There are few people who have not experienced or at least heard of colleagues or bosses who can ruin your day in the blink of an eye. What is initially dismissed as a one-off incident or a bad day is increasingly becoming part of everyday life. How can I identify a toxic person and what types of toxic people are there, and how do I master the situation when dealing with them?
“Your cruel device
Your blood, like ice
One look could kill
My pain, your thrill”,
are some of the lyrics of the classic song Poison by Alice Cooper.
The American rock legend is likely unaware how perfectly his lyrics apply to one aspect of professional life: toxic colleagues. Everyone has probably already come across a colleague capable of completely ruining the atmosphere in the office, bringing work to a standstill or blaming any poor performance on everyone but themselves.
As explained in detail in the 9th episode of the rexxperts podcast – HR-Talk, the “toxic” personality as defined by Mrs Heidrun Schüler-Lubienetzki and her husband Ulf Lubienetzki exhibits a specific set of personality traits known as the “dark triad”. This definition was first mentioned in 2002 in a study by the Canadian psychologists Delroy L. Paulhus and Kevin M. Williams and includes three more or less noticeable personality traits that are separate but may empirically overlap:
There are also other variables that go into the equation. Upbringing and socialisation can play a role in creating a toxic personality, as can simple habits. While you should never ignore the daily manifestations of the personality, a bad day does not automatically mean that your colleague is “toxic”. After all, every person can exhibit more or less toxic behaviour on a bad day. This is toxic behaviour nevertheless, and if such days become more frequent, it would be advisable – also as a form of self-protection – to distance yourself as soon the alarm bells start to ring.
How do I identify toxic people in the office?
All you have to do is open your eyes and observe. Once you’ve recognised the warning signs, the scales will likely fall from your eyes. In a figurative sense, you know that you have struck gold if your colleague or boss:
- exhibits destructive, immoral, insidious or antisocial behaviour with remarkable frequency.
- turns on the waterworks too often to gain sympathy, playing the victim to bask constantly in the spotlight.
- allows only one opinion to count – their own.
- never apologises. As they always position themselves as the victim, in their reality there is never a reason to say sorry. After all, it is always the others who are responsible for their failure, misfortune or the mistakes that bring their meticulously constructed world to collapse like a house of cards.
- is deservedly described as an “energy vampire” or “poison spewer”, because they leave you with a immense feeling of physical exhaustion and mental fatigue after even only a brief encounter.
- turns out to be a master of manipulation. They believe that the end justifies any means to achieve it: lies, sympathy, blackmail (emotional). Any conceivable and morally contemptible means is okay with them, as long as they get what they want.
- undermines your own self-confidence, making you doubt yourself or form a negative and distorted self-image.
- always complains and criticises everything and everyone. The objective is to throw their colleagues off course and keep them down as long as possible, to ensure they retain the sense of superiority developed with such craft and at such length.
- makes you distrust your own common sense. Their games, intrigues and lies make you doubt what is real and what is not.
- knows no limits and continues to test them, as long as they go unchallenged.
- is quick-tempered, aggressive and offensive, leaving you feeling constantly on the defensive. Excuses are the order of the day, and accusations are the rule and not the exception. These are minor issues and invented fantasies.
- they make you believe that you are to blame. Accusations and constant criticism make them blossom in their victim role and bathe in the feelings of guilt of others. However, they can rarely put into words the exact reason for their theatrical behaviour.
- awaken in their victim a sense of sadness, with the victim rarely knowing the true source of their sadness.
- always wants to be in the centre of the universe. The fulfilment of their needs is the sun around which those affected should orbit. The closer you are to them, the more your own concerns recede.
- loves to make a mountain out of a molehill. Even minor things are frothed up into a dramatic doomsday scenario. This makes it impossible to have an objective discussion or clarifying talk.
But not every toxic personality can be pigeonholed so neatly. As with everything, variety is the spice of life. Not all toxic manifestations and personality traits are equally pronounced in “toxic” people or can even be diagnosed.
While some like to weave a web of lies, others constantly complain about their work environment, and some toxic types really seem to enjoy the drama and fighting. While there is a long list of different personality types that should be classified as toxic, 10 behaviour types stand out.
These types of personalities constantly and, above all, consciously play the victim card to stir up sympathy – the boss is mean for no reason, their colleagues are just jealous of their success, or the project manager has zero social skills. While at the beginning you may still be able to empathise or willing to help, at second glance the penny drops. You realise that the reasons for moaning and complaining are actually not that bad or are entirely far-fetched.
Liars distort reality or leave out an important part of the truth to present themselves in the best possible light and yet ensure the whole thing is still credible. In other words, liars present the world as they like it.
This particular toxic personality is never at a loss for a bad word – for their colleagues, the boss, or anyone else who gets fat on gossip. The tirades never leave out anyone or anything, even if it ruins the atmosphere in the office, and the behaviour may involve bullying. The same applies to spying on others to curry favour with the boss or another executive with the ultimate goal of putting themselves in a better light.
Free riders are not the types Bill Gates was referring to when he said: “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
They are, rather, toxic people who have perfected the skill of pursuing their own goals with as little effort as possible. To do this, they will use every trick in the book to let colleagues do most of the work and then swoop in for the credit at the end.
The conviction that the aura of infallibility clings to this particular toxic type is as natural as the steep path up the career ladder. For the necessary or, in their eyes, deserved career break, they are prepared – metaphorically – to walk over dead bodies. Bullying and scheming are just two of the many roads that lead to Rome.
At the beginning, the whole thing can be put down to excessive self-confidence, charm and humour. With time, though, the fascination diminishes, and it becomes increasingly obvious that the narcissist will always use any means to claim the spotlight for themselves – with no exception.
In complete contrast to this are loners, who do not work well on teams and are perceived as weird due to their eccentric behaviour. Lone wolfs like to approach their tasks independently and in their own way. They do not accept or respect other solutions or basic structures such as deadlines.
Teamwork is not in the vocabulary of this personality type. Any constructive form of working together is out of the question because the ruthless hyper-competitive personality type makes everything about beating others. Everything in life is competition. All that matters is to be better, faster or go further than everyone else. In the professional context, this translates into being more successful or more popular than others. Any other result is unacceptable, irrespective of whether or not anyone is actually competing with this person.
As long as everything goes according to plan, there is peace, joy and pancakes. But if the slightest thing goes wrong or the choleric is thrown off course by something unforeseen, all hell will break loose as the carefully constructed house of cards faces the risk of collapse. This is where emotions run wild, as the choleric is unable to keep emotions in check. Once the choleric is done, it’s usually scorched earth thats left behind.
Emotional manipulation is one of their specialities. The choleric personality twists the facts until they are as far removed from reality as a fairy tale penned by the Brothers Grimm. The intent is to get everyone to dance to their tune, as if they were the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
As mentioned earlier, there are more types of poison spewers that can quickly turn your working life into hell, but these ten types are the most common.
Who is a magnet for toxic people?
There is a saying that birds of a feather flock together. This actually does not apply to toxic persons. Instead, “toxic” people tend to cling to people with outstanding, predominantly positive personality traits and behaviour.
There is another saying that opposites attract.
People that appeal to toxic individuals fall mainly into five categories:
- those willing to help
- those willing to listen
- those collecting ideas and targets
- those with outgoing personalities
Helpfulness is a quality not prized highly enough. However, it is also easily misused because people who always offer their help sometimes find it difficult or impossible to say “no”. This is exactly where the toxic personality comes in and tries to stir up some sympathy, to appeal to their kindness and good nature.
The ability to lend a sympathetic ear is a fundamental personality trait that is highly valued in society – unfortunately, by toxic persons as well. You soon find yourself listening to never-ending rants about personal problems or colleagues, and struggle to find the exit.
Looking into the future is not easy. To open up about your goals, ideas, dreams, hopes or vision can be daunting. It’s even harder if you pick the wrong person to open up to. While you hope to receive some positive feedback, toxic people take the opportunity to paint everything negatively, or at least to sow doubt. This is rooted in their belief that they will never achieve their own dreams and goals, and so no one else can or should either.
Having many contacts shows an openness to communicating with a wide range of personalities. This is exactly what toxic personalities use to spin their manipulative web of lies and half truths. It is not uncommon for stories to be told in a way that casts unfavourable light on a third party to destroy the image of a colleague or at least put a negative spin on it.
Speaking of negativity: optimists are viewed very critically by toxic personalities, many of whom simply cannot grasp how someone can look at the world predominantly from the sunny side, while they themselves remain unable to push the rain clouds aside. The explanation for this phenomenon is as simple as it is sad: envy and resentment.
For this reason, they constantly try to use negativity to drag optimists down to their level.
How do you protect yourself from toxic people?
It is a great advantage if you have developed an eye for toxic colleagues, bosses or customers. This way, you at least have the chance to adapt. This is because in a professional context it is sometimes simply impossible to avoid these people.
Nevertheless, you should try as hard as you can to avoid toxic colleagues or discuss only the bare essentials with them. You should also always keep things constructive and objective. You should never get personal or resort to abusive, insulting or threatening behaviour. You should not raise your voice, as toxic personalities are particularly sensitive to the voice of their counterpart.
As toxic people tend to be unpredictable, a mental protective wall can help you avoid being thrown off course. Always stick to the topic, even if the other person wanders off. This can also be an effective way of controlling the situation and getting the toxic personality back on track.
Nevertheless, if the conversation moves in an uncomfortable direction, you should put some distance between you and the toxic person as quickly as possible. A quick coffee or bathroom break can work wonders. In extreme cases, the conversation should be postponed to a later date if you feel the toxic person is about to blow their top.
The conscious decision to remain cool can work wonders when dealing with toxic people.
Other techniques that can help in dealing with toxic individuals include:
Humour, mirroring, confrontation, calm questioning or silence. The most important thing, though, is to display self-confidence and always remain true to yourself.
All of this is naturally always easier said than done. This is another reason why you should not have to take on “toxic” people alone. It is up to employees and bosses to identify toxic people as early as possible and to take measures to neutralise the threat they pose. This is not as easy as it sounds, because toxic individuals tend to be excellent psychologists and are thus very good at masking their own inadequacies and instead make an eloquent, extremely charming, competent and surprisingly empathetic impression. This is in keeping with a quote from Mark Twain: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’re being fooled”.
That’s one of the reasons this is so difficult. Sometimes it is simply not the people who change, but the masks that fall. In other words: many traits only come to light gradually. And this is exactly where the danger lies when you are frequently exposed to a toxic person, e.g. during a five-day week in the office. Thanks to mirror receptors in our brains, not only may many of these signs go unnoticed but, in the worst-case scenario, you may start to exhibit some of these traits without realising it.
A 2015 University of Florida study found that toxic behaviour can be contagious and people tend to start imitating this behaviour whether consciously or unconsciously. As the Americans say: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
For this reason, a clear line should be drawn as soon as you notice the first signs, making it clear that this line will not be crossed.
- Confront the behaviour with self-confidence
- Point out consequences such as a warning or dismissal
- Find allies in colleagues and approach the boss as a group
- Never take any outbursts personally
- Avoid contact or, in particularly difficult cases, break off contact
Toxic personalities can also, however, have a positive effect. Through their constant attacks and snide comments, they uncover weaknesses in their supposed victims, which can be worked on with patience and self-reflection to spur personal and professional growth.
This is why the motto in the professional work environment should always be:
the dose makes the poison.
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