How to work with a toxic colleague or boss

Sadly we have all had to deal with a toxic colleague or boss at some point. What do you do when the pressure of work gets too much and relationships start to sour? Dr Bill Price shares some helpful insights he has learnt over many decades of executive coaching.

Amazing and remarkable things happen daily in companies, organisations, charities etc. Scientific breakthroughs, new product development, and improved living are what people work towards, what they achieve and what they celebrate. Does that mean we operate in corporate euphoria?

Sadly not. There are people, nice people on the surface, who behave in remarkably offensive ways under personal and organisational pressure. Sometimes organisational DNA and culture, “the way we do things around here” (the unspoken rules) bring out the worst in people, making dealing and working with them truly awful.

You may event want to punch a toxic colleague in the face, but that isn’t going to get you anywhere. Rather take it as an opportunity to develop your emotional intelligence. In this post I provide you with a checklist to identify the difficult people you encounter, so you can understand what you are dealing with and take the appropriate steps.

Toxic colleague at work

Which toxic colleague situation do you identify with the most?

Sharon, a senior manager in the textile industry told me that she had to learn how to work with a toxic colleage and how the lessons she learned equipped her to deal more effectively with difficult people. Her new resilience strengthened her and positively impacted her career.

Difficult managers, leaders, peers and subordinates are a reality in organisational life. How they affect your life depends upon the skills you develop to deal with them. In fact as in Sharon’s case, their presence can be the catalyst for you to seek these skills. Getting the right coaching input can benefit teams and individuals as they develop the necessary skills that contribute to a healthy organisational balance.

Senior management is often deeply affected, sometimes crippled, by the presence of toxic managers because of their destructive impact on the organisation. Grandiose, aggressive, and rigid managers damage morale. Faced with toxic superiors, people in your organisation may withdraw, fail to share valuable information, no longer have the energy or incentive to go the extra mile, lose creativity, become irritable and oppositional, and leave.

Research has shown that the “The Peter Principle”—the tendency for people to rise to their level of incompetence – most commonly occurs when someone with troublesome personality traits (rigidity, narcissism, aggression) performs well in a position that shields him or her from the worst aspects of their personality.

Paul, a senior executive in the media industry, says that ”disaster strikes when senior management fails to pick up on the signs of a manager’s toxic traits or fails to realise how these traits will sabotage his or her ability to succeed in a new position. Recognising toxic personality traits quickly and knowing in which positions a manager will perform poorly can spare an organisation serious problems.

We all have abrasive edges, ways of behaving that inconvenience others. Managers differ in their ability to control and resolve their toxic traits and thereby become people you want to have in your company. Their ability to contain their rough edges depends to a great extent upon what lies below the surface: their underlying personality traits.

Patricia, an exco member of a financial house, called in the services of a coach to help them work through issues with the toxicity of three divisional teams which were impacting negatively on productivity, effectiveness and efficiency.

It is often difficult to create a team in which no member has toxic traits, since a high percentage of people do. How many team members with such traits can be accommodated? And what type of toxic behaviours can be mixed without crippling the team’s function? These are important considerations when building a team.

A team may be able to tolerate one toxic colleague or two but is likely to run into marked turmoil if it has multiple members displaying such tendencies. Depending upon the type of rigidity, a team may function well with several rigid people on it, or it may become totally deadlocked.

Having coached many executives, C-level teams and managers, hearing reports of a toxic colleague or manager has helped me as to encourage those involved to arm themselves with much-needed information regarding emotional intelligence, to help them withstand the onslaught of toxic behaviour in the workplace.

The more you know about what motivates people with different styles, the better you will be able to defend yourself and encourage them to cooperate with you and provide the work products you need to do your own job.

As Armand Kruger, a peak performance specialist says: “The more you understand about personality types, the impact of anxiety and depression, and the problematic behaviours that can be evoked by being placed in difficult situations (such as being made a scapegoat or bullied or placed in a job requiring the wrong set of skills), the better you will be able to determine whether to keep a manager who is currently having a problem or to have him or her find a new position.”

In the end, if you are caught in a difficult situation with a toxic colleague, you will have to check if the problem does not also exist on a personal values level because people in power positions will probably justify their stay and you will possibly be faced with the decision to make a move to leave based on a clash with your personal value system.

Dictatorial and authoritarian managers believe that strict hierarchical organisation and control are the best way for the world to work. Compulsive managers fear chaos in the world and in themselves. Oppositional and passive-aggressive individuals feel that their autonomy is constantly being threatened, and they must push back in order to defend themselves.

Narcissistic personality traits (arrogance, devaluation of others, limited empathy and conscience) play an important role in several types of toxic managerial behaviour. The self-preoccupation, devaluation of others, and limited empathy and conscience of narcissistic managers free them to behave in markedly aggressive, controlling and unethical ways.

Toxic Colleague Check List

Take time to work through this list as provided by the Strong Foundation in Cape Town. Mark each out of 5 as an indication to what extent you have experienced these toxic management styles in your career so far – where 5 equals very often en 1 means never.

1.Grandiose managers:Legends in their own minds     
2.Control freaks:You will do absolutely everything my way     
3.Paranoid managers: They’re out to get me     
4.Antisocial managers: Breaking rules is fun     
5.Unethical opportunists: I have to break this rule     
6.Ruthless managers: Cold, calculating, cut-throat     
7.Bullying managers:Threatens and abuses to get what they need; they like exercising power over people.     
8.Homicidal managers: You won’t get away with that     
9.Sexual harassment: I won’t take “no” for an answer     
10.Chauvinists needing diversity training: I’m better than you     
11.Volatile managers: Everything upsets me     
12.Frantic colleagues: I can’t stop racing around     
13.Underpinnings of aggression: Why am I so angry?     
14.Surviving aggression: Strengthening your defences     
15.Compulsive managers: Slaves to work and perfection     
16.Authoritarian managers: Bureaucratic monsters     
17.Dictatorial managers: I’m in charge     
18.Oppositional co-workers: Any way but your way     
19.Passive-aggressive managers: You can’t make me     
20.ADHD: Distracted, disorganised, impulsive     
21.Anxiety: Nervous, frightened, worried, preoccupied     
22.Depression: Pessimistic, exhausted, irritable, unhappy     
23.Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: I can’t believe this happened     
24.Burnout: Used up     
25.Bipolar Disorder: From invincible to depressed and back     
26.Alcohol and Drug Abuse: Only the bottle takes away my stress     

Components of Emotional Intelligence

Having completed this exercise you can see exactly where your level of emotional intelligence needs to be improved in order to best deal with that toxic colleague that is pulling you down. This could involve self-awareness where you recongise your emotions and their impact or becoming more aware of your strengths and weaknesses.

Self management requires emotional self control, flexibility in adapting to changing situations and obstacles; integrity, honesty, trustworthiness and the drive to grow and achieve. In other words you are willing to take the initiative, be optimistic and a continuous learner.

Social Competence requires social awareness, empathy and insight. This is where you understand the feelings of others and appreciate their strengths and weaknesses. Relationship management requires:

  • Respect for others;
  • Conflict management skills;
  • A collaborative approach;
  • A sense of humour;
  • Persuasive skills;
  • Diplomacy and; and
  • An ability to leverage diversity.

There are several good books that discuss the importance of emotional intelligence and how to develop general emotional intelligence skills that work with most reasonable people. Daniel Goldman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence Primal Leadership by Robin T Schneider are particularly helpful.

Coaching is another effective way to enhance your inner sense of being and to place you in a non-emotional position to be able to see the whole impact and process in a toxic colleague so that you are not stuck in disastrous relationships. Ultimately, one has to come to a personal conclusion to stay or leave if you have tried all possible avenues. However a qualified business and life coach can help you see the wood from the trees.

Also read: Embracing Resilience: How to Bounce Back from Life’s Challenges

Bill Price

Dr Bill Price is an international speaker, author and executive coach. Dr Price is based in South Africa where he is well known as a leading Neuroscience practitioner and strategic sage who guides individuals, businesspeople and corporate leaders to achieve their full potential. He also helps empowers people in their personal lives around the themes, of leadership, getting the most out of life and relationships. Consider participating in one of Dr Bill Price's coaching courses or consider attending one of his free 'Synapses'. These neuroscience based webinars are held twice a month over Zoom dealing with a variety of different topics.

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