Suspect You’re The Toxic Co-worker Everyone Hates? Here’s What To Do.

Suzan Bond
Aug 22, 2020 · 7 min read

John is smart, cares deeply about the work. He’s the person you love working with — at least at first. Driven by results, he loved making a dent in a company. Along the way to reaching a goal, he was hard on teammates, even confrontational at times. Overly harsh in feedback, he bypassed the positives focusing solely on what’s wrong. He was irritable all the time and insisted on being right. One night he almost got into a fistfight with one of the founders.

He saw his behavior as tough love. He thought was doing right by the company. Once he became a leader he realized his actions were unproductive. His toxic behavior continued in his next startup role. Dismayed at his actions, John hired a coach. He learned that his behavior begins with concern the team isn’t seeing something important that he sees, eventually reaching a toxic level if not addressed. Along the way John discovered when his behavior turned negative, he focused on outcomes over people. He saw himself as someone who cared about his teammates, the realization was heartbreaking.

John taught himself to recognize physiological signs of stress like shallow breathing, facial tightness and a clenched jaw. This allowed him to reflect on what he was feeling. He starting taking better care of himself through a regular routine of meditation and journaling. Today John has transformed his behavior. He works less but is more valuable to the team. He takes good care of himself, monitors for signs of stress and stays away working environments that amplify it.

Toxic behavior in a co-worker is common. Most of us have had a dreaded co-worker at least once in our career. Though prevalent, negative work habits are the cause of high levels of stress, attrition and even burnout. It’s so damaging it’s no wonder we dislike working with others with such negative behavior. Still, not all are a lost cause. Some, like John can turn it around. In a recent Twitter poll, 72% wondered if they’d been that toxic co-worker. They shared their stories, confessing their embarrassment at having treated their co-workers poorly. Many talked about it being a turning point in their career.

Many of us have worried about the hurt we may have caused others, myself included. Wondering if you’ve ever been that toxic co-worker is a great sign, it means you’re introspective and open to learning. No one wants to be the person the rest of the team avoids. It’s distressing to learn you’ve caused others pain. It’s a great motivator for change. Still, it can feel overwhelming knowing where to start. Begin by identifying how your behavior might impact others.

Here are five common toxic habits to get you started.

Having to be right — focused on finding the right solution, these folks can get argumentative especially when others disagree. Needing to be right makes collaboration difficult, creates roadblocks for forward movement and makes work miserable.

Being an energy drain — unhappy but feel dis-empowered to change the situation. When really struggling this slips into a high level of self-focus, even being self centered. This behavior wears others down and can make them feel like there isn’t room for their own experiences.

Constant micromanaging — they love to create processes for the team but can become inflexible if others don’t follow their exact guidelines. The team feels restricted when it becomes controlling. When a micromanagers takes on all the good bits the team struggles to develop their own skills.

Harsh criticism — though they might see themselves as blunt and direct, others see them as intimidating and even bullying. That harsh criticism can confronting and embarrassing, especially when done publicly. The team doesn’t feel safe, fear sets in, putting everyone edge. People leave the team.

Constant back chatter — when they don’t know what’s going on they search for more information, at their worst even delving into toxic gossip. This can spread to others, making them anxious and even paranoid. Constant gossip about the leaders or the company can create a negative culture.

How to transform negative behavior

Ask for feedback

If asking your lead feels too scary, start with a co-worker you trust. Be careful, you’re trying to root out negative behavior, not turn into a validation session. Tell them you want direct and specific feedback. Being nice isn’t going to help you make the necessary changes. A coach can be a neutral source who can help you examine your actions in a more structured way. This kind of relationship can surface patterned behavior and support in creating new ones. By the way, if your lead has said you’re not open to feedback, focus on this one first.

Create guiding principles

Guiding principles let you know what’s most important to you. These principles provide structure to measure your behavior against. Let’s say you value being non-judgmental. Despite this, under stress you might find yourself silently judging others. Under extreme stress judgmental statements fall out of your mouth much to your dismay. A discrepancy between our beliefs and our actions causes enormous stress, guilt and even shame. All of these negative emotions can make us act out — setting off a cycle of negative behavior, uncomfortable emotions we try to avoid, resulting in more negative behavior. This cycle creates an emotional debt that builds, ever harder to resolve. Guiding principles help us act in accordance with our inner beliefs.

Become more introspective

Habit change requires reflection. You have to understand what you’re doing and what you want in order to change. This means you have to slow down. Create practices that allow you to be more introspective. Give your mind space to wander by taking long walks with no purpose in mind, meditate — anything that gives you space to reflect on your behavior. A mixture of free-flowing and more directed thought can help. For more conscious work try journaling. Ask yourself direct questions: who do you suspect you’re you toxic to? Where are you behaving in ways you regret? What was happening when you found yourself acting in regretful ways. The answers provide useful clues.

Take a break

Running on adrenaline is common, especially at startups or when you’re working from home as many of us are now. We can feel like we’re constantly stuck in the on position, hijacking your autonomic nervous system. This system regulates many unconscious body processes including that flight or fight response. When overloaded, you stay in a state of near-constant activation harming your health and your ability to regulate your emotions. Running on adrenaline isn’t sustainable. You’ll either collapse from the stress or take it out on others. Neither is good. Taking breaks gives this critical system a chance to reset. This improves health and gives you time to process a message or interaction before responding. Negative behavior also become easier to manage.

Work on emotional regulation

If you want to shift negative behavior, taking good care of yourself is essential. Negative behavior often emerges as a reaction to stress. Proactively managing our stress can mean responding more positively in the moment. When done well, self care supports emotional regulation. Much toxic behavior stems from not being able to manage emotions. When we feel out of control, our feelings fly out of us accidentally, landing on our co-workers and causing us pain when we realize our unintentional actions. When done well, a strong self care regimen acts like insurance against negative emotions leaking out. If you’re a workaholic or tend to put others before yourself, start here.

Look for a mismatch

Negative behavior can stem from a mismatch in the work environment. It might be your role, your manager or even the culture. Those who find themselves gossiping as a way to gain more information or because unhappy with the direction of the company likely have a mismatch at play. Culture issues are a no-win. Departure is your best option. If the mismatch is with your manager or role and the company is big enough to move within, explore this option. Some situations bring out the worst in us. Where we might be kind, relaxed and calm at one company, we find ourselves on edge, grouchy and short tempered at another. If an environment brings out the worst in you, leave immediately. Then identify why it’s a bad environment for you so you don’t repeat it in the future.

Get support

Understand the root. What are you feeling? What’s making you act out in ways you don’t intend? Dig past the anger to the hurt, the ache inside. It won’t feel good but underlying issues will surface. Once you know where it’s coming from you can transform it. For example, if you often feel insecure you might be stuck in imposter syndrome. There might be real reasons for this like you’re not valued at work or it might be a thought pattern you’ve developed that doesn’t reflect reality. Feeling insecure is a warning sign for negative behavior. Take time to identify the origin of these feelings. If in a new role and just need to shore up your confidence, a mentor can help. If it’s more constant, find a good therapist.

Identify where you’re over doing it

My dad always says that your greatest asset in excess becomes a liability. Being out of balance is often a hidden reason for negative behavior. Have you ever gone back for seconds on something delicious like ice cream? The first bowl is so creamy, so delicious you go back for one more. By the end of the second bowl you start feeling sluggish — you’ve over done it. When we overdo them, our strengths can be just like that second bowl of ice cream — what used to feel great now feels terrible. Having to be right and those prone to wanting control are most susceptible to this. Where we were once excited about creating processes to support the team now we feel irritable and resentful. The team is unhappy, even avoiding you. This is a sign something is out of balance. Use that alone time to identify areas to improve.

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Suzan Bond

Written by

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. Twitter: @suzanbond

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

Suzan Bond

Written by

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. Twitter: @suzanbond

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

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