Whatcha gonna do with a toxic colleague

This post is part of my mentoring conversation series which includes relatively short posts on topics that have come from a mentoring session. Often, these conversations produce insights which could benefit a wider audience.
Any identifying information is removed and I always inform participants before posting anything we talked about.

In today’s mentoring session we discuss what to do about a toxic colleague. That person that makes you feel small and stupid, maybe taking credit for your work and ideas, or “stealing” all the interesting and promotable tasks you were supposed to be doing, maybe just rude and unpleasant in general.

Hopefully you’ll never encounter one of these, but if we’re being realistic – you probably will. Unfortunately, they may exist even in the best of workplace cultures because their behavior is easy to hide. Often, their misconduct will be directed at those lower on the organizational food chain, and therefore the powers that be may be blissfully unaware. If no one tells them – how will they know?

Image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

Identifying toxic behavior

The first problem you need to overcome is deciding if this person is actually being toxic, or if you just don’t like them for some reason and need to get over it and figure out how to work with them anyway. A lot of toxic behaviors are hard to identify because each incident may be small in itself, and identifying the collection of incidents as a pattern can be difficult.

I’ve had colleagues who are excellent people take credit for my ideas by mistake. The idea came up in a group setting or discussion, it sounded good and they remembered the situation as if they’d come up with the idea. As long as it’s an isolated incident – that’s an understandable mistake. You can fix it and move on. But when that and other bad behaviors compile over time – that’s when you start to feel something’s wrong.

Then you start thinking about communicating the situation to someone who might be able to help – and you’re back to the single incident thinking. How will you explain to someone else how these seemingly small incidents pile up over time into toxic behavior that hurts your ability to work? You’re essentially gaslighting yourself.

So, what you’re going to do is make a list of everything this person did and made you feel bad. It can be big or small, don’t censor yourself. The criteria at this point is only “did this make me feel bad”. Next – curate the list using the SBI (situation-behavior-impact) model. Some incidents may feel “small”, but a group of smallish incidents can fit in to the curated list if they form a pattern.

When you describe the impact you can and should mention how the behavior affected you personally, but try to focus mostly on how it impacted your work or the project, because that will be more compelling evidence than focusing on your (legitimate) feelings.

Now you have a list that will make it easier to tell if you’re being “too sensitive” or if there’s a real problem. Hopefully that will convince you your concerns are real and the problem needs to be taken care of.

Image by SeppH from Pixabay

What to do, what to do

You can leave. I want this to be out there as an option – you do not have to spend your time and energy on an uphill battle with a toxic person. If you judge that fixing the problem will be difficult and draining, and you can relatively easily find another job – that might be the easiest way out. Fixing other people is not your responsibility.

However, you might want to stay. Whether it’s because you love your job and the (other) people you work with or because looking for another job is too hard, or whatever other reason.

You can work harder. Someone’s stealing your ideas? Make sure everyone knows your worth. Someone’s being being mean? Avoid them. Be mean back. Ignore them. Someone’s taking credit for your work? Communicate what you’re doing far and wide.

While this is a possible strategy, I fear that it’s not always feasible. For one, if there is a severe power imbalance (say, that person is much more senior that you are, or perhaps your manager) – it won’t work and will probably backfire. Second, it relies on the fact that you are able to prove that you did the work and have good ideas – this is not always easy, could lead to burnout due to the extra effort and may make you look like you’re not a team player. Not to mention the fact that if one is not an exceptional worker that does not make it OK for them to have to suffer through toxic behavior. In addition, you’ll be allowing the toxic behavior to continue, even if it doesn’t affect you. I don’t believe in victims being forced to fix the world for everyone’s benefit – but it’s still something to consider.

Besides all the above, I don’t like this option because I believe that you should not have to change your life for the worse because of someone else misbehaving. This is my guiding principal throughout the rest of the post: You should not have to pay the price for someone else’s toxic behavior.

Action plan

Speak with your manager (or, if your manager is the toxic person – their manager). In the first conversation you should focus on sharing what’s happening. Use the list you prepared before as evidence to drive the conversation pointing at specific incidents and their impact on you, the team and any projects you’re working on. You should ask for the manager’s help and advice in navigating the situation yourself. Informing your manager serves two purposes: 1. Creating trust. 2. Preemptive strike in case the toxic individual decides to go to your manager and complain about you.

Your manager should help you prepare to speak to the toxic colleague in a way that will clarify the problem and attempt to solve it. If you manage to fix the problem by talking to them – that’s amazing! You will be perceived as a skilled professional who can solve their own problems.

If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to ask your manager to take a more active role in fixing the issue. Offer solutions that you want and think will be effective. This is the baseline for later negotiation – don’t offer to switch teams if you don’t want to, do offer to lead a new project if that appeals to you, etc. Your manager might come back with a counter offer that is not exactly what you want but still acceptable – and you may choose to accept. You should still try to start at the optimal solution for you. Remember, the guiding principal here is that you shouldn’t be paying the price for the toxic behavior.

Image by SeppH from Pixabay
A note to managers: 

It is your job to solve this problem. Even if your employee has come up with excellent strategies to fix the issue for themselves, the toxic colleague can't be allowed to continue with their bad behavior. 

Make it clear to your employee that your door is open for whatever they want to discuss. One of the scariest parts of reporting something like this is to end up as the problematic one who whines about everything. Try to reassure them that won't happen. If someone needs to be moved to a different team or any other change in roles and responsibilities - it is essential that the victim not be the one hurt by the change.

If the toxic colleague is unwilling to acknowledge their behavior or make an effort to change - they should be let go. If they are willing to try - create an improvement plan with a 3-6 month deadline, and make sure to follow through. Support them in their process and make sure that the victim knows that you are making an effort.  If the deadline passes and insufficient progress has been made - they should be fired.

The message to the team should be that while management will help and support your growth as a professional and a person, it can't be at the expense of anyone else and bad behavior will not be tolerated. Otherwise, bad behavior will spread and the good people will leave.

If your manager succeeded in solving the issue to your satisfaction – excellent. If not, you’ll have to escalate, probably to the next level of management, but sometimes you might be able to identify some other person who is better positioned to solve the issue. If you can, keep your direct manager in the loop and let them know you plan to speak with someone else: 1. To maintain trust. 2. To give them the opportunity to try again before you escalate. At the next meeting you’ll be repeating the same process – review the the list of transgressions, let them know what’s been done so far, offer solutions and hope for the best.

The key to this process is to be proactive, positive, and offer solutions. That’s the difference between someone who will be labeled a cry baby and someone who will emerge from this process in a stronger organizational position.

There are no guarantees this will work. Sometimes the entire organization is toxic, or your managers are entirely ineffective and you will have no choice but to leave. At least you tried.