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Help! I'm in a Toxic Work Relationship

Help! Iā€™m in a Toxic Work Relationship


Like a toxic friendship or romance, a toxic work relationship can drain you and leave you feeling short-changed. Unlike that toxic friend or significant other, cutting the toxic colleague off is not always an option.


If you cannot live with them and you refuse to live like them, what can you do? Here are some ways to manage a toxic work relationship so it will not bring you or your career down.



What is a Toxic Relationship?


A toxic relationship is one in which the other person frequently hurts you emotional, psychologically and even physically. There is little mutual respect, your welfare is not taken care of and your personhood is not respected. Insecurity, self-centredness and control colour the relationship. In short, it is dysfunctional.


A relationship like that leaves you worse off. It shreds your self-esteem, drains your emotions and saps your energy. It does not contribute to your personal growth. It is not a safe place. 


If that is how you feel about a relationship at work, read on.



How Can You Manage a Toxic Work Relationship?


1. Speak Up

Talk to your toxic colleague calmly and honestly. Do not make excuses for him. You are not being overly sensitive. If you keep quiet, there is no guarantee he will stop on his own.


Tell him politely but firmly that what he is saying or doing is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Focus on how he has impacted you rather than criticising his behaviour. It may be that he simply does not know that he has been hurting you. Not everyone is as self-aware as they should be.


2. Take the High Road

It is only human to run away from someone who hurts you or feel trapped when that option is not open. You have a third choice - counter cruelty with kindness. In your interactions with him, be gracious.


Do not indulge in office gossip about him or engage in one-upmanship. This may be difficult because, chances are, if he is a bully or toxic, you are not his first or only victim. But stooping to his level only contributes to the toxic environment at work.


3. Speak Out

Make sure others know. Confide in people you trust ā€“ friends and family. They are your support base. If the situation does not abate and you have tried unsuccessfully to manage the relationship, document what you can and let your boss know.


4. Limit Engagement

You may not be able to avoid a toxic co-worker but you can limit engagement. Keep conversations short and work-related. Have a few key excuses (I have something else to attend to; we can talk about this some other time) and use them to cut off chit chat but do not apologise for it. Employ verbal cues such as short sentences or muted responses when dealing with your toxic co-worker.


5. Set boundaries

When you do interact with the person, set boundaries. Do not respond to triggers or attempts to bait you to react. Be assertive and refuse to be party to the negativity. Re-phrase backbiting with positive statements. If the conversation continues to spiral downwards, be direct and tell the person you are not keen to be part of the discussion.


6. Protect Yourself

Do not overshare your ideas or anything personal with that toxic co-worker. He cannot be trusted not to use any of it to his advantage and your detriment. In fact, make sure your boss is the first to hear your initiative so no one else can take credit for them.


7. Do Not Take It Personally

Even when you have done everything you can to manage a toxic relationship, it can still affect your psyche. Make sure you have healthy relationships. Align yourself to non-toxic people at work who can be your support. Refuse to internalise the negativity or criticism. Focus instead on your work goals and on being a force for good, building trust and friendships.