Part of what makes going to work worthwhile is the people we meet and the relationships we form. They make our lives richer. Unfortunately, we also are bound to encounter difficult people who deplete our reserves rather than fill them. Learning how to deal with them effectively is necessary for getting work done and sparing ourselves—and others—angst, resentment, and wasted energy. Recognizing toxic behaviors and personality types is relatively easy. When you repeatedly witness and endure the pain they inflict, patterns start to emerge. The hard part is figuring out what to do next. You may not have much control over others’ conduct, but you can learn to manage your own response. As Christine notes in “An Antidote to Incivility,” the most effective remedy on a personal level is self-preservation—concentrating on your own growth and pursuing what you’re passionate about rather than stewing or trying to change other people’s behavior. In effect, don’t let the cynics drag you down.
Managing prickly employees is especially tough, given that you must not only protect yourself but also minimize the broader damage they do. In “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo note that, when choosing a work partner, most people consider ability to be less important than likability. Holding competent jerks accountable for their bad behavior is crucial. Giving them a limited berth so that they can contribute productively without causing harm also may be wise.
While it’s hard to change someone’s ways, talented but temperamental leaders can turn their behavior around, with help. In “Coaching the Toxic Leader,” Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries identifies four common personality types that, left unchecked, create dysfunctional environments. Knowing some techniques for improving the conduct of, for example, narcissists and emotionally disconnected leaders provides hope.
Destructive or malicious situations are those that most demand an active approach. In “Keeping Your Colleagues Honest,” Mary C. Gentile warns that when serious ethical or legal questions stare you in the face, you should not turn a blind eye or rationalize them away. As a manager, you must accept that part of your job is to confront moral dilemmas and unethical behavior in others. You should ask probing questions, expose faulty thinking, and consider long-term risks. Then make the case for taking an alternative and honorable course of action. Armed with insight, your own sense of self, and the right strategies, you can combat—and even reverse—the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. You might even come out looking like a hero.