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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

5 Toxic Traits to Avoid at Work (And How to Deal with Them)

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Work often throws people together that may not necessarily interact in their personal lives. And, as such, you might not always love your coworkers. But there’s a big difference between a colleague you don’t vibe with and a person that’s truly toxic.

Dealing with toxic personality traits at work can be stressful and draining; whether you’re facing a gossip, a liar, or a straight-up bully (or any toxic traits in between!), interacting with these types of colleagues can negatively affect your productivity, health, and overall well-being.

Let’s take a look at the impact coworker toxic traits might have—and what you can do to create a healthier work environment.

The risks of toxic personality traits at work

“Working alongside toxic colleagues who exhibit harmful behaviors can deeply negatively impact our sense of psychological safety, self-esteem, and mental well-being at work over time,” says Dr. Daniel Glazer, clinical psychologist and founder of tech platform US Therapy Rooms.

Some of the negative effects you might experience when dealing with toxic coworkers include:

  • Increased stress. Toxic coworkers can be challenging and overwhelming; for example, if your colleague gaslights you (more on that later), it could make you question your own memory and interpretation of reality, leading to increased anxiety. And the more toxicity you have to deal with, the more stressful it is—which can also impact job satisfaction and engagement.

  • Decreased morale. It’s hard to keep a good attitude when you’re dealing with toxicity in your colleagues. “Workers with toxic traits corrode team cohesion and trust, draining energy and morale,” says Glazer. “This prevents teams from collaborating effectively or doing their best work in the long run.

  • Decreased productivity. Managing other people’s toxic traits and behaviors can make it hard to focus on the task at hand and get things done, leading to reduced performance and productivity.

  • Issues with mental health. Toxic behaviors can be hurtful, insulting, and/or upsetting—and having to deal with them on a regular basis may cause people to struggle with their mental health (for example, feeling depressed or anxious when they think about work).

It’s worth noting that if you're not dealing with just a single toxic coworker, but many, it’s not just a problem with your colleagues—it’s probably an issue with your company. In other words, these are also traits of a toxic work environment.

“A high volume or concentration of toxic workers is generally indicative of an unhealthy organizational culture that enables or ignores disrespectful interpersonal conduct on teams,” says Glazer. So, if you find yourself surrounded by toxic colleagues, you may want to consider whether your work environment is actually a place you want to be.

5 toxic coworker traits to look out for

Clearly, toxic coworkers are a problem. But not all toxicity is created equal. There are different ways that colleagues can be problematic—and each of those traits can impact you and your work uniquely.

Here are some of the most common toxic traits and how to deal with them:

1. Gaslighting

One coworker trait that can be extremely toxic? Gaslighting.

“Gaslighting is a manipulative act in which someone attempts to make you doubt your own perceptions, memories, or sanity,” says Dr. Amber Tichenor, an I/O psychologist that specializes in psychological safety and female rivalry and author of Behind Frenemy Lines: Rising Above Female Rivalry To Be Unstoppable Together.

“This type of behavior is incredibly harmful at work, as it undermines your confidence and ability to trust your own judgment, leading to confusion, self-doubt, and potentially serious mental health consequences.”

For example, let’s say you observed a coworker share something rude about another team member—but when you confront them on it, they say, “What are you talking about? That absolutely never happened. Why are you making things up?” That’s gaslighting.

How to deal with gaslighting at work

If someone tries to gaslight you at work, standing up for yourself is important. “Politely but firmly assert your boundaries,” says Tichenor. “Refuse to engage in arguments or discussions that seek to undermine your confidence or perceptions.”

So, when dealing with the above mentioned example, you might say something like, “I know what I saw, and I do not accept your questioning of my reality and experience.”

2. Lying

Lying breeds distrust—and when you have a coworker that’s less than honest, it can be extremely toxic.

“Dishonesty is also a contributing factor to a toxic workplace,” says Eric Mochnacz, career coach, HR advisor, and consultant at strategic HR and change management consultancy Red Clover. “I'm not just talking about outright lies—which is definitely toxic behavior in a workplace. But I am also talking about the dishonesty involved when what someone in a company says in public is very different from what they say in private.”

For example, “it's toxic for someone to praise their colleague in a meeting, but once behind closed doors, they are maligning the person and saying their work is subpar,” says Mochnacz.

How to deal with lying at work

How you deal with a lying team member will depend on the situation. If you notice that your colleague has a tendency to fib about small, seemingly inconvenient things, “talk to the coworker about their dishonesty,” says Tichenor. Let them know that it’s important to you to work in an environment that feels truthful and trustworthy—and their behavior isn’t allowing for that to happen.

If your coworker is telling untruths about something more serious, like stealing from the company or spreading harmful rumors about a colleague, it’s probably best to speak to leadership and have them address the behavior.

And if your colleague is lying about you? Stand up for yourself and counteract their fabrication with the truth. If you can, “present evidence or documentation to counter false claims or accusations made by the coworker,” says Tichenor.

3. Passive-aggressiveness

Ideally, communication with your coworkers will be direct and kind. But some people have trouble speaking authentically—and when they’re upset, frustrated, or bothered by something, instead of saying that clearly, they may act passive-aggressively to get their point across.

“Expressing hostility or resentment through indirect, non-verbal means is toxic,” says licensed therapist Erin Miller Weinstein. “Passive-aggressive behavior, like sarcasm, backhanded compliments, or avoiding responsibilities, undermines open communication, creating a tense and unproductive work environment.”

For example, let’s say you and your coworker were vying for a promotion—and you eventually land the gig. Instead of telling you they’re having a hard time accepting it, your colleague might make sarcastic remarks undermining your abilities—but when you ask if they’re upset, the coworkers just say, “Of course not! I’m just kidding.” That’s passive-aggressiveness in action.

How to deal with passive-aggressiveness at work

People act passive-aggressively because they either lack the skills or desire to deal with and/or communicate their emotions. So, the best way to manage a toxic coworker is to “confront passive-aggressive behavior directly but diplomatically,” says Weinstein—and also set boundaries to protect yourself from the behavior in the future.

For example, you might say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been making a lot of sarcastic remarks about my promotion, and I want you to know I don’t appreciate it. I understand you were also up for this promotion, so I understand that you might be upset—and am willing to have an open conversation about it if that would be helpful. But please stop with the sarcastic remarks.”

4. Gossipping

“One of the most common toxic workplace behaviors is gossip,” says Mochnacz.

Why? “Gossipping can damage morale and trust, and cultivates a culture of distrust, negativity, and resentment,” says Tichenor.

This kind of toxic trait can take many forms; for example, if you tell your coworker something personal and they share it with your entire team without your permission, that would fall under gossip. Or if they made up a lie about you and spread it around the company? That could also be considered gossip.

How to deal with gossipping at work

People who gossip love company; they want people to chatter right along with them. So, if you want to put a stop to it? “Refrain from participating in gossip or spreading rumors about coworkers,” says Tichenor.

If someone tries to involve you in gossip, “politely redirect conversations,” says Tichenor. For example, let’s say a coworker approaches you and exclaims, “You’re never going to hear what Matt just told me about Carly!,” you might respond with, “I’m not comfortable talking about other people when they’re not present. But I’d love to hear about the project you’re working on!

Knowing that a colleague has a tendency to gossip, it’s also important to be mindful of what and how much you share. Before you give away any personal information, remind yourself that whatever you tell them is likely to get around—so don’t share anything you wouldn’t be comfortable with getting out publicly.

5. Bullying

When it comes to toxic traits, bullying is about as toxic as you can get. “A person who seeks to harm or intimidate others via verbal abuse, intimidation, humiliation, or exclusion is a bully,” says Tichenor.

“These negative behaviors contribute to a toxic work environment and can greatly impact a person’s mental and emotional well-being, leading to stress, anxiety, depression and physical health issues.”

For example, a workplace bully may try to intimidate you to do their work for them—and scream at you when you refuse.

How to deal with bullying at work

Depending on the relationship and what kind of bullying you’re facing, talking to the person directly—and letting them know their behavior is not ok—could be an option. In that scenario, you would “approach the coworker privately and calmly to discuss specific instances, expressing your boundaries and expectations for respectful communication and behavior,” says Tichenor.

But sometimes, approaching a bullying coworker just isn’t safe, particularly if you think there’s a risk for violence. If you feel at all apprehensive or fearful about addressing someone you’re having issues with, “reach out to HR, a supervisor, or a trusted colleague for support and guidance in addressing the bullying behavior,” says Tichenor.

How to work on YOUR toxic traits

Sometimes, it’s not coworkers’ toxic traits you need to look out for; it’s your own.

“If you're the person exhibiting toxic behavior at work, you are seriously impacting your ability to be a trusted and respected team member,” says Mochnacz. “No one wants to work with a toxic person.”

But don’t panic! Nobody is perfect—and if you find yourself exhibiting toxic traits, there are ways to address and improve them. Here are a few tips on how to work on your own toxicity—and become a better colleague (and person!) in the process:

Look inward

You can’t change what you don’t recognize. So, if overcoming toxic behaviors feels like an important part of your journey, looking inward and doing some serious self-reflection is a must.

“Looking inward can be hard, but it’s important to help identify negative patterns, behaviors and things that can trigger you,” says Tichenor.

Self-reflection can help you better understand yourself and how you interact with others—and developing awareness of any traits you’re bringing into interactions with coworkers (whether that’s defensiveness or a tendency to interrupt others) is the first step to changing them.

Take responsibility

Once you have awareness of the traits you need to change, it’s time to own up to them—and make amends if necessary. “Admit when you've displayed toxic behavior and take responsibility for your actions,” says Tichenor.

That will look different depending on what traits you’re trying to improve. For example, if you have a tendency to gossip, taking responsibility might mean apologizing to a coworker for spreading a rumor about them—while if you’re more prone to undermining, it might mean scheduling a meeting with your manager to fess up to taking credit for a colleague’s work. Just make sure that you address your toxic behavior and do what it takes to fix it.

Practice mindfulness

As mentioned, if you want to change toxic traits, you need to be aware of when you’re exhibiting that trait—and then consciously make a decision to act differently. For example, if you often communicate passive-aggressively, you need to recognize when you’re slipping into that communication style—and deliberately speak more directly.

And how do you do that? By being mindful. “Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and reactions,” says Tichenor. “Practicing mindfulness helps you become aware of toxic tendencies and provides space to step back, reflect and choose healthier responses.”

When you’re interacting with coworkers, try to bring extra awareness in the moment. Notice if you feel a pull to act in a toxic manner. Acknowledge it, then decide to do something different.

Bottom line? The more mindful you are of your toxic tendencies, the better you’ll be able to recognize them in real-time and choose to act in a less toxic way.

Seek help

Sometimes, you can’t change toxic behaviors on your own—even when you try. And in that situation, it’s best to get support.

“It’s ok to ask for help,” says Tichenor. “If you’re struggling to manage your own behavior, consider going to a therapist, counselor, or coach who can offer help and guidance.”