Q: Dear Workplace Wonda,
I need your help! I feel like I’m slowly being poisoned by my co-worker’s toxic behavior. From the minute Debby walks in until the minute she leaves, she is spewing negativity that radiates throughout the entire office. Instead of giving positive suggestions, she nit picks everything and complains constantly. How do I work with a person who has nothing better to do than contaminate office morale with her noxious attitude
Signed Ready to Explode
A: Dear Ready to Explode,
Your situation sounds just like a scene from Mission Impossible. Perhaps I can defuse some of your frustrations by offering you a few tips on dealing with toxic people like Debby.
The most important thing to remember is you can’t change her actions, but you can change your reaction. How? Let’s break it down:
Do some behavior analysis. Toxic people like Debby often suffer from insecurities such as low self-esteem, poor communication skills, or social awkwardness. Their negative behavior might be a way of building themselves up by tearing others down, or they may be having difficulties at home and are using the workplace as their personal toxic dumping ground. Getting a little understanding of what makes Debby tick might allow you the patience and empathy needed to prevent your anger from detonating in 3... 2... 1!
Try positive reinforcement. When dealing with “Debby Downer,” steer the conversation from her negative comments about you or others, to positive comments about her. A dosage of flattery might get you everywhere. Use distraction when necessary to head off hazardous comments. Keep up the positive chatter, and cut off any negativity by finding any excuse to politely walk away. Hopefully, your positive attitude will be contagious.
Confront the problem head on. Individuals like Debby have difficulty making personal and professional connections. Explain to her, in a professional manner, how her behavior is affecting you. Be specific. People with poor social skills can come off as being brazen, even if that is not their intent. You could even give her an example of a more positive and appropriate way she should communicate with you. Tick...Tick..Tick... apply these principles and you might ignite Debby’s softer side, changing her behavior from noxious to nice.
If all else fails. Toxic people can pollute an organization quickly, having a detrimental affect on morale. It becomes increasingly difficult for other staff working with these individuals to understand why this disease is allowed to grow. So, if all else fails, you might have to report Debby’s behavior to the appropriate individual in your chain of command.
Advice for the HR professional. Many times the reason toxic people are not dealt with properly by supervisors is because their performance can still be “the bomb,” while their personality is a real stinker. It is much easier to document and address a tangible performance problem than to deal with an individual who isn’t pleasant to be around.
Employee handbooks should include a list of standards of conduct expected and one of those standards should reference attitude and behavior toward other employees and customers. Violations of the standards of conduct should be addressed swiftly, including recommending termination if needed.
If you use these deactivation techniques and strike at the early warning signs of negativity you may be able to avoid the danger zone caused by toxic people.
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