Toxic Coworkers – Four Indicators You Might Be Missing

Identifying toxic work relationships can be difficult for a couple of reasons.

First, because you spend so much time with your coworkers, you may become immune to bad behaviors. Like the proverbial frog in the cooking pot who fails to notice the increasing heat, you may have simply acclimated and accepted certain behaviors as inevitable.

Second, your toxic work relationship may be with someone who is really good at hiding it and/or manipulating your perspective. For example, they may represent your work as their own at a meeting, but when you call them on it, they’ll say that you misunderstood what they said in the meeting. Or that you were never part of the original work. They’ll manipulate you into questioning your own view of reality. If someone does that to you for long enough, you’ll assume you are never seeing things clearly.

If you suspect you have a toxic relationship with a coworker, but you aren’t sure, look for four indicators that we often miss, either because we grow immune to the behaviors or because we doubt our own judgment.

Toxic coworkers talk negatively about everyone except you. They emphasize that you are the lone exception.

Toxic coworkers will often single out a particular person as a confidante. With that confidante, they will unload every negative thought they have about everyone around you while reassuring you that you are different.

You might hear things like this:

“Everyone in accounting is so lazy. I don’t know why they all haven’t by fired yet. I’m so lucky we hired you because you are the entire reason the company stays afloat.”

“I can’t stand anyone we work with. You are the only person I want to have lunch with.”

“Because you and I are so close, I feel obligated to tell you that the project manager said some really nasty things about you. I stuck up for you while everyone else remained silent.”

Your toxic colleague is trying to separate you from the pack. Then the two of you are a team against everyone else, and you are isolated from the larger group (and from a different perspective). Beware: Your coworker is likely forming similar relationships with other people in an attempt to sow chaos and confusion, something they thrive on.

Your coworker may also be baiting you into agreeing with their negative assessments of others. They can use that information later to remind you that you agreed or even participated in criticizing your colleagues. They are ensuring that you remain isolated.

They refer to a weakness of yours that they know bothers you.

A toxic colleague will often reveal information about a weakness of their own, but they will rarely give you authentic information. Instead, they will pretend to be sincere in order to elicit honest information from you. Once you tell them your fears or weaknesses, they can use that information to keep you off balance.

You might hear things like this:

“I know how sensitive you are about your writing, so I edited your latest marketing piece. I won’t tell anyone how many mistakes you had.”

“Don’t worry about not fitting in here. I think you are great the way you are.”

“Gosh, I’m surprised that you quit work so early this week. I’m sure nobody perceives you as being lazy or lacking in commitment.”

Actress Anna Kendrick taking the high road when speaking to a toxic coworker
A toxic coworker tries to prey on your weakness(s) and make you feel bad. Ignore them!

A toxic coworker isn’t interested in helping you overcome weaknesses; instead, they want to use your weakness to make you feel small. Reminding you of what you are bad at makes them feel better about themselves. It also ensures that you never feel confident enough to question their motives.

They do small favors for you unasked and then ask for big favors in return.

Toxic co-workers understand the principle of reciprocity. They understand that it’s human nature to feel obligated to return a favor if someone does one for you. They’ll do something very small for you, but then later demand a payback that’s worth three times as much. They are counting on you feeling too guilty to say no.

You might hear things like this:

“I was at the copier, so I picked up your copies for you. Say, I was hoping you could take me to the airport on Saturday. I need to be there by four a.m.”

“I knew you wouldn’t mind taking my shifts all next week. I covered for you one day when you were sick. You remember, right?”

“Remember when I gave you some advice about consulting? Well, my side consulting business has grown so large, I can’t keep up. I was hoping you’d cover for me here at the office while I work on my side hustle.”

A toxic co-worker will work hard to make you think that your relationship is completely fair. They will mimic a give-and-take friendship, but they will always somehow come out on top. If you borrow a dollar, they will expect ten dollars in repayment.

They subtly remind you that they have power over you.

Toxic coworkers may not have institutional power over you–in the sense that they may not be your boss, your manager, or your supervisor. But they will find ways to remind you that they have something on you that makes them more powerful than you.

You might hear things like this:

“I know you hate the boss as much as I do. I, of course, would never repeat what you said.”

“I’d love to be a reference for your next job. I’ll obviously not mention the problems you had when you first got here.”

“The editor asked me if I thought you were ready for a promotion. I let her know that you’ve been working so hard on your writing skills and hardly ever make editing errors now.”

Toxic coworkers will remind you that they have something on you that makes them more powerful than you.

A toxic coworker always has to be better than you. They’ll go out of their way to say things that reinforce the inequities between the two of you. Often those statements will be designed to subtly threaten you.

A toxic coworker cannot be changed by you or anyone else around them. They have to make the decisions to change. Remember that they have had a lifetime of developing and using toxic strategies; they aren’t going to stop easily. Frankly, it may be impossible for them to recognize their behavior as negative.

Because you can’t change your toxic coworker, avoid them as much as you can.

If you can’t avoid them altogether, avoid being their confidante. Stop conversations as quickly as possible and don’t reveal anything about yourself. Refrain from listening to their rants against others, and be mindful of their attempts to isolate you.

If a toxic relationship has gone on for a while, you may find that your toxic coworker will be incredibly vindictive when you try to break the pattern. If you can bear it, ride it out. They’ll grow tired of it and find a new target.

You don’t have to put up with toxic coworkers, but you do have to know how to spot them. Avoiding them in the first place is the best defense.

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