What to Do If You Have a Toxic Colleague?

We’ve all had to work with and for toxic people in an organization we don’t particularly like; individuals we can’t trust, who always seem to operate with a hidden agenda. I had such a colleague when I held a number of executive positions for a major telecommunications company.My toxic colleague thrived on advancing his own personal agenda, finding fault with what others did and working behind their back to sabotage them and position himself as the shining example of the way things should be done.But he managed, through all of his destructive behaviour, to fool senior people in the organization — including the EVP of Human Resources — and get promoted. In the end, he was eventually found out to be the horrific person he really was, but that was unfortunately after he did considerable damage to other people and the organization.I had to learn to deal with this person from several different perspectives; as the boss, a peer and a direct report. The most challenging relationship was as a peer; the easiest was as a direct report — having this person reporting to me was not pleasant because he would always be undermining my direction and trying to discredit the other members of my reporting team.As his boss I had the power and he was smart enough to hide his dark side. As his direct report, he had the power and didn’t have to display his real side. But as a peer he showed who he really was — calculating, spiteful, a bully and toxic to those around him who he felt threatened and competed with him for attention and opportunities.This is how I survived him as a peer. It was not a put-down or take-out plan but a survival plan to withstand the personal threat he constantly posed in hopes that leadership in the organization would figure him out and do what was right to remedy the situation.

Do the right thing

I always led with what was right for the organization. The dilemma you have in this type of situation is if you go one-on-one with Mr Toxic, you run the risk of being seen by those around you as jealous and vindictive. And the toxic ones will always paint you in that light once they see that you are in the attack mode.So my strategy was to avoid making it personal by putting the strategic game planof the organization first. The idea was to sell my ideas over his as the better solutions to the company’s problems and therefore show him as someone who really didn’t understand what was required to succeed in the highly competitive marketplace we served. This tactic was difficult because you were always having to resist the emotional personal response to his actions and reframe the debate in terms of what was best for the company.

Never underestimate

I never underestimated him. The toxic ones are clever — no, cunning — like a laseraptor. That’s why they are so dangerous to others. It’s really unfortunate they direct their intelligence towards destroying another person rather than towards solving the problems of the organization. This factor drove me to always prepare for his attack on any solution I came up with. I had to look at my proposal through his ill-intentioned eyes and try to anticipate his objections to it.Literally every plan or proposal anyone else developed was met with either his outright disapproval or his condemnation of some portion of it. Some might say that he forced people to create their best work because of his malicious oversight, but the reality was that people had to be fastidious because they wanted to avoid his personal attacks on their work.

Don’t believe

I didn’t believe anything he said. It’s always tempting to accept what people say as being truthful; I think humans are born with the innate desire to trust others and believe in them. But with a toxic one, this can be deadly because they never tell the truth. They are always looking for opportunities to advancetheir own agenda through a narrative that looks and sounds believable.My strategy was to listen carefully and NOT respond until I could figure out what he was really up to. Exhausting, right?But absolutely necessary to avoid getting sucked in to a situation that could hurt you.Related: Successful People Win by Being the Hungriest

Go underground

I was in regular contact with key members of his team. Having real time data on what toxic ones are doing is an essential survival tool. Not only from the perspective of the actions that are taking on organizational issues, but also on how people in their organization are feeling about how they are being treated. Regular meetings with his direct reports were on my agenda every week. I gathered information on what they discussed at their own team meetings with him and what projects they were treating as priorities.The activity data base I developed on him was essential in creating my plan and in making adjustments to it based on his current behaviour. You may think that this was overkill, but consider the consequences of not being able to take countermeasures when you are being hunted. I did this religiously and was always positioned to avoid his onslaught (much to his chagrin).

Form alliances

I formed alliances with other executives. Negative impacts are created by toxic people throughout the organization and they must be neutralized. It’s important to come together with colleagues who share a common view of the toxic one; the credibility of the opposition often is based on the strength of numbers.My plan was to organize like-minded executives to counteract the toxic actions he took. We met regularly to review what he did and developed an action plan to remedy anything we felt needed an intervention and to create a communications strategy to talk about what we decided to do and why. We spread our word widely in the organization.To many of you, my 5-point action plan probably seems unnecessarily complicated and in excess of what is needed to survive a toxic one.But I assure you it is absolutely necessary.Toxic ones are smart; they are dangerously deliberateand the manipulate exceedingly well to achieve their selfish ends. So an exhaustive approach is needed to survive the war — unless you decide to leave the organization to escape their punishment.