I look up into her eyes. She raises her chin slightly, lifts her eyes, as if saying,
Are you looking for a fight?
I turn away.
I walk out of the office. I know that if I stay there longer, something might happen.
No, something will happen.
That morning, my colleague came into the room, raising her voice. She asked me,
Why did you take the cookies? Didn’t you know they are reserved?
Come, give it back to me.
In the office, everyone else lowered their heads. No one wanted to be caught in the crossfire.
So much for doing good. All I wanted to do was to make a client’s day.
Working with poor families, I knew many of them didn’t have the money to buy the Chinese New Year cookies. Seeing the cookies in the storeroom, I wanted to bless someone else with them, making their day.
Breathe, breathe, breathe.
I tell myself. I bend down to the bag beside me, packed for the family. I imagine how disappointed they will be, especially after I told them that I had something special for them.
I pass her the box of cookies, together with the sardines.
I thought to myself,
Come on! It’s just a box of cookies!
Did you have to make such a big din about them?
They weren’t even labelled! How did I know they were someone else’s?
In every workplace, there will be toxic people.
They are the people you can smell, hear, see… from miles away. They are complaining about you behind your back. They make life difficult for you. They criticise everything you do. They take time to scrutinise your work, reporting your every dismeanor to the boss.
The consequences can be brutal.
Acknowledge your pain by tuning into yourself
It’s painful to experience the bad behavior of others at the workplace.
Sometimes, you may think it’s your fault. It’s tempting in those instances to be stuck in an endless cycle of greater self-flagellation. After all, when others criticise you, there must be some truth in it…. Isn’t it?
Forgive yourself for being at the end of another person’s toxicity and bad behaviour. When I was younger, I took on a part time job. We were tasked to map out different places of interest in Singapore.
My colleagues ended up slacking because we had little supervision. They would go out to have brunch, lunch, and high tea, and end up working 2 hours a day.
When I told my boss about the lack of work, that’s when the toxicity began. They started saying lies about me behind my back. They said that I was someone who was not working at all. They reported that I was ineffective and lousy with my work. Whenever they saw me, they would give me a death stare and pretend I didn’t exist.
It was painful. For months, I drowned out the emotional pain of facing toxic colleagues.
I would work from 9 to 6, rush for a quick McDonald’s before giving tuition at 7. It was tiring. It was not until I left the workplace that I began to tune into myself, asking myself what I felt, how I felt, and why I felt this way.
That brought a greater measure of release.
Today, if you’re facing toxicity in the workplace, don’t pretend that you aren’t feeling anything. Don’t ignore your personal feelings.
Ask yourself what you feel, and why you feel this way.
See the good in them
John, hurt people, hurt people.
Shamed people, shame people.
Broken people, try to break people.
My therapist gently advises over Zoom. I’ve been complaining to him again about the toxic people in my workplace.
He forces me to take a step back and see these people as human beings. No one is born wanting to hurt someone else. But their life experiences may have taught them that this is the only way of coping with the world, dealing with others with the same degree of pain they were issued with.
You may want to get away from the toxic people in your midst. But know this. They are still going to be there, whether you like it or not. They are not going to disappear.
You have a chance and a choice.
You can choose to persist in seeing the flaws in them…
Or you can see the good in them. Chances are, whenever you see the flaws in them, you find yourself feeling negative, pained, and disgusted. You want to get far away from them!
But if you choose to see the good in them, you build possibility in your relationship with them.
Stop labelling them
You probably have in mind some faces when you think of ‘toxic people’. You may even have a picture of them in your room. You’re throwing darts at them or poking needles into a voodoo doll after experiencing all the negative experiences with them.
When you label someone, you take away their humanity. You stick a derogative on them.
You forget they are human, with feelings.
Think about it,
How would you like if someone labelled you that way? What if I called you, ‘toxic, evil, horrible, stupid, idiot’?
As mean as they may be, you don’t have to resort to these underhanded methods to dehumanise them. They are still worthy of being treated with respect. They still deserve basic human dignity.
Labelling them is also associating the behavior with their being. But it’s not the same.
Their behavior does not determine who they are fundamentally as human beings. Their behaviour is separate from their identity.
Therefore, rather than saying,
This person is evil,
Try this instead.
This person is doing something that I don’t like.
This subtle reframe will help you to walk out of the trap of labelling them, dehumanising them, and associating their behaviour with their being.
But what about me?! Don’t I deserve respect and dignity too?
How could they do that to me? Why did they do that to me?!
Sometimes, asking ‘why’ is not the most helpful question. Maybe sometimes there’s just no reason for it. No ‘why’.
But during times like that, what has personally helped is to begin by calling them by their name.
When you talk about them, call them by name.
Ah, the water cooler gossip stories are something you miss, don’t you?
The chance for you to spill all the beans on what the toxic workplace colleague has done to you AGAIN.
When you gossip, you share your views in front of others.
That’s good, isn’t it?
I’m helping others to keep safe from that toxic person too!
I’m doing them a favour!
But it makes it more difficult for you to step down from that position, now that you have made that position of dislike public. It becomes harder for you to start liking the person once you openly share that dislike.
When you share your views publicly, even on a small scale, you become more wedded to them.
In fact, this is a persuasive technique used by marketers to encourage more people to do things they might not normally consent to. Marketers start with small moments of commitment.
In Robert Cialdini’s book ‘Influence’, he shared about how scientists got participants to put a little poster on their front door. Later, when they were asked to put a big poster on their front lawn, they were 4 times more likely to agree!
Why do that? You end up reminding yourself of all the bad that toxic people have done to you. It’s like you’re stirring a big pot of poison, and sharing that poison.
Every time you gossip, you add in more poison, and end up becoming more and more negative.
Don’t be surprised if people start avoiding you too.
My relationship with toxic people changed the day I started praising them.
Now now, I’m not being a two-faced hypocrite. This is not another self-help technique meant to manipulate people. But when I started looking for the good in them, I began to see that they were also doing good work.
Praising them for the work they have done well helps them to realise that they can be loved as they are.
As toxic, evil, or painful they have been for you, people do that because they’ve also been on the receiving end of it.
They may have never known kindness in their own lives.
But through your life, they might find kindness for the first time. And that’s something that can be deeply transformative.
And it didn’t matter how they treated me, but it mattered how I treated them.
You cannot determine how others treat you, but you can determine your response to their treatment. Each day, with each and every action you make, you’re wither bringing more positivity, or more negativity to the world.
It’s your choice what you want to do.
Be nice to them.
People who are toxic, may never have had kindness thrown back at them. They may find themselves struggling with toxicity, because they have never known what an absence of toxicity looks like.
Today, ask yourself,
How can I show love to someone who’s treated me badly?
See it as a way to grow
There is no doubt. When you work with people who are toxic, you are growing from this process.
A client once told me,
You grow through what you go through.
In much the same way, you are growing through this thing you are facing with a co-worker that may be toxic. Rather than looking at how you can get out of the problem, ask yourself this series of questions,
How is this person helping me to grow?
What am I learning about myself that I never learnt before?
What am I learning about others, that I haven’t thought of before?
When you give meaning to your pain, you give possibility to building lessons from the pain you’ve faced.
It no longer becomes something that is meaningless.
But you become stronger from your pain.
Ask how you might be contributing to the problem
I used to work with someone I thought was ‘toxic’. I felt that he was openly shaming me by sending out a team email sharing about how I had not approached him to share about my ideas, and then concluding that “there is no I in ‘team’”. I took that as a personal affront, that I was someone who didn’t have teamwork.
But one night, as I read Outward Mindset by The Arbinger Institute, one question struck me.
What if as far as I’m concerned, I’m the problem?
This led me to look at my contribution.
It takes two hands to clap. It takes two people to fight.
No one fights without a counterparty. You may be pushing someone to behave in a toxic manner with you, with your actions.
Therefore, it can help for you to ask what you might be doing to contribute to the problem.
This will be painful. It’s easier to look outwards, at where the problem can be blamed on, rather than inwards, where the problem may lie.
Be gentle with yourself. It may not be all of your fault, but some actions you do may exacerbate the problem.
See what that is.
Put boundaries in place
You may have come in wanting quick fixes to stop another person’s bad behaviour. You can’t change anyone.
You can’t change anyone but yourself.
Therefore the earlier part of the article has focused on what you can do, rather than trying to change someone else’s behavior.
Here’s when it becomes you taking the actions that may intersect with the other person’s behaviour.
Set boundaries. Boundaries, as Brené Brown described succinctly in her book, Daring Greatly, are about,
What’s okay and not okay.
Before someone else even crosses the line, they need to know where that line is. Making your boundaries clear is the first step towards helping your colleagues to know what is not okay for you. You can’t expect someone to read your mind and know what’s wrong, without you saying a single word.
Whenever someone describes to me how angry they are with someone’s behavior, I always ask,
Did you tell them you were not okay with this?
Often, the answer is no.
When I ask them why, they would say,
Well… they should know!
It may be strange for you to go up to a person and tell them,
Hey, just wanted you to know that this is not okay with me.
Here’s a better way. Whenever you feel personally offended, take time to speak to that person. Say,
When you copied the rest of the team in the email loop of what I had done in my mistake, I wanted you to know that was not okay with me.
Telling them is the first step to helping them to be more self-conscious.
Share how it made you feel
I wanted you to know that I felt saddened and disappointed by that.
When you do this, you share about how your colleague’s action has hurt you. Maybe you don’t feel safe to do it face to face.
One of the best things is to do it over email, where there is a space for detachment, but also to be honest and vulnerable.
Each time you’re scared of calling out the elephant in the room, and being open with your feelings, ask yourself,
What’s the worst that could happen?
If your relationship with your colleague is already that bad, there might not be anything that will make it worse. Writing your honest emotions about how your colleague hurt you, can help to bring closure to the incident.
As Victor Frankl wrote in his book,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Choose to celebrate yourself.
Amidst all the suffering you receive from a coworker that’s toxic, choose to see the good in yourself. Sometimes, when you’re faced with such criticisms, it can be difficult to forget the pain. Its easy to forget the qualities you have.
Write a letter of love to yourself where you write about the qualities you enjoy about yourself, and how you’ve shown them in the past.
After you do this, read it out to yourself.
It will reaffirm your self-worth.
No one can take that away.
Not if you choose to.
My colleague pats my shoulder, thanking me for the work I have done. I can scarcely believe that just 1 month ago, we were not on talking terms. I was depressed. I was angry. Thinking of seeing him at work filled me with dread.
But now, we seemed to be friends.
It all started from one email. Where I was open and honest about what I felt about his actions towards me. And he shared about what he felt about my personal actions. From there, we rebuilt the bridge of reconciliation.
There are actions that can be toxic and painful.
But these are actions. Don’t confuse the person with the action.
They are human after all. You’re human too.
If you’re facing toxic people at work, reach out in kindness. Through your kindness, you may find the tiger’s heart softening.
And you may just find friendship, hope and love in that work relationship again.