Are you doing more than your fair share at work, but getting little thanks? Are you grossed out by your co-worker’s disgusting habits? Do you dread going into the office each day? If so, you’re likely in a toxic workplace.
In her latest book, Surviving the Toxic Workplace, U.S. author and psychotherapist Linnda Durré breaks down dozens of common toxic personalities, from The Brownnoser to The Non-PC Joke Teller, and offers solutions for treating these so-called “Staff Infections.”
Like with a dysfunctional family, she says, individuals have the power to change the dynamics of a dysfunctional workplace by altering their own approach to dealing with difficult and annoying people.
You suggest people should tackle a toxic situation themselves before reporting it to the boss or to HR. Why?
When you go to the boss too many times, you get the reputation of being a whiner and a complainer, and I really want to prevent that from happening [to people]because if you do that too much, you’re going to lose credibility and you’re going to lose influence. And when something is really, really important, they’re not going to pay any attention to you.
As you mention in the book, people often don’t want to confront bad behaviour for fear of losing their jobs, especially in this economic climate. Yet you advise them not to keep quiet and put up with it.
Let me say this. First of all, if you’re going to get fired, you’re going to get fired....
My book is to empower people to be diplomatic and assertive and to approach co-workers ... and bosses in as diplomatic a way as possible to get them to stop doing dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviour. ... But yes, people are frightened. They need the job and they have kids in college, they have mouths to feed and they have mortgage payments and rent payments, and gasoline and food and everything else.
What do you say to the person who’s afraid to confront a bad boss, though?
No action is an action, okay? And if they want to continue being a victim, and a doormat and a target of abuse, then here’s what it’s going to do them: It’s going to lower their self-esteem, it’s going to cause physical ailments ... like migraines, stomach aches, heart attacks, ulcers, back aches, constipation, you name it.
What are the most harmful toxic types?
Well, The Violent One is probably Numero Uno because, I mean, he really can kill people. These are people who have assaulted people at work, who come in with an Uzi and mow people down. You have to be very careful of people who have anger-management problems. That would probably be No. 1 in my list.
I think The Sexual Harasser is very, very dangerous; The Smiling Cobra, certainly; The Passive-Aggressive. It just goes on and on. The Dictator who doesn’t listen. There’s so many.
Some Staff Infections you identify, on the other hand, seem pretty harmless: The Delicate Flower, The Food Faddist, The Chronic Shopper. Sure, they might be annoying. But toxic?
They’re toxic to certain people. If someone is sitting there constantly saying: “You’re wearing perfume. I’m going to have an allergy attack,” or: “You’re eating meat. That’s so disgusting,” it’s like grinding, grinding, whining, whining every day of your life.
You may not be punched in the face or groped, but it’s annoying, you know what I mean? And day after day, having that next to you ...
Yes, you’re right, they’re certainly the lesser ones. But that’s why I added them because they’re annoying and it’s like Chinese water torture. It may be one teeny tiny drop of water, but when you do that constantly, driving somebody crazy, they can lose their mind.
You say it’s possible to motivate co-workers through a delicate balance of the carrot and the stick. Can you explain?
What I mean is you use incentives to motivate people toward something, but you also have to set limits and boundaries of what is unacceptable behaviour and what is not to be done. ... Good bosses are like good parents, they’re like good supervisors, they’re like good teachers. They inspire, they set the bar high, they listen, they give feedback, they mould behaviour, they reward. ... So it’s a combination of all those qualities: reward, love, care, guidance, discipline, criticism.
But if you’re not in a supervisory role, how can you do that?
You congratulate people when you see them make improvements: “Bob, I really like the fact that your cologne isn’t overpowering today. It’s not making me sneeze and I really appreciate that”; “Now, Sally, thank you so much for getting your report in on time. I really appreciate that, and you did a good job.”
So you reinforce with a positive verbal statement, an e-mail, a pat on the back, literally. You reward the behaviour you want to shape.
At what point is it better to just quit?
Every situation is unique and different and I can’t tell people what situations to do what in. ... [But]I would say if it’s really debilitating to your health, if you’re crying every day before you go to work, if you hate it, if you’re hitting the booze during lunch, if you’re hitting the booze when you come home to numb yourself, if you’re screaming and yelling at people, striking out at your spouse and children, then those are signs that you’re really in a deep depression and you’re very deeply angry and you’re a powder keg ready to explode.
You need to get into some counselling, you need to look for different work, you need to have some other income sources on the side. You need to make that happen and not be dependent on people who have power over you [and who] can abuse that power.
Curing Staff Infections
The Smiling Cobra
Symptoms: This is one of the most dangerous toxic types, author Linnda Durré says. The Smiling Cobra “is a power monger who smiles while he stabs you in the back.” She gets ahead on good looks, charm and street smarts, but is extremely manipulative and steps all over others along the way.
Diagnosis: The Smiling Cobra has no conscience. If you confront her, she probably won’t change and may even strike back at you. Dr. Durré says this is one of the rare instances when it’s best to gather documentation and report bad behaviour to the boss or to HR.
Remedy: “I admire your ambition and know that you have big things planned for yourself. It’s how you get there that concerns me. ... I’d rather have you be up-front about things and be honest than twist or withhold the facts, because when you do that my trust level in you drops and I waste time second-guessing you. I’m on to your game.”
Symptoms: Even when everything is going well, The Naysayer will bring everyone down with a negative comment. “She’s a wet blanket, a spoiler, a doomsday predictor,” Dr. Durré says.
Diagnosis: The Naysayer likely has a fear of success and is envious of others’ success. He relishes when things go wrong because it confirms his negative world view. Dr. Durré recommends keeping your distance.
Remedy: “I appreciate how you can see all the pitfalls in our proposed solutions. If you focused your observations toward finding something positive to say, however, it would be much more productive.”
The Disgusting One
Symptoms: Perhaps more annoying than actually toxic, The Disgusting One can still drive people crazy with nauseating habits. He picks his nose, has bad breath or body odour, is gassy or chews with his mouth full.
Diagnosis: Dr. Durré explains that The Disgusting One probably never learned good manners, but will generally be co-operative (albeit embarrassed) when approached.
Remedy: “You do a great deal of excellent work here. I’d like to talk to you about some habits of yours that are disturbing co-workers. (Insert specific disgusting habits here.) I’d like to recommend that you get some deodorant. I’m sure you understand that in close quarters we all have to be careful of how others might be affected by our hygiene. You’re a good worker and we’d like everyone here to be happy and productive. Thanks!”
The Rock Star/The Actor
Symptoms: These types feel and act as though they’re gracing your company with their presence. To them, work is only their “day job” as they plan for stardom. They can be constantly late and have little concern for the quality of their work.
Diagnosis: The Rock Star and The Actor are usually self-centred narcissists, Dr. Durré says, advising that it’s best to be direct with them.
Remedy: “I appreciate that this company is not your life’s goal and that you have other, more artistic talents and ambitions. The reality, however, is that you are employed here and there are certain expectations when you work here.”