a well-formed team and doing as little work as possible. The Free Rider is the most common toxic coworker in organizations and teams.

Free Riders can be social enough to strike up engaging conversations and may even be likable, so it might be hard to spot them at first glance. Try to keep a record of workload among the team to see who is the Free Rider.

What do members of your team plan on doing? What did they ACTUALLY do? A Free Rider may offload their work to other people in the team and not do much themselves.

How to Deal With the Free Rider: Dealing with Free Riders can be tricky because most of your team might support them. After you’ve gathered evidence of their behavior, you can deal with Free Riders in a couple of ways:

  1. The Confrontation. Confronting their behavior might not be easy, but it might be behavior-changing once the Free Rider knows they need to step things up. If they deny you, consider taking it up to management or a higher-up.
  2. The Trusted Partner. If you have someone you trust in your team, such as a friendly coworker, consider passing along the info and seek their opinion.

The Fake Manager

The Fake Manager: "Listen to me! I am always right."

The Fake Manager is the type of coworker that micromanages and oversees all operations in a team—but they’re not a manager. This toxic coworker often loves the power dynamic of feeling like a boss.

You might see Fake Managers valuing their opinion over others and telling people how to do their roles, even if they don’t have the experience.

How to Deal With the Fake Manager: If a Fake Manager bombards you with a list of requests, try asking them to send you an email of everything they’d like changed. In the best-case scenario, they might realize the list of requests is unrealistic. In the worst case, you have an email you can send to your boss or real manager for further discussion.

The Toxic Positive

The Toxic Positive: "Let's ALL be happy!"

The Toxic Positive is a person who always seems to be happy. They seem always to want to be happy and might say platitudes like, “Put on a smile!” or “Cheer up!” These coworkers demonstrate classic signs of toxic positivity and can be an energy drain to be around. They say things like:

  • “You should smile more!”
  • “Let’s all keep it positive today.”
  • “Don’t be so negative.”
  • “Look on the bright side!”

Toxic Positives are the enemy of introverts. While they might mean good, they can cause teams to suffer emotionally and even be controlling in the way their team’s energy levels are.

How to Deal With the Toxic Positive: Recognize that your feelings are valid. You do not need to be positive all the time, and even stating that you feel sad or neutral or angry can be a proper response to a Toxic Positive. 

The Toxic Negative

The Toxic Negative: "Let's ALL be grumpy!"

Like the Toxic Positive, the Toxic Negative always seems to favor one mood over another—this time, it’s negative. Whether they are complaining about the weather or angry over the amount of work their bosses give them, Toxic Negatives thrive on destructive energy. And they love bringing their coworkers down with them, too.

How to Deal With the Toxic Negative: For some Toxic Negatives, the more you support their complaints, the more you will reinforce their behavior. Deflection can go a long way here. You can acknowledge their complaints with a simple head nod or short answer and bring up another topic instead.

The Endless Conversationalist

The Endless Conversationalist: "Hey! Did you hear about the new iPhone? And oh, the upcoming game! Hey, wait!"

The Endless Conversationalist is a coworker who loves to talk. Having great conversations can be nice, but the Endless Conversationalist doesn’t know how to stop.

The football game. Last week’s drama. What they’re going to eat for dinner—everything and anything they can talk about, they will. Their strong suit may be talking when you need to sit down and focus.

How to Deal With the Endless Conversationalist: Conversations with the Endless Conversationalist should be brief, just like with the Toxic Negative. Or learn one of the best ways to gracefully exit a conversation without being awkward.

The Dramatic

The Dramatic: "Everyone, I've got a big announcement to make! I'm going taking my lunch break!"

The Dramatic is the coworker who loves attention. They want the entire team to know how they feel and can have exaggerated or highly-opinionated viewpoints regarding decision-making.

Emotions guide these coworkers, so these coworkers typically thrive on the support of others while in the office. They might not be reliable when it comes to getting work done. And they can be very, very exhausting to be around.

How to Deal With the Dramatic: Engaging with the Dramatic can deplete your energy reserves, especially when you lean towards the introverted side. Don’t be afraid not to be involved in the drama the Dramatic creates. State your priorities and make it known you’re here for higher purposes.

Bonus: Social Comparison Orientation

Social Comparison Orientation: "My coworkers are amazing... Only if they are higher-up than me."

Social Comparison Orientation is an inclination to compare one’s accomplishments, experiences, and situations to others. These toxic people tend to prioritize status within the company or team in a work setting. These are the people who can be described as Machiavellian and often “kiss up” to the C-level executives while “kicking down” the coworkers below them.

Spotting with the Social Comparison Orientation might cause you to feel gaslighted and unsure if you’re really facing a coworker who’s playing politics or if it’s just in your mind. To make sure, gather an opinion from someone in the office who might be able to give you a reality check.

How to Deal With the Social Comparison Orientation: Having short, frequent meetings to check on your coworkers’ morale can help if they’re a victim of a Social Comparison Orientation employee. For managers and bosses, consider checking up frequently with shorter meetings to get in touch and measure morale.

Why Are Toxic Coworkers So Dangerous?

Toxic coworkers can lower productivity, derail projects, and damage relationships.

Incivility in the workplace from toxic people can wreak havoc on employee performance:

  • Nearly half of employees spent less time at work and decreased their work effort
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work
  • 25% of employees took out their frustrations on customers
  • 12% ended up leaving their jobs due to incivility

According to Harvard Business School, avoiding toxic coworkers or letting go of one quickly also delivers $12,500 in cost savings for a company. 

Watch our webinar below to learn how to deal with difficult people:

What Are The Signs of a Toxic Coworker?

Want to know how to spot a toxic coworker? Here are 10 signs that their behavior is detrimental to your work environment.

  1. They give you feelings of “cognitive depletion,” or the overexertion of mental resources. Walking down the hallway, buried in your work, or even during lunch break, you’re constantly thinking of them and stressed when the thought of them crosses your mind.
  2. They steal your ideas. You might feel stressed or hesitant to be open with your views as you’re afraid they might take the credit.
  3. Their “compliments” come with strings attached. Backhanded insults might be a common occurrence. Anytime they compliment you, you’re left second-guessing if it’s really out of sincerity.
  4. They don’t respect your privacy. Got boundaries? Not with these people. These toxic coworkers might read over your shoulder or listen to email conversations.
  5. They don’t care about your time. Plan to come 10 minutes late if you have any 1-on-1 meetings with them, as they’re always late. They might also demand everyone else wait for them until they arrive.
  6. They nitpick and criticize your work. These toxic coworkers are always looking for new ways to belittle your efforts and make you feel bad about your accomplishments.
  7. They slowly turn you more negative. When you’re around toxic coworkers long enough, you might find yourself becoming as harmful as them!
  8. They walk around with a “superior” attitude. It’s okay for some people to have more knowledge about certain things than others, but toxic coworkers can take this too far. They might think they know everything and will do what they can to make you feel inferior to them.

How to Avoid Becoming a Toxic Coworker

Let’s face it: On some days, we might even be toxic coworkers. Whether it’s stress at home or being overworked, most of us have let our inner toxicity seep through at some points.

To avoid being toxic in the future, know your Achilles heel. Whatever triggers your toxicity, whether it’s arguing with a spouse or not getting enough sleep, find your triggers and plan accordingly to prevent them.

For more insight on how to deal with toxic people, head on over for more reading: 7 Types of Toxic People and How to Spot Them

How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

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