At work or elsewhere, most everyone has experienced a relationship that turned toxic. If you have, you know they're a major drain on your energy, productivity, and happiness.
In a new study from Georgetown University, 98% of people reported experiencing toxic behavior at work. The study found that toxic relationships negatively influence employees and their organizations in nine notable ways:
- 80% lost work time worrying about the incidents.
- 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
- 66% said that their performance declined.
- 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.
- 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
- 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
- 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.
- 12% said that they left their job because of it.
- 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
While the turnover from toxic relationships is costly, the real cost is the lost productivity and emotional distress experienced by people who are stuck in these relationships.
We may not be able to control the toxicity of other people, but we can control how we respond to them, and this has the power to alter the course of a relationship. Before a toxic relationship can be neutralized, you must intimately understand what's making it toxic in the first place. Toxic relationships develop when one person's needs are no longer met or someone or something is interfering with the ability to maintain a healthy and productive relationship.
Recognizing and understanding toxicity enables you to develop effective strategies to thwart future toxic interactions. What follows are the most common types of toxic relationships and strategies to help you overcome them.
Relationships that are passive aggressive.
This type takes many forms in the workplace, from the manager who gives you the cold shoulder to the colleague who cc's e-mails to your boss. One of the most common forms of passive aggression is a drastic reduction of effort. Passive aggressive types have great difficulty receiving feedback, and this can lead them to leave work early or not to work as hard. Passive aggression is deadly in the workplace, where opinions and feelings need to be placed on the table in order for progress to continue.
When you find someone behaving passive aggressively toward you, you need to take it upon yourself to communicate the problem. Passive aggressive types typically act the way they do because they're trying to avoid the issue at hand. If you can't bring yourself to open up a line of communication, you may find yourself joining in the mind games. Just remember, passive aggressive types tend to be sensitive and to avoid conflict, so when you do bring something up, make sure to do so as constructively and harmoniously as possible.
Relationships that lack forgiveness and trust.
It's inevitable that you're going to make mistakes at work. Some people get so fixated on other people's mistakes that it seems as if they believe they don't make mistakes themselves. You'll find that these people hold grudges, are constantly afraid that other people are going to do them harm, and may even begin nudging you out of important projects. If you're not careful, this can stifle upward career movement by removing important opportunities for growth.
The frustrating thing about this type of relationship is that it takes one mistake to lose hundreds of "trust points" but hundreds of perfect actions to get one trust point back. To win back their trust, it's crucial that you pay extra-close attention to detail and that you're not frazzled by the fact that they will constantly be looking for mistakes. You have to use every ounce of patience while you dig yourself out of the subjective hole you're in. Remember, Rome wasn't built in a day.
Relationships that are one-sided.
Relationships are supposed to be mutually beneficial. They have a natural give and take. In the workplace, this applies to relationships with people who report to you (they should be getting things done for you and you should be teaching them) as well as with people you report to (you should be learning from them, but also contributing). These relationships grow toxic when one person begins to give a disproportionate amount, or one person only wants to take. It could be a manager who has to guide an employee through every excruciating detail, or a colleague who finds herself doing all the work.
If possible, the best thing to do with this type is to stop giving. Unfortunately this isn't always possible. When it isn't, you need to have a frank conversation with the other party in order to recalibrate the relationship.
Relationships that are idealistic.
Idealistic relationships are those where we begin to hold people in too high a regard. When you think your colleague walks on water, the relationship becomes toxic because you don't have the boundaries you need in a healthy working relationship. For instance, you might overlook a mistake that needs attention, or do work that violates your moral compass because you assume your colleague is in the right.
This loss of boundaries is extremely toxic to you, and you have the power to set the relationship straight. No matter how close you may be with someone, or how great you think her work may be, you need to remain objective. If you're the one people are idealizing, you need to speak up and insist that they treat you the same way they treat everyone else.
Relationships that are punitive.
Punitive relationships are those where one person punishes the other for behavior that doesn't align directly with their expectations. The major issue with punitive types is that their instinct is to punish, without adequate communication, feedback, and understanding. This belittling approach creates conflict and bad feelings.
To survive a punitive type, you must choose your battles wisely. Your voice won't be heard if you dive right in to every conflict. They'll just label you as someone who is too sensitive.
Relationships built on lies.
These types get so caught up in looking good that they lose track of what's fact and what's fiction. Then the lies pile up until they're the foundation of the relationship. People who won't give you straight answers don't deserve your trust. After all, if they're willing to lie to you, how can you ever really depend on them?
When you remove trust from any relationship, you don't have a relationship at all. Building a relationship on lies is no different than building a house on a pile of sand. The best thing you can do is to count your losses and move on.
How To Protect Yourself From A Toxic Person
Toxic people drive you crazy because their behavior is so irrational. Make no mistake about it--their behavior truly goes against reason, so why do you allow yourself to respond to them emotionally and get sucked into the mix?
The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure (an important component of emotional intelligence) has direct links to your performance and happiness. One of the greatest gifts of emotional intelligence is the ability to identify toxic people and keep them at bay.
The more irrational and off-base someone is, the easier it should be for you to remove yourself from their traps. Quit trying to beat them at their own game. Distance yourself from them emotionally, and approach your interactions with them like they're a science project (or you're their shrink if you prefer that analogy). You don't need to respond to the emotional chaos--only the facts.
Maintaining an emotional distance requires awareness (which you can increase with an emotional intelligence test). You can't stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don't recognize when it's happening. Sometimes you'll find yourself in situations where you'll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine, and you shouldn't be afraid to buy yourself some time to do so.
Most people feel as though because they work or live with someone, they have no way to control the chaos. This couldn't be further from the truth. Once you've identified a toxic person, you'll begin to find their behavior more predictable and easier to understand. This will equip you to think rationally about when and where you have to put up with them and when and where you don't. You can establish boundaries, but you'll have to do so consciously and proactively. If you let things happen naturally, you're bound to find yourself constantly embroiled in difficult conversations. If you set boundaries and decide when and where you'll engage a difficult person, you can control much of the chaos. The only trick is to stick to your guns and keep boundaries in place when the person tries to cross them, which they will.
Bringing It All Together
There are many different types of toxic relationships in the workplace. When you find yourself embroiled in one, it's worth the effort to evaluate things carefully and develop a course of action that will save your sanity and better your career.
Have you experienced any of these types of toxic relationships? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.