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3 Ways to Heal Colleague Relationships in a Toxic Workplace Environment

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At a recent mentoring event, a young woman approached me for advice about the challenges she faced in the workplace. On a daily basis, she had to work alongside someone who was “toxic” — abrasive, negative, and generally difficult to work with. In fact, the situation was so challenging that she felt compelled to leave the company entirely.

My response? Toxic people are everywhere.

Workplace toxicity, and our experience of it, is omnipresent even at the most high-minded companies. A recent report from The Economist revealed that Amnesty International, a notable human rights charity, lost a number of employees due to their toxic culture.

If the employees of a noble organization such as this can’t escape personal conflict, why should the rest of us expect to do so?

Leaving a toxic workplace for somewhere else won’t guarantee you won’t still encounter toxic individuals. The trick isn’t to run away but to rise above.

If you’re dealing with a toxic personality at work, here are three steps you can take to improve relations with your colleague and, perhaps, heal the company culture overall:

#1 —Re-Frame Their Behavior

When someone is reacting, speaking, or behaving negatively, take a pause. How can you put yourself in their shoes before becoming defensive or offended? So often, we rush to feel personally slighted when someone’s behavior feels unpalatable, but is that the whole story?

We all operate within the myopia of our own experience. This inherently limits our ability to empathize with people at their best and when they need it most — at their worst. 

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book Talking to Strangers, our inability to accurately interpret the actions of others is at the root of some of our most troubling cultural issues, ranging from police violence to on-campus assault. He says that to make sense of the stranger, we need “humility and thoughtfulness and a willingness to look beyond the stranger, and take time and place and context into account.”

How does this apply in the workplace? Sometimes the best way to deal with challenging interactions is to reframe the toxic behavior.

Try this exercise next time you encounter toxic behavior at work:

Remind yourself that most people think they are good. They don’t imagine that they are a villain, especially in their own story. Next time you encounter a toxic person, ask yourself how this person would tell the story about themselves — the one in which they are the hero.

When you can frame their life’s narrative as they frame if for themselves, you unlock an understanding of this person. Empathy is a superpower that enables you to form relationships that uplift you both.

#2 — Regulate Your Response

Successful leaders and managers know how to regulate their emotions. They do this by cultivating emotional intelligence, which enables them to stay calm in times of crisis and rise above the conflict. They’re not drawn into ego-battles or escalated arguments.

You may be saying, “that all sounds great, but how do they do it?” The truth is that it takes years of conscious self-development.

However, here is a visualization exercise that I find quite powerful:
Picture yourself driving in a car on the highway. A truck swerves over the line beside you and you start feeling anxious, nervous, scared, and irritated.

Picture a sign up ahead labeled “ANXIETY OFFRAMP.”

The sign is reminding you to be calm, thoughtful, and maybe even to inject a bit of humor into the situation. You can either smile at the sign, take the reminder, and drive on, or you can literally take the offramp and catch your breath, only to face the truck at a later time.

I recently encountered a situation in which one of our senior leaders sent a disparaging email to the broader company regarding our team. Naturally, my first response was dismay, quickly followed by anger, and then shame. I cried a lot that night.

But the next day, I took the “offramp.”

I reached out to this leader and asked for coffee. I said, “you are a senior leader of this company. We could really use your help so we can make great products together.”

Immediately he offered to meet on a regular basis and today, he works alongside us. We never did discuss the email he had sent but I think he won’t be sending anymore.

#3 — Diffuse a Toxic Culture Through Allyship & Introspection

Believe it or not, most toxic people are not aware of how their behavior is affecting others and, in fact, almost all of us are guilty of it. Their tendency to interrupt, act out, or react negatively isn’t premeditated either. This is especially true when people neglect to consider the experience of minorities — ignorance is often the root of toxicity. 

Next time you witness a toxic situation, use this as a cue to stand up and be an ally. How can you speak up for others with the privileges you may have and they may not?

Allyship is a great way to empower everyone to step back and call out unintentional behaviors that are creating stress. Also, do your part to patiently educate others.

In our increasingly border-less, global work environments, culture clashes can be common. You’ll likely discover that most people are willing to accept feedback on their behavior if presented compassionately.

Embrace the Challenge to Rise

You can’t run away from toxic people. You probably aren’t going to change them, either. Yours is the only behavior you can control, so the best thing you can do is stand your ground and practice empathy.

As a parting thought, consider one of my favorite quotes: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

So be strong. Don’t accept toxicity — learn to manage, and rise above, and create a culture that everyone wants to be part of!

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