• 13th May 2007 - By proteman

    Have you ever worked with a toxic person?

    These are people who spread negativity. And when you let them into your workplace or your life, they are like mold. They’re unpleasant, they spread their nastiness everywhere…and they’re often hard to get rid of. I have one of these in my life now. Every time I think I’ve removed this toxic person from my life, she keeps coming back.

    There’s a great book by Keith Harrell called “Attitude is Everything”, in which he warns about “toxic negativity” and the damage these people cause to the poor souls who encounter them. According to Harrell, these poisonous people fall into different categories:

    Judges and Critics: They invest most of their time and effort criticizing and judging others (deflecting attention away from their own short-comings and unhappiness). They can be direct and outright demeaning, or they can be subtle (but no less critical).

    “I wouldn’t have done it that way.”
    “Do you really want to wear that?”
    “Let me tell you what’s wrong with your idea.”

    Professional Victims: Things always happen to them. Nothing is ever their fault.

    “It’s not my fault that the customer changed his mind.”
    “If my manager were better, I could do my job better.”
    “Nobody told me I was supposed to do that.”
    “I couldn’t make any sales because you gave me bad leads.”

    Soap Opera Stars: These people are drama kings and queens. They thrive on turmoil, chaos and conflict. When there isn’t any drama, they stir the pot to create it.

    “Did you hear what Donna said about Albert?”
    “I heard a rumor that there are going to be some big changes in the department!”
    “I can’t believe I was so wronged! How could they do this to me?!”
    “I wouldn’t take that. You should give her a piece of your mind!”

    Bitter to the Core: According to Harrell, these people have a motto: “There’s nothing worse than seeing your friends succeed.” These are miserable people who are so unhappy with themselves and their lives that they want to spread their misery. They may smile and put up a friendly facade, but they’ll stab you in the back and bring you down every chance they get (smiling the whole time).

    “I wouldn’t get too excited. It probably won’t last.”

    “If it weren’t for me, you’d never make it!”
    “You got a promotion? Great! I heard you got the job because no one else wanted it.”

    “You’re pregnant? Congratulations. My sister’s pregnancy was hell. I hope yours isn’t as miserable.”

    So what do you do when you encounter toxic people? Here are some tips, many of which I’ve learned the hard way, through experience.

    • Don’t let them in. Have you ever seen a vampire movie? If so, you’ll know that one of the “rules” of vampires is that they can’t enter your house unless you invite them in. (In the movies, the unwitting victims ALWAYS let them in for some reason!) Toxic people are like vampires. They’ll suck the life out of you. If you see them, don’t even let them in…because once they’re in, they’ll do damage.
    • Contain them. These people need to be reigned in, or their toxicity will spread rapidly, partciularly if they’re on your work team. Let them know the rules early on. When you hear an example of negative talk, criticism or rumor-mongering, address it immediately. Let them know that the behavior is not acceptable. If it’s in the workplace, give them examples of how their negative behavior is impacting work performance and the morale of others. If the behavior continues, let them go.
    • Create a “buffer zone”. If you’re forced to live with a toxic person (for example, your father-in-law) or work with one (for example, your peer in another department), you’ve got to deal with it. Protect yourself by creating a buffer zone. You can do this by limiting your interaction with this person as much as possible. And when you must interact with them, prepare yourself emotionally in advance. Build up your strength by doing something that makes you feel good first, like going for a long walk. Talk to someone positive beforehand, so you feel upbeat and good about yourself. Mentally prepare by saying to yourself: “I’m happy. I won’t let this person get to me.”

    Positive attitude is a choice you can make. You can either allow yourself to get dragged down by toxic people, or you can leave them to roll around in their own mud. You choose.


    © 2007. Phyllis Roteman, The Loyalty Group. All Rights Reserved.

  • 11 Comments to “Toxic People”

    • Anonymous on May 15, 2007

      I disagree about the whole vampire thing… it implies that you should be overly cautious or maybe even paranoid about letting people in. If you don’t take a chance how can you grow? The real key is to keep your eyes open and understand that every person has thier positive and negative moments, it’s human nature. Finding a way to nurture the positive side is the golden ticket but remember, without negative there would be no positive!

    • Phyllis Roteman on May 15, 2007

      Thanks for the different perspective, anonymous!

      I completely agree that being overly cautious is no way to live. I have a 9 month old son and I know it’ll be a big challenge teaching him to trust people…yet be cautious. It’s a fine line.

      That said, let me clarify what I meant with the vampire analogy. There are some people who are consistently negative and toxic. I’m not talking about people who have bad days or do bad things sometimes. I’m talking about people who drag everyone around them down consistently. Being around them is a drain.

      My point is that in life you have choices. You can choose to surround yourself with positive people – or wallow with negative people that suck the life out of you. Phyllis

    • snowball69 on July 29, 2007

      Anonymous(1) posts a good example of how a toxic person would convince and connive in order to entrench their position. I’d hazard a guess that they exhibit some degree of toxicity themselves.

      The fact is that people can generally recognise the toxicity of others and quite readily differentiate between over-reacting and the need to take action to strengthen their own boundaries. How often do we ignore our own deep instincts after listening to the outwardly rational discourse of a toxic person and continue allowing them to blight our lives year upon year – knowing full-well we are doing wrong.

      Realising a person is toxic and is having a deleterious effect on your life, career and health isn’t usually a snap judgement and this is not a matter of being “paranoid” or “trusting no-one until they are deemed to be non-toxic”.

      Having worked in both heavy, manual industry and office I can say that toxic souls are found in both areas but for some reason negative people thrive like a fungus on the claustrophobic atmosphere of the office.

      Apart from a few sick individuals, as humans we are all generally outward and trusting. It would be impossible to get through the day if one were a suspicious sociopath. It is this openness and willingness to trust that toxic folks aim barbs and hooks at in order to gain control over us.

      Have no doubt, toxic people are experienced manipulators and when this is combined with a genuine lack of empathy there is every justification to keep them at arm’s length.

    • Phyllis Roteman on August 15, 2007

      Dear Snowball69,

      You are so right. My experience is that most toxic people are in complete denial about their toxicity. In fact, many of them hone their “conniving” skills so well that they try to convince everyone around them that “they” are the problem (deflecting).

      When you’re “in it”, it’s very hard to see that it’s happening.

      Your observation about toxic people thriving in office environments is interesting. Wonder what others think…this may be worth a research study!

      Perhaps it is the cubicles, hierarchy, odd rules and constant change that feeds (or attracts) toxic people. Just watch the show “The Office” and you’ll see a case study.

      Thanks for your comments! Phyllis

    • Anonymous on March 25, 2008

      I very much agree with snowball69… ‘anonymous’ sounds and feels toxic and typical of how these people dance around the truth to avoid it.

      Thank you for posting about this, I am dealing with a really toxic person in my life right now… she came to my ‘aid’ in a very difficult situation with other people involved, and now that we’re deeper into the situation, I’m realizing she’s just as toxic as they are!! She’s very much a ‘stir the pot/drama/troublemaker’ type… when there isn’t any trouble, she’s looking for it… she’s also subtly critical of a lot of things I do… the problem is, I’ve let her in as a friend… how the hell do you get OUT of a situation like that?? I have to see her at the gym (and no, changing gyms is not easy or an option)… any tips on extricating oneself from that kind of a ‘friendship’… ?

    • Phyllis Roteman on March 25, 2008

      Anonymous 2,

      Thanks for sharing your “toxic” story. First, congratulate yourself for realizing the negative impact this person is having on you and others. It’s easy to feel like it’s YOUR problem and not theirs. That’s part of their manipulation game, as Snowball points out.

      Now, what to do? I’ve got a few suggestions, but I’d also love to hear from others.

      - Be honest about her behavior. Admittedly, I tried this with my toxic person…and it didn’t work out too well. But at least I felt like I tried. I basically called them (politely and objectively) on their behavior. As you might expect, the individual deflected, cried, then got angry at me and made their “bad behavior” my fault (“If you wouldn’t do X, I wouldn’t have to behave badly!”) Again, I am glad I tried this approach, if only for my own piece of mind.

      - Don’t feed the friendship. This doesn’t mean being rude. However, a friendship takes two people making an effort to keep it alive. Are you subtly encouraging this toxic person by engaging her in conversation, smiling and head nodding, asking her questions, etc? If so, you’re signaling that you want to nurture the friendship. You might try keeping your conversations with her shorter and telling her that “you’ve got to run.” Eventually, she’ll get the point and move on. I know this sounds like a wimpy way to avoid the issue, but it may be the best way to end the friendship without a dramatic blow up.

      - Focus on your gym workouts. If the only place you run into this person is at the gym, this might be easy…just focus on your workouts. I know when I go to the gym, I like to push myself. It’s hard to do that when others are engaging you in conversation. If she approaches you to talk at the gym, you could easily say, “I’m sorry…but I’m really focused on my workout today. I can’t talk now.”

      - Take the Band-Aid approach. I suppose the most courageous way to extricate yourself is to just say, “I can’t be friends with you any more.” (It’s quick and painful, like yanking off a Band-Aid.) Of course she’ll want an explanation…which takes you back to the first point (be honest by describing the negative behaviors and impact on you and others). If she gets defensive, nasty or manipulative, you can simply end the conversation. It may be uncomfortable for some time seeing her at the gym, but it will be done.

    • Ready to win on September 3, 2008

      I found a lot of encouragement from your writing Phyllis, so thank you kindly.

      I have worked in a toxic office for 2 years while finishing my degree. Two particular older women are openly toxic toward me, and clients, and their own friends by judging and criticising. Now I have my own office I am insulated from it, but I see them doing the same to the another worker.

      I have only just teamed up with this other worker to share our pains. I have realised that I have been paranoid about ‘letting people in’ for the past 2 years! – we should have teamed up a lot earlier!

      I am committed to stay at my job, as I have worked hard for it. Since I recognised they were ‘toxic’ last year, I unplugged. This leaves me out of the social loop at work, but this is a neccesary sacrifice, as every conversation with these toxic women is dangerous.

      Now that I’ve decided how to deal with them, these 2 women have no chance of bringing me down. And since I have unplugged, they have tried to be ‘nicer’ but I wont budge.

      I just hope my co-worker friend does not leave, as it is important to have some support.

      Ready to win

    • Anonymous on January 21, 2009

      Regarding the assumption that toxic people thrive more in the claustraphobic environment of an office, i don’t think it’s the office itself more the situation of any group of people being at or working at close quarters over periods of time.
      Having lived a rather unconventional lifestyle for most of my life, were periods of work were nothing more than a chance to accumulate enough money to travel abroad for long periods i have over the years on returning to this country noticed a huge amount of toxicity not just in the work place but in British society in general.
      I have never found it difficuilt to cut away people who play a toxic role in my life regardless of who they are. So in general i have lived a life with few constant negative influences around me, but, the periods when i return to the workplace in this country whether it be in an office or any manual job on a large site i can’t help but notice the levels of negativity and toxicity are pretty extreme. When i come back from travelling i am happy and balanced and little bothers me or upsets me, because i have been free to do the things i love to do with other like minded people who are happy with themselves and their lives. But within a couple of months of being in an English workplace i can feel the life being drained out of me not by the work but by the people you work with. When you live a life where egotism,unnecessary competiveness and insecurity doesn’t play a huge part in your thinking suddenly being around groups of people whose whole life appears to revolve around those things it’s an experience i never look forward to. It never ceases to shock me the constant negativity,plotting, back stabbing, shit stirring and just general bad intentioned gossip and mischief making it’s endemic in the British workplace. Of course not everyone is involved but it is certainly not just the odd toxic person some are extreme cases but the whole environment seems to breed that attitude. I think there are some that ordinarily are probably decent well balanced people but having to suffer the environment week in week out year in year out with the work place playing such a big part in their life it’s probably only natural they become a part of the toxic behaviour in preference to being a constant victim of it.

    • Phyllis Roteman on January 21, 2009

      Ready to win, I’m so happy that this writing helped. Sometimes just seeing the craziness (of a toxic environment or toxic behavior) for what it is makes it easier to deal with. I know when I was sucked into a toxic work relationship, I felt like I was crazy.

      Anonymous “3″ — thanks for your perspective on British workplace toxicity. Ahhh…it’s good to know that it’s not just us Americans.

      Seriously, you make a good point about how to deal with toxic behavior. If you can surround yourself with people who are positive and “above the fray” of toxic behavior, you’ll be happier.

      I find that being around positive, high-road people is the perfect antidote to toxic behavior. Like a nice hot shower!

    • Anonymous on June 2, 2009

      Something I’ve learned in dealing with toxic people is to not partake in activities that are considered toxic. Gossip is probably one of the worst workplace offenses. If you gossip about another person’s toxicity you’re no better than them. The safest thing to do is not give in to gossip, even if it’s initiated by someone else. While it does help to confide in someone about your problems, it will only make things worse for everbody at the workplace if not a single soul can be trusted. And “loose lips sinks ships:” Friendships deteriorate when gossip is prevalent because gossip deteriorates trust.

      But I do have a couple questions –

      Are there certain workplaces that would have a lower risk of having to deal with toxic people?

      Also, what’s a good way to read people’s motives? It’s hard for me to tell who is toxic because I always try to be accepting towards everyone I meet. What’s the best way to tell whether criticism comes from an ugly place or comes from good intentions?

    • Jenna on June 2, 2009

      Thanks for the great advice! I’m currently dealing with a toxic brother-in-law who surprisingly fits EVERY type of person mentioned in your article rolled into one. He’s incredibly negative, gossips about everyone, is paranoid about others speaking about him, and dredges up offenses from 20 years ago. He’s jealous, manipulative, a liar and just plain…stupid. It’s absolute torture being with this person and I was the recipient of one of his rantings this week. I plan to take your advice to heart! Thank you!

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