How to spot toxic behavior in the workplace and strategies to deal with it
We all want to work in a safe environment. It makes us be more productive, happier and satisfied with our jobs. In the past couple of years, we have seen a lot of improvement in this sense, and people are much more aware of unacceptable behavior than they were decades ago. We have the means to report harassment and discriminatory speech, and this has opened some doors for people who have previously faced systematic oppression.
I am very happy to see how we progressed, but harassment and discrimination aren’t the only obstacles we will encounter in the work environment (and in other areas of our lives as well).
Dealing with some people can take an emotional toll on us. Of course, it’s part of our personal growth to develop social skills, manage crises, be diplomatic and learn to respect differences we might have with other people. There are times we feel emotionally drained and it is actually on us to work on ourselves and learn coping strategies. However, there are times when people behave in a toxic way. Recognizing this is crucial for us to take the best actions for our mental well being and the health of our communities at large.
The first thing we all need to keep in mind is that recognizing toxic behavior does not mean we will be able to diagnose people. It is also very important to note that disagreements are normal. If you had an argument with a colleague or need to handle a delicate situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is toxic behavior involved. Fortunately, real toxic behavior is relatively rare. Most of the people we work with, or who we will work with, are able to deal with disagreements and relationship issues in a healthy way.
Nonetheless, recognizing toxic behavior is important because if it crosses your path, it can generate a real turmoil. So what is toxic behavior after all? As with every society, what is considered acceptable or not changes over time and depends on culture and moral values. This is why what was considered toxic behavior fifty years ago is very different from what we would consider toxic behavior today. I know, this explanation doesn’t make it any easier. The best way to identify what is toxic is staying in tune with your emotions and recognizing if someone else’s behavior (or even your own!) is draining your energy more than it would in a normal situation.
Examples? Bullying, unnecessary requests/pressure, manipulation, gossip, threats, inflexibility, gas-lighting, verbal abuse. The hardest part is that toxic behavior doesn’t usually come with a red flag. It is usually nuanced, and you only realize someone is behaving in a toxic way when you’ve been already emotionally drained. So how can we protect ourselves?
The best advice is to have your own journal. If a certain situation made you feel anxious, uneasy, afraid, etc, write about it. Try to be objective though, and try to describe the events as accurately as possible. Give yourself a couple of hours or a few days and re-read what you wrote. Did the emotions triggered match the events or not? Do you think you were treated unfairly? Write your updated impressions, as you might realize the behavior that needs change is yours, or that the situation would normally evoke a strong reaction for most people. The problem is when after you’ve cooled down, you still recognize that a third party behavior was abusive and unjustified.
So what do you do with it? It depends. If it happened once, try your best to forgive and move on. We are humans after all. If it happens repeatedly, talk to the person. Present your perspective without pointing fingers at anyone, be diplomatic about it. If you are unsure how to conduct this kind of conversation, you can ask for guidance from a mentor or from a trusted person. If the conversation goes badly or if the behavior repeats itself several times, the documentation you should be registering will help you validate your feelings and it will be easier to make a plan of action from there. If you are reporting someone else’s behavior, you should have documentation about it and make sure it is not your personal bias that is causing the problem. Ask for a second opinion as well! You will work with people you don’t necessarily want to be friends with, and that is OK. Do not mistake personal differences with toxic behavior.
Keep in mind that you want to contribute to a safe work environment, so do not fear reporting abusive behavior, we all will thank you later.
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