Maybe you love your job on paper, but in reality something is dragging you down. And that something is the person in the cubicle a few feet from your own. Most job descriptions don't account for the amount time we devote to workplace dynamics—whether that means withstanding foul lunch odors emanating from the office microwave or worrying about your boss's overuse of exclamation points in an email. But those are just minor issues compared to the burden a toxic coworker.
You know when one is in your midst—they slow down your progress, put a damper on your positive approach to a project or just make you feel like you need to watch your back 24/7.
It's not about a clash of personalities or a difficult person you can try to overlook. True toxic coworkers can poison the well of productivity and even muscle you out of your position. A study by Harvard Business School researchers recently found that toxic behavior in the workplace caused stress for their coworkers, lessended productivity and prompt "other employees to leave an organization faster and more frequently," according to the Harvard Gazette.
So what qualifies as toxic behavior and how do you put a stop to it before it spirals out of control? According to HBS researchers, certain character traits like extreme selfishness, overconfidence, too much risk-taking or an emphatic enforcement of rules, could all be predictors of the kind of coworker you want to avoid. To further break it down, we rounded up the three worst types of toxic coworkers and what to do about them.
Gossiping about coworkers, fishing for intel that crosses personal boundaries, spreading unreliable information about the company and its employees.
How To Shut It Down:
Gossiping and spreading rumors is one of the hallmarks of toxic workplace behavior, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review. While often rooted in insecurity and a need for control, these kinds of coworkers are masters of contagion, creating an environment of paranoia that can be paralyzing.
Sara Stanizai, the founder of Prospect Therapy, suggests keeping your personal life personal when confronted with such colleagues. "It might not mean that you're necessarily limiting what you share, but you're proactively thinking about how you want to present yourself to others," Stanizai summarized in her advice to Girlboss. "In this way, you'll safeguard yourself against potential rumors, and possible preconceived notions about your capabilities."
Still, when confronted with a rumormonger looking for a scoop, shutting it down can be awkward. The Muse's Lea Mcleod, a career coach, has a solution. "Gossip mongers often have little regard for fact," she writes. "So, when I hear something outrageous or questionable, I push for real answers."
She might respond to gossip by saying "Oh, wow, that sounds pretty extreme. Is that a fact? Or did you hear that from someone?." The result? "You'll quickly set the expectation that you won't engage in frivolous chatter that's not based in fact," explains Mcleod. "In turn, gossips will likely steer clear of you because asking for facts takes all the fun out of it for them."
Signature Moves: Focusing on the negative aspects of the job, constantly shutting down ideas and creating obstacles at every turn.
How To Shut It Down:
Much like The Rumormonger, The Downer's toxicity can be contagious. You may find yourself lacking motivation or the drive for creative workarounds because all you can think is "What's the point?" This line of thinking can leave you in a job rut that wouldn't otherwise exist, threatening your productivity, communication skills and, ultimately, your employment.
"Don't give in and chime in with your negativity, but rather be friendly and keep conversations light with this person," Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president of Magas Media Consultants, LLC, tells Monster.com. "While you might initially feel obligated to lend an ear, associating yourself too closely with this person can give you a bad reputation at work."
But how do you keep the negativity from seeping into your brain subconsciously? Stanford professor and organizational psychologist Robert Sutton discovered a clever tactic. "There are mind tricks to protect your soul — ways for the situation to be less upsetting to you even though you can't change it," he explains in Stanford Business School's Insights. "My favorite is a guy at Stanford who pretends that he's a doctor who studies 'a-hole-ism.'" The idea is to create a detachment from the toxic behavior, so that you become an observer of a strange environment—a kind of field researcher—who isn't emotionally impacted by the culture you're studying.
Signature Moves: Smiling to your face and criticizing you behind your back, encouraging your ideas in private and dismissing them in meetings, generally trying to sabotage you through gaslighting.
How To Shut It Down: Backstabbers are hard to initially spot. They disarm you with kindness, earn your trust and then pounce. Usually, they're just threatened, insecure and hellbent on eliminating the competition. This type of workplace jerk may seem insurmountable but they usually have one weakness: confrontation. They're inherently dishonest, so their fear of being caught in a lie or faced with someone who sees right through them can prompt them to back off ASAP.
With that in mind, workplace advice author Abby Curnow-Chavez suggests having "an honest, candid conversation with the person." You don't need to attack or go on the defense. Instead, try a measured approach. "Focus on the impact the behavior is having on you," Curnow-Chavez writes in HBR. "Ask for feedback on your own behavior as well." This will throw them off guard and force them to examine why they're so threatened by you. If nothing else, you will have made an attempt to right the situation. Keep a record of this. "When you are having ongoing problems with someone, it's important to document what's taking place," career expert Sue Morem tells CBSNews. "Keep a journal/notes of conversations and keep copies of e-mails, voice mails, or any other communication should you need to prove your case in the future."
You don't have to be dragged down by one bad egg. If someone is messing with your workplace culture, your productivity or your sanity, the best thing you can do is steer clear of the toxic spillover.
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Coworkers are like family — we don't get to choose them. When you said yes to that great gig with flexibility, excellent benefits, and tons of vacation, you didn't know you'd be working beside Snipey Suzy or Condescending Connie. So how do you deal when you have to work with someone you truly can't stand? We've got the goods on how to make your work life bearable again.
Recognize they're not trying to drive you crazy
Here's something key to keep in mind for every relationship, not only a workplace one. Not everyone is like you. Expecting people to think, perform, and react like you isn't only unrealistic — it's a recipe for constant frustration.
In her book, How to Work With and Lead People Not Like You, Kelly McDonald notes it's important to recognize that this person isn't trying to drive you bananas. They're just being themselves. Just that little bit of perspective can help keep your own reactions to their maddening sardine lunch or hour-long personal calls in check.
Manage the only thing you can control
You can't control how your co-worker runs the Monday morning meeting or responds to email. But you can control your reaction. In fact, it's the only thing you can control.
Some experts recommend a daily relaxation method. Instead of letting a behavior trigger a negative reaction, reframe the trigger — say, when your coworker tells a long, unrelated personal anecdote that makes the meeting run overtime — to take ten slow, deep breaths. Or maybe you start listening to a morning meditation on your way into work.
"Cultivating a diplomatic poker face is important," Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and author of The Blame Game told LifeHack. "You need to be able to come across as professional and positive."
Why? Research shows the more people like you, the easier, more productive, and more profitable, your life will be. In a way, you're being healthily selfish, and protecting your own reputation and sanity at work.
Take it personally
This can be hard to hear, but might it be that the thing that drives you crazy about your coworker is actually a quality you hate in yourself? Peter Bregman, author of Leading with Emotional Courage, says recognizing this possibility can make working with someone you don't like suddenly a lot more interesting.
"Getting to know them better, and accepting the parts of them you don't like, is actually getting to know yourself better and accepting the parts of yourself you don't like," he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. "Being compassionate with yourself is the key to being compassionate with others. Before you know it, you'll actually begin to like people you never liked before. Maybe you'll even feel like helping them run those meeting more productively."
Recognize the value of a squeaky wheel
While it might make your life more fun to work on a team of people you'd like to spend a week with at the beach, it's not exactly the best strategy for an effective work team.
"You need people who have different points of view and aren't afraid to argue," Robert Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford University, told LifeHack. "They are the kind of people who stop the organization from doing stupid things."
The coworker who is always negative? Seen another way, they might have a gift for seeing growth opportunities.
Work closer together
Instead of trying to avoid the person, try the opposite tactic. Seek them out. Work together.
"One of the best ways to get to like someone you don't like is to work on a project that requires coordination," Sutton told the Harvard Business Review. Working together will help you understand why this person is the way they are — a teething baby at home or a chronic health issue, say — and that can help you develop empathy.
"You might feel compassion instead of irritation," said Daniel Goleman, the co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University, and author of The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.
Worst case? You see your common human bonds, Jenny Brockis, a medical practitioner and the founder of Brainfit told The Huffington Post Australia, whether that means bonding over rush hour traffic or the latest BBC period piece.
Give zero f*cks
This might be your last recourse, but if you truly can't find a single redeeming quality to this person you feel truly stuck, Sutton recommends you "practice the fine art of emotional detachment or not giving a shit."
This is, put another way, a more pessimistic version of managing the only thing you can control: yourself. Only instead of deep breathing and singing kumbaya under your breath, you're effectively shrugging it off.
"If he's being a pain but you don't feel the pain, then there's no problem," said Goleman.
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"Happy wife, happy life," is an expression that all good partners keep in mind. It's not so far off from what a boss should think about on a daily basis. In his or her case, the expression goes, "Successful business, happy employees." A recent study by the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick's Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy revealed that happy employees are 12% more productive. A boss is only as good as his or her employees' combined effort. That's why it's essential that employees' happiness be prioritized. Here are some tips for building your office community and productivity.
1. Capitalize on Happy Hour
What better way to get happy than to go to Happy Hour? There's a reason why most bars and restaurants give deals right after the work day. They want you and your coworkers to take a seat and stay a while. Many workers have a mentality that at 5:00, it's time to leave. But spending that extracurricular time with your coworkers in a non-work environment can help you bond and learn more about each other.
2. Do Something Nice
According to Drew Hendricks of Forbes, not only is charitable giving healthy for the soul, but in a business context, "it provides networking and marketing opportunities while also increasing the business's presence in the community." Organizing a voluntary outing among coworkers is a great way to give back without having to give up a day off. Knock off both good karma and publicity with one stone!
3. Test the Boundaries of Teamwork
Another fun and effective way to see how your team can work together outside of the office is to do some kind of group activity, like Escape the Room, in which your coworkers will be tasked with solving riddles to escape from a locked room. These kinds of things encourage working together and troubleshooting in a fun environment, which can then be translated back into the office.
4. Bring in Lunch
At many offices, lunch occurs between the hours of 11 and 4, continually, with people ordering in food from several different restaurants, or going out on solo missions to pick up bland sandwiches. Establish one day per week when everyone sets aside an actual lunch break and eats together. It's like a family dinner.
5. Treat Yourselves
If you can't manage to get the whole department together for lunch, bringing in a simple box of doughnuts can create the same effect. A little bit of sugary encouragement never hurt anyone, in moderation of course.
6. Celebrate the Small Things
Sometimes people get a little touchy about knowing things about their coworkers' personal lives. But there is a healthy amount that coworkers should reveal. For example, their birthdays! Even small things like singing Happy Birthday can have a huge impact and boost morale.
7. Be Silly
Coworkers a little stuck-up? It's time to hit the nearest karaoke bar and see what vocal chops your team has. If you need some inspiration, here are some perfect office karaoke songs for the Madonna in all of us.
If you're looking for ways to get closer to your coworkers and start feeling like a team, it's time to start bonding.
Coworkers are people, too.
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Ah, the infamous conference call. What was once a technology touted for its ability to connect people without the convenience of distance, now bears the brunt of many jokes, like this gem from McSweeney's Internet Tendency. It sounded like a great concept, but unfortunately, too many conference calls are riddled with confusion caused by people speaking over each other. Being invisible also makes it easier to goof off. According to a 2014 study from Intercall, 65% of respondents have admitted to doing other work while on a conference call. What's even more frightening is 47% have said they've been going to the restroom and 43% were exercising. Without visual cues, it kind of just invites us to zone out. Here are some tips to help making your conference call run a lot smoother.
Get the time right, and confirm with all parties involved.
We can't tell you how many times we've heard of foiled conference call plans, especially when overseas parties are involved. Make sure you've correctly established whether time was in PST, EST, CST, or alien time. The best way to make sure you're right is to send out a calendar invite. At least 24-hours prior to the call, confirm by email.
Get the right number and pin.
It seems pretty hard to mess this up, but we've borne witness to random people joining our conference call because they sent out a conference line that was already in use. If your company uses one or two conference lines, make sure they will be clear before you schedule your call. Dial carefully!
Have an agenda beforehand.
Saying, "We're having a conference call to discuss X" leaves the whole line open to a free-for-all. Instead, designate a leader to prepare an agenda and send it to all parties. This person will then lead the discussion and act as moderator. Divide the agenda by parties who will be speaking on certain topics, and give them a devoted amount of time, like in presidential debates. This will ensure that people know when to talk and are not talking over each other, to much frustration.
Set a time limit.
The best meetings are brief ones. When you have an agenda, there is no room for tangents and diversions. People tend to get carried away when they don't see the bored faces of their compatriots yawning back at them. It's the moderator's job to help move things along and keep efficiency in mind.
Choose your party wisely.
Do you really need the whole 35-person marketing team on the phone? We highly doubt it. Choose only key players that have decision-making power to be included in the meeting. They can then relay the information to others. The more cooks in the kitchen, the more difficult it will be to get your point across.
It's super easy to be doing other things while on a conference call, but we urge you to focus. Close your laptop, even close your eyes if need be. Excess stimuli will make it harder to concentrate and listen to the voice on the phone. Check your social media on your lunch break. You're working now.
Instead of asking a general question to the group, always address people by their names. This will lessen the confusion over who should be speaking at any given time. It's like calling "I got it!" in volley ball. Otherwise, everyone rushes into the ball and ends up on the floor.
If you have something to say, say it. Don't pepper the room with "excuse me"'s and "I'm sorry"'s. Own it. Also, speak loudly and clearly, so you don't have to keep repeating yourself.
Audio conferencing is somewhat a thing of the past, considering the new use of video conferencing at offices. But if you're going old school, do it right.
For more on the best conference call systems, click here.
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