Is your co-worker toxic or just annoying?

Is your co-worker toxic or just annoying?

SINGAPORE - It might be the gossipmonger who sows discord. Or it might be the drama queen who complains about every little thing. Or worse, it might be the passive-aggressive colleague who constantly steals credit. But while it is unrealistic for everyone to like one another, there's a difference between someone you can't get along with and a toxic colleague.

The former has to do with individual preference, while the latter poisons the office with their negativity and malcontent, affecting the performance and engagement levels of those around them.

A 2015 study by Harvard Business School (HBS) on toxic workers suggests that such people compel other employees to leave an organisation faster and more frequently. This not only generates high turnover and training costs, but also brings down the productivity of the entire team.

So while it may be very magnanimous of you to just grit your teeth and bear with it, doing so comes at a high cost to both your career and sanity. It is imperative that you nip the problem in the bud before you become toxic too.

If a co-worker grates on your nerves, but no one else in your team has this problem and you can't really pinpoint why, perhaps it's wise to check whether the problem lies with you. It might be your inner bias talking.

Be honest and ask yourself these questions, says Wendy Chua-Sullivan, leadership coach at Wand Inspiration. "What could you be feeling insecure or jealous about? What are your judgements about this person? What does this person remind you of that triggers your irritation?"

Recognising where your feelings are coming from helps puts things into perspective.

Personality mismatch

As teams get more diverse, it is inevitable that we encounter colleagues we don't like, and it can simply boil down to a personality mismatch or individual preference. Most people don't realise that it is perfectly fine for co-workers to not like one another. In fact, liking your colleagues is more of a bonus rather than a requisite.

If all parties are professional when it comes to projects and work gets done, it doesn't really matter that this person puts up a front when the boss is around or that your co-worker can't stop over-sharing about his or her life.

The golden caveat here is that it must not impact your ability to perform, or affect how your boss or teammates view you. "Colleagues who are annoying usually are unaware and their intention is not to hurt. They still contribute to the team and results. An annoying co-worker is like an itch - irritating but eventually harmless," says Ms Chua-Sullivan.

Vikas Verma, principal of Aon Hewitt, Talent, Rewards & Performance Practice, says that sometimes it may just be the colleague's communication style. "In this case patiently working with the colleague to make him or her aware of this and perhaps help the person with a development plan would be a great start."

But when your co-worker is causing you hurt and misery, he or she has moved into toxic territory. Says Ms Chua-Sullivan: "One who is toxic intends to bring others down. Like a virus in the body, the toxic colleague's intention is to destroy good cells."

Some examples of toxic behaviour include creating conflict, sabotaging others to make themselves look good and spreading negativity.

While it may be obvious to everyone else, toxic workers are often hard to spot by managers because these employees still hit their key performance indicators (KPIs) and may hide such traits from superiors. Or worse, they may be buddies with the boss.

However, the worst thing you can do is to keep quiet, which appears to be the norm in Singapore's rather non-confrontational culture.

Eve Ash, psychologist and CEO of Seven Dimensions, suggests that co-workers try to talk to the toxic colleague personally. "Give specific feedback, explain the issue and why it is a problem for you, ask them for their opinion, and work out a new way forward together."

But if the toxic co-worker is not receptive, approach your boss with a positive mindset. You should give your boss a fair assessment of the situation with specific solutions you would recommend, instead of focusing on personal grievances.

However, if your boss is not willing to take action and no change is seen, it may be advisable to speak to someone else more senior for advice as a last resort, but make sure your boss is in the know.

Says Mr Verma: "If you do speak to someone else, it's advisable to be objective and talk about your issues rather than the boss or the co-worker. Keep it to the fact that certain behaviour of your colleague is hindering you from giving your best to the organisation and team objectives."

Toxic work culture

If you focus on how to resolve the issues at hand, there is no reason why you will be looked upon as a troublemaker, unless your entire organisation has a toxic work culture that condones such behaviour.

In that case, it is quite clear that seeking greener pastures might be the best option.

But until that becomes the only alternative, be the bigger person and rise above it. Find a good mentor to develop your skills and study those who have dealt with difficult people and learn from their interactions.

Says Ms Ash: "Always act professionally, strive to be a champion competitor, and allow the competitive, undermining, passive-aggressive teammate or boss's buddy to make their own mistakes. Don't get sucked into a useless office war."

This article was first published on September 17, 2016.
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