How to Handle Toxic People at Work 10 Strategies for Success

How to Handle Toxic People at Work: 10 Strategies for Success

Most of us have experienced working with toxic people in the office. 

A survey by the American Psychological Association showed that 76% of workers who experienced toxicity at the workplace felt that their mental health was impacted by work. 

The effects of toxic people at the workplace can be far-reaching and often very damaging to the entire team and organization, from lowered team morale and increased stress levels to decreased productivity and higher employee turnover.

But who are these toxic people? You know the kind—they’re the ones who consistently (knowingly or not) harm others through their behavior.

They pass backhanded comments or act out of jealousy.

They love to gossip and criticize.

They accuse others of not getting the job done and always have excuses for not doing theirs.

And the list goes on.

It’s exhausting to deal with such a difficult person, yet you may be unable to avoid it if you work with them.

So, how do you deal with toxic people effectively in the workplace?

We’ll discuss how to handle toxic people at work. We’ll also show you ways to identify them, set limits, and navigate difficult situations.

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Spotting Toxic People at Work

Every workplace comprises individuals with distinct work histories, working styles, and personalities. While everybody will bring a unique personality to work, there are some ways you can spot a toxic colleague.

Signs and behaviors of toxic individuals at work

Before we can learn how to handle toxic people at work, we must understand how to identify them. While the following isn’t a comprehensive list, it’s a good starting point to spot toxic employees.

  • Easily offended
  • Always want to be right
  • Try to control the situation
  • Pass insensitive comments
  • Aggressively competitive
  • Sabotage other people’s work
  • Always whining or complaining
  • Frequently accusing others of being wrong
  • Constantly forcing their opinions on others

Specific types of toxic people at work

Such people can also be put under different categories, such as:

1. The Kiss Up/Kick Downer 

Ever notice how a coworker compliments senior staff but later, in their absence, criticizes team members, including you, for minor mistakes? That’s a Kiss Up/Kick Downer for you.

Such people want to show themselves in a good light by any means necessary, even if it means questioning their team’s experience in front of a senior leader, volunteering for aggressive targets, or taking credit for someone else’s work.

With the team, you’ll find them setting unrealistic deadlines, piling on extra work, or making snide remarks. They try to prove they’re in charge by making everyone else’s life harder.

2. The Micromanager

Have you ever spent hours working on a report, only for your team leader to oversee every line and suggest minor changes that make you question your competence?

The irony of the micromanager is that if you have one, you probably work the hardest and get the least done. They assign work at an unreasonable time. All tasks, big or small, are equally urgent and must be done now.

With a micromanager, there’s no autonomy or independence to make decisions. You’re asked for updates all the time. A micromanager focuses on minor details instead of the big picture. The worst part is that they don’t even give practical advice initially but are quick to find faults.

3. The Gaslighter

Imagine working on a critical project, and suddenly, the goals you were aiming for change overnight. When you voice concerns, your manager insists, “We’ve always been aiming for these targets; you just haven’t been paying attention.” You’re left confused and questioning your understanding of the project’s objectives.

Or, have you ever been to a team event only to find out there’s a dress code nobody told you about? You walk in feeling entirely out of place, and when you bring it up later, your colleague acts surprised, making you question if you missed the memo when, in fact, it was never shared.

The most toxic of them all, gaslighters love to control people by twisting their sense of reality. They leverage their power to always assert themselves as correct, making it difficult for others to challenge them. They also have a poor work ethic and low emotional intelligence.

4. The Bulldozer

Have you ever been in a situation when you pitch your ideas to your manager, but your colleague completely dismisses you and instead presents a new agenda, believing their approach or solution is the way to go?

Bulldozers are well-connected employees who aren’t afraid to use their influence to get what they want. They assert power early, for example, taking over the first five minutes of a meeting when everyone is introducing themselves or getting settled. They believe in intimidating or coercing co-workers to get their own way.

They don’t hesitate to bypass organizational norms or overlook the impacts of their actions on team dynamics and morale. They can even go behind the scenes to the senior leaders to influence things in their favor. Bulldozers never compromise.

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How to Handle Toxic People at Work

Destructive employee behavior, whether of a colleague or a manager, can leave anyone reeling or demotivated. Here’s how to handle toxic people at work so that you can stay in control of your work life:

1. Establish firm boundaries to disengage

Just because you work with a toxic person doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries with them. Have an exit strategy and consider brainstorming a few go-to lines ahead of time that you can pull out as needed.

Here are some ideas:

  • If you’re stuck in a toxic conversation, use an excuse to leave. You could say, ‘Sorry, but I must finish this within the hour. Can we talk later?’ or ‘Sorry, I have to get into a meeting. Can we continue this later?’
  • If your supervisor starts micromanaging your work, learn to counter in ways like, ‘I appreciate your guidance. It’s good to learn something new every day.’ Communicate that you are open to constructive feedback but will own your work.
  • If your toxic coworker passes snide comments about you in a group setting, stay calm and say, ‘Let’s focus on the project deliverables for now.’

In each scenario, you say something objective to defuse the situation without being rude. If possible, here are other things to do to minimize your interaction with the toxic employee:

  • Change your schedule (or office hours)
  • Request a change in seating or even a team
  • Communicate via email as much as possible instead of face-to-face meetings

2. Use the ‘gray rock’ method

This is a psychological strategy for dealing with individuals who are emotionally manipulative or toxic. It’s named after the concept of becoming as uninteresting and unresponsive as a gray rock.

You can apply this ‘gray rock’ method by:

  • Using a monotone voice to make the conversation dull and less engaging
  • Avoiding eye contact to signal to the person you’re not interested in interacting more than necessary
  • ​​Steering towards mundane subjects unlikely to spark interest or emotional reactions if forced into a conversation

When you keep an emotional distance and appear to be as dull as a gray rock, you starve toxic people of the fuel they need to continue their negative behavior with you.

3. Create a personal impact filter

This filter involves a set of questions or criteria you run through after interacting with a toxic employee to assess its actual impact on your work and well-being. This helps reduce these interactions’ emotional and mental toll on you.

Here’s how you can implement this technique:

  • Identify what truly matters to you. Criteria might include questions like, ‘Does this affect the quality of my work?’ or ‘Is this impacting my professional relationships?’
  • After an encounter with a toxic employee, ask yourself whether the interaction meets any of your predefined criteria
  • If the interaction doesn’t pass through your filter, consciously choose to let it go; tell yourself it’s not worth your energy

This method reinforces your control over how you react to and process interactions, empowering you to maintain composure and professionalism.

4. Use Socratic questioning

Socratic questioning involves a disciplined and thoughtful dialogue between two or more people. When dealing with a toxic colleague, use this method to challenge their negativity or problematic assertions without directly confronting them.

Here’s an example:

Your toxic colleague frequently complains about team decisions, asserting they’re always excluded from decision-making.

You can reduce the toxicity in the narrative by asking probing questions that encourage them to explain their thoughts and behavior.

You: You mentioned you feel left out of decision-making. Which decisions, specifically?

Toxic coworker: I wasn’t asked about the project timeline.

You: Understood. How could your input have altered the timeline?

Toxic coworker: I’d have proposed something more realistic.

You: Interesting. What’s your timeline idea, and why? How can we include your insights moving forward?

If this conversation doesn’t result in a positive outcome, you at least spotlight them and ask them to justify their behavior indirectly.

5. Gamify your interactions with the toxic employee

Convert your conversations with such a person into a personal game. Set goals for keeping your composure to make dealing with them less stressful.

For example, set yourself a challenge to take three deep breaths before responding to any negative emotions or comments. If you remain calm in all conversations throughout the week, reward yourself with something you enjoy (like an exceptional cup of coffee or an extra break).

Or, define a goal to find at least one point of agreement with the toxic person during meetings or casual conversations. This would help you handle toxicity positively, reduce workplace anxiety, and improve your interpersonal skills.

6. Make professional development a priority

Keep yourself busy and productive at work. 

Channel your energy and focus into your work or projects that benefit your career growth. For example:

  • Enroll in training programs, workshops, or online courses that enhance your skill set. This will make you more valuable to your current team and open doors to new projects where you interact less with toxic employees and enjoy better workplace flexibility
  • Volunteer for new projects, especially those that are cross-departmental or involve working with different teams. This diversifies your work experience within the organization and can also reduce your exposure to a particular toxic co-worker
  • Attend industry conferences, seminars, and industry events. A strong professional network can provide support and advice, potentially leading to other job opportunities

7. Seek professional mediation

If the situation doesn’t improve, propose mediation through HR, a manager, or even a colleague to address ongoing conflicts.

For example, if you’re looking to finish a project on time but face challenges due to a toxic employee’s behavior or lack of cooperation, professional mediation can help you steer the issue in a productive direction.

Through this strategic approach, you and the toxic employee can communicate concerns, expectations, and barriers in a controlled environment guided by a neutral mediator.

Even if nothing positive comes out, you at least let the mediator know about the issue and how the other person’s behavior is causing delays.

8. Build your support system

Don’t suffer in silence.

Everyone deals with toxicity at some point in their lives. Building team trust will help you relieve stress, stay strong, and maintain a healthy perspective at work.

Talk to close colleagues, friends, or family about what you’re experiencing. Sometimes, venting about the situation can help you feel better and less overwhelmed. Moreover, people you talk to might offer valuable advice or insights on handling the situation.

9. Maintain a positive attitude

Toxic people can drive anyone up the wall because their behavior is irrational. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked in and respond to them emotionally. Stay positive.

10. Take care of yourself

Remember: self-care isn’t a luxury; it’s a service you do to yourself. Develop appropriate coping mechanisms to remain strong in a stressful situation.

Eat healthy, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and keep yourself hydrated. You can also start a private journal, meditate, or engage in art therapy to process your emotions constructively and bring a sense of calm to your daily routine.

When you have so many creative outlets to resort to, you’ll be busy and, therefore, won’t always center your thoughts on the toxic employee. 

How to handle toxic people at work: Recap

  • Establish boundaries and minimize interaction
  • Be the ‘grey rock’—uninteresting and unresponsive
  • Evaluate their actual impact on you
  • Challenge their negativity
  • Incentivize yourself for staying calm
  • Focus on your growth
  • Seek help
  • Build a supportive network
  • Stay positive
  • Practice self-care and coping techniques
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The Role of Managers in Limiting the Impact of Toxic Employees

If you’re a manager or team leader, you can’t be unaware of what’s happening in your team. You’ll agree that when toxic behavior is left unchecked, it sends a message that such behavior is tolerated, leading to a decline in overall team morale and productivity.

Moreover, your high-performing employees may switch teams or leave the organization for a healthy work environment, leading to increased turnover.

Here’s what you can do to limit the impact of toxic employees:

1. Document toxic behavior

Thoroughly detail what’s going on to create a record should you need to take action against the employee. For starters, speak to all team members and ask them to share details of incidents where they experienced toxic behavior from a colleague.

Gather emails and examples showing how the toxic employee undermines or offends their colleagues.

Resort to the employee handbook for guidance.

Don’t take action based on hearsay; rely on proof to escalate the matter. You must be sure you’re dealing with a consistent pattern of toxic behavior rather than isolated incidents like a momentary bad mood or a one-time outburst.

2. Identify the source of the problem

Once you’ve documented toxic behavior, contact the employee to understand the reasoning behind their actions. For instance, you may find that the person is working extra hours that they feel are unnecessary and venting frustration on colleagues.

Or, if they don’t have the appropriate skills or training, they could waste time in office or criticize others out of jealousy. Feeling threatened by a colleague’s success can also result in toxic behavior, like gossip or undermining others.

3. Find and execute solutions

After the groundwork, find a solution for the toxic employee and the team. Depending on the situation, consider whether remedial efforts can help. 

For instance, if you find the toxic employee snapping at others and generally demotivated at work because of poor learning opportunities, enroll them in workshops where they can upskill themselves, work on new projects, and feel more satisfied.

If such efforts are not helpful, explore the possibility of relocating the employee to a different project, role, or team.

For example, they could be moved from a high-stakes software development team to a legacy maintenance project, where their interaction with the core team is minimal, and the impact on important deliverables can be contained.

4. Be prepared to make hard decisions

Even after communicating the problem to the toxic employee and executing a solution, the situation may not improve. If you find no change in their behavior, you may need to terminate their employment.

It’s a challenging step to take but an important one if you want to protect your team and allow them to focus on their job without being traumatized by someone’s toxicity.

Also Read: Leadership strategies to improve team performance

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Using the Right Tools to Manage Toxic People at Work

Learning how to manage toxic people at work involves navigating complex interpersonal relationships and team culture issues. While technology alone can’t solve these, it can help manage communication and feedback more effectively.

For example, ClickUp’s collaboration detection feature makes working together professionally a breeze, enabling transparency and preventing miscommunication.

It lets you know if a teammate is simultaneously viewing a task, adding a new comment, or editing docs in real time. You can also receive automatic and instant feedback on new comments, status changes, and anything related to a task. With all actions viewable in the task history, there is no scope for gaslighting or other toxic behavior.

Using ClickUp Chat View, you can streamline team communication with real-time chat channels. Add anyone to work conversations with @mentions and assign comments to keep your team, including those causing trouble at work, moving on action items.

Screenshot of ClickUp’s chat box and dependencies
Collaborate from the office to the job site with ClickUp Chat view, where you can add comments, tag your team, and chat in real time from any device

Managers and task owners can create action items instantly and assign them to others or themselves using ClickUp’s Assign Comments feature. This way, you increase your team’s accountability and remove any room for disagreements or conflicts regarding the work or deadlines.

Easily assign comments in ClickUp as a project manager
Easily assign comments to the team within a ClickUp task to quickly turn your thought into an action item

Another powerful way to see precisely where each task resides within the workflow is through ClickUp Views.

ClickUp List View allows you and your team to view tasks under specified Spaces, Folders, or Lists, organized by status within each hierarchy level. There’s also ClickUp Board View with drag-and-drop capabilities for agile team management.

Proper task organization makes it easier to hold employees accountable for their contributions (or lack thereof). It also discourages toxic coworkers from shirking responsibilities or claiming other team members’ work as their own.

ClickUp’s Gantt View enables you to assess all team activities objectively, identifying bottlenecks and areas of concern that may be attributed to toxic behavior.

With the Timeline View you can assess each team member’s workload so that work allocation remains fair and nobody gets placed under undue work stress.

Self Result based Timeline
Display individual or team-wide timelines in chronological or alphabetical order or by due or start date using the ClickUp Timeline view to keep important tasks in view

You can adjust timelines and priorities to mitigate the negative impact on project deadlines and team morale, using data-driven insights to make informed decisions.

Lastly, foster an environment of open communication by utilizing ClickUp Docs for project documentation and discussions, allowing team members to voice concerns or suggestions constructively.

ClickUp Docs
Create documents collaboratively with your team using ClickUp Docs

Convert discussions into actionable tasks to ensure that good ideas are recognized and executed, which can help sideline negative behaviors by focusing on positive contributions.

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Learning How to Handle Toxic People at Work

Sometimes, you’ll have to work alongside toxic people in your career. You must understand that their behavior reflects their internal state, not your worth.

You can’t change them, but it’s up to you to decide how to deal with the situation and move forward. Hopefully, all the strategies in this blog will help you learn how to handle toxic people at work. Take the steps necessary to create a positive narrative for yourself in the workplace dynamics.

Collaborative work and communication software like ClickUp can help keep things professional at the workplace by enabling transparency and creating accountability.

Sign up for ClickUp for free.

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. How do you deal with toxic people?

Learn how to handle toxic people at work. Establish clear boundaries to protect your mental health. Communicate clearly and assertively without being confrontational. Limit interactions and exposure to their negativity. Seek support from trusted colleagues or a mentor, and if necessary, escalate the issue to HR or management after documenting all instances of toxic behavior.

2. How do you outsmart a toxic coworker?

You can take the following steps to get the better of a toxic coworker:

  • Avoid engaging in gossip or conflicts.
  • To create a support network, focus on building positive relationships with colleagues and superiors.
  • Develop your skills and qualifications by taking workshops and attending seminars.
  • Volunteer to work on projects with other departments.
  • Think about your career growth rather than what other people say.

3. How do you respond to toxic people in the workplace?

How to handle toxic people at work:

  • Respond with calmness and professionalism.
  • Use assertive communication to set clear boundaries.
  • Be factual while interacting and execute solutions that involve mediation or the involvement of a supervisor if necessary.

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