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Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

Former fundraiser Maryann Kerr says she enjoyed the stability and satisfaction of her roles over more than two decades, but that all changed when she had to deal with difficult co-workers.

Ms. Kerr, 61, says the stress of engaging with them daily led to severe burnout and emotional fatigue.

“I recognize we all have bad days, but these people just seemed to be unhappy all the time and took it out on the people around them,” says Ms. Kerr, author of Tarnished: Let’s rethink, reimagine and co-create a new social impact sector. “You end up wasting an incredible amount of energy trying to figure out how to navigate these [toxic] personalities instead of simply getting the work done.”

The problematic colleagues Ms. Kerr had to reckon with shared common traits. For starters, they cared more about themselves than the company; their egos were out of whack, and some were narcissistic, says Ms. Kerr, who is also the chief executive officer of the Medalist Group, a Toronto-area consultancy offering services around organizational health, team building and strategy. They were averse to change and clung to status quo.

Ms. Kerr made attempts to get through to the difficult colleagues by asking outright how she could develop a good working relationship with them. That failed, so she hired a coach and tried different strategies. Nothing worked and she ended up leaving the organizations.

Warring egos and toxic workers

Shawn Bakker, a psychologist with Psychometrics Canada, an Edmonton organization that provides psychometric talent assessments, says at its root, most conflicts are caused by people viewing a situation differently. This difference in perspective too often results in the parties arguing over who’s right.

“One of the biggest things that consistently jumps out to me regarding the research on conflict is how important it is for leaders to address conflict properly, but how few of them actually do,” Mr. Bakker says. “This is a huge leadership development and training gap. Organizations will get so much benefit if they address it.”

Difficult workers have a significantly negative influence on team dynamics, culture and performance. However, based on how these conflicts are addressed, things can either become much worse or improve, he says.

“A poorly managed conflict has two outcomes,” Mr. Bakker says. “The first is an increase in negative workplace relationships where people develop a dislike for each other and are less willing to consider collaborative approaches. The second is the hampered ability to solve problems and identify optimal solutions. This ultimately hurts the team’s and the organization’s ability to adapt, change and be innovative.”

In 2019, Psychometrics Canada published a report titled “Warring egos, toxic individuals, feeble leadership: study of conflict in Canadian workplace” and identified the causes and effects of workplace conflict in Canada.

The report has three key findings. First, conflict in the workplace is common. Mr. Bakker says practically everyone will find themselves experiencing conflict throughout the course of their work but how people deal with it is crucial. Second, the primary causes of conflict are personality differences or poor leadership. Third, when conflict is dealt with appropriately, it can lead to positive outcomes in terms of better solutions, better understanding of others and improved team performance.

Poor managers are the problem

Managers need to nip conflict in the bud when two team members don’t see eye-to-eye, says Mr. Bakker. He suggests the supervisor establish norms for how people are expected to work together.

“One of the most common complaints about managers and leaders is that they avoid conflict rather than deal with it in a timely fashion,” he says. “Research on team performance shows that effective teams have a process for effectively resolving conflict.”

Organization’s role

Complaining about the toxic co-worker’s behaviour won’t work. Instead, find a respectful way to let difficult colleagues know about their negative influence. If that doesn’t help, you should minimize your interaction with them, Mr. Bakker advises. Organizations need to ensure they do not reward people who get results but create a toxic culture.

Ms. Kerr says difficult workers are often emboldened because they have the support of the supervisor or the leadership.

“I believe there’s nothing more important than relationships in a workplace,” she says. “We spend so much time at work and ultimately the organizations that are most successful are the ones where folks get along, work well together, try to build each other up and support each other. That’s the kind of workplace we all deserve, and it isn’t that difficult to achieve.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • This story in Psychology Today Canada reports a Logiteck survey of 1,000 employees found 85 per cent of respondents said they faced poor audio quality and 89 per cent admitted to struggling with poor video quality when working from home. Employees said it’s their company’s job to give them the proper accessories.
  • Customer support agents using a generative AI conversation assistant saw a 14-per-cent increase in productivity compared to those who didn’t use the tool. The gains were much higher for lower-performing workers, according to a study reported by Gizmodo.
  • This article by David Burkus, an organizational psychologist and best-selling author, explains all the telltale signs of a micromanager. “Question No. 1: Do you have a long list of pending approvals and decisions that are waiting for your action?”

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