Toxic Coworker? Expert Advice on Rising Above


One of the tragic truisms of happy hour is that so many of us spend it venting to kindred souls our frustration at the toxic coworkers among us who seem intent on disrupting the flow and clogging the gears of what could be our well-oiled machine. For deadline-driven, detail-dedicated meeting and event planners in particular, one bad apple does tend to spoil the whole bunch.

How can you keep toxic coworkers from derailing your team?

Funny you should ask, because academic researchers have been studying the problem lately. Their findings provide welcome insights on how difficult coworkers slow down your team, as well as provide effective ways to counter their effect, including reclaiming your happy hour.

According to a study headed by University of Michigan business professor Gretchen Spreitzer, thoughtless, rude, inappropriate, annoying coworkers are far more destructive than they appear.

“They leave you feeling depleted, fatigued and exhausted,” she explained.

Who hasn’t been there, right? Unfortunately, it gets worse.

In her paper, “Destructive De-energizing Relationships: How Thriving Buffers Their Effect on Performance,” Spreitzer and her research team asked IT employees at an engineering firm to evaluate their relationships with their coworkers, then collated their responses with their performance reviews. Conclusion: the more an employee was forced to interact with de-energizing toxic coworkers, the lower their own job performance.

“The myth is that (toxic coworkers) are annoying but don’t hurt productivity,” Spreitzer said. “The reality is, they do.”

Here’s where it gets really interesting. In a separate study, the team asked employees of a management consulting firm the same type of questions, but then added a second survey to measure which employees felt they were thriving at their jobs. Conclusion: employees who felt on top of their game and energized by their growth and development at work were psychologically buffered, and thus better able to suffer the energy suckers in their midst.

How can your team best overcome toxic coworkers? Spreitzer offers these suggestions:

  • Limit your interaction with de-energizers.
  • Make every attempt to thrive at your own work. Even mundane tasks can be fulfilling and help you thrive if you appreciate the difference they make to your customers and coworkers.
  • Spend more time with those you enjoy to offset the time you must spend with de-energizers. For instance, if you must confer with a de-energizer in the morning, try to fit a meeting with an uplifting team member into your afternoon.

As for those end-of-day (un)happy hours? Spreitzer says celebrate, don’t commiserate.

“I don’t think it should be about the negative interaction. It’s not so much about venting,” she says. “Venting doesn’t create good energy; at best, it leaves you neutral.”

Tip of the hat to Spreitzer and her study co-authors: Alexandra Gerbasi and Andrew Parker of Grenoble Ecole de Management, Christine L. Porath of Georgetown University and Rob Cross of the University of Virginia.                                

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who incorporates humor and human interest into a broad range of topics. Follow him on Twitter @omnisaurus

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