Toxic people, unfortunately, do not walk around the office with little plastic ID tags on their wrists or ankles, like a rare bird species being tracked by biologists in the wild.
I wish they did, though.
Toxic people can be hard to identify until it’s too late: until you’ve already bonded, or formed a friendship, or taken up a project together. Suddenly the co-worker trash talk starts, or the TMI followed by a request for “honest” advice.
If you’re being asked to have the sorts of conversations that can be dicey, even for lifelong friends, you may be headed into toxic territory. Luckily for me, I have not run into this behavior in many years, but the topic recently came up with a friend, and got me thinking.
How do you best navigate these tricky relationship waters with someone you may not really even know? Sure you see them for many hours a day, but that is no guarantee of a loyal, trustworthy friendship. Those take years to develop.
Do Toxic People Reel You in on Purpose?
Let’s start with the term “toxic people.” It can get overused. Someone who has your best interests at heart and is trying to help you improve in some way may seem like a pain in your behind, but they are not toxic.
Toxic people are the ones slowing down or stopping your attempts to better yourself or your situation.
And sadly, in most cases, they probably aren’t doing it on purpose. Here’s the truth:
Toxic people aren’t really thinking about you at all.
They are thinking about themselves, and how you can help them.
There’s a famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote about this: “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”
And this is precisely why you should not feel like a weirdo in-office wildlife biologist when trying to suss out the toxic from the cool. You probably shouldn’t tell anyone that this is your new pastime, but you absolutely should put a little observation and effort into it.
How to Identify Toxic People
This is not foolproof, but in my experience, the toxic people at work are the ones who allow work to define them as a person.
This is different from caring, being passionate, and gaining satisfaction from a job well done. It’s the person whose whole sense of self comes from their perception of their standing in the workplace pecking order. The toxic person is only in it for recognition, not for the work itself.
The toxic people at work don’t seem to have much else going on, frankly.
How to Avoid Toxic People: Play Dead
Avoiding toxic people can be tricky, because you still want to be helpful and a good coworker. You just don’t want to get sucked into pointless politics or career-killing gossip. You don’t want to have your good attitude dragged down by their bad one, either.
The main way to do this is through an advanced office politics form of playing dead. By “playing dead,” you no longer appear to be a threat, and the toxic person will move on. Here’s how.
Toxic People Avoidance-Tactic #1: Be positive.
Once you identify a toxic person, don’t stop helping them or being a team player. If anything, show by example.
- Stay positive.
- Don’t complain.
- Don’t blame.
- Avoid sarcasm.
The truly toxic will find this sort of relentless positivity utterly boring and will lose interest in you and move on to the next victim. Now, a warning: if any of this person’s behavior, towards you or anyone else, veers into workplace bullying territory, seek help.
Toxic People Avoidance-Tactic #2: Don’t Drink
Don’t get into a situation where you have your guard down around the toxic person. This includes drinking at happy hour. You can still hang out, but you’re not putting yourself at risk. Plus, again, they will get bored with you fast and go sniffing around elsewhere.
Toxic People Avoidance-Tactic #3: Don’t Overshare
It’s good to be civil and social with your toxic co-workers, but just don’t share much. Self-deprecating jokes are great. Especially ones, again, about how boring you are. Stop there. If they overshare, hold your tongue. Don’t offer any insights. Try something like. “Hmmm, I’m sorry to hear that. I wish I had some good advice for you.”
Hopefully you will come to find that you have no truly toxic people in your working life.
I’m enjoying a lovely, productive, healthy stretch of that now. But, they do creep in. So it’s always good to have a strategy at the ready. That is, unless you can convince them all to wear easily-visible ID bracelets.