“It’s Not Me, It’s You!” How to Handle Toxic Coworkers

Most of us have had to deal with toxic co-workers at some point in our careers. The author provides some advice on how to ease the frustration.

You know who they are…those coworkers who make you cringe the moment you enter the office. The physical environment of a government office is challenging enough–desks shoved into a cramped room leaving barely any space for free movement, stuff stacked high in hallways and on desks…so much clutter, so much discomfort. Add a toxic coworker in the mix and, Holy Cow, your work life becomes almost unbearable!

The impact of a toxic coworker becomes even more agonizing when you work in a highly specialized government agency that depends heavily on team cohesion and trust. 

Toxic is a strong word. It makes me think of the yellow warning sign that we see on harmful chemicals. WARNING: MAINTAIN SAFE DISTANCE!

Sometimes it can feel like coworkers are the same way. The truth is that there will always be people that we struggle to get along with.

Types of Toxic Co-Workers

Just for ease of reference, I like to think of them in 6 different categories:

The Annoyer

The person who has no concept of space-sharing. This person’s lunch always stinks up the office, their perfume aggravates your sinuses, they talk really loud on the phone, or they just do things that, unbeknownst to them, gets on your nerves. It’s almost like they think they are the only person on the planet.

The Backstabber

With this person around, you always feel a little on edge. They may be nice to your face, but you later learn that they’re gossiping behind your back. They might even attempt to undermine or take credit for your work!

The Eeyore

Remember him from Winnie the Pooh? As far as this person is concerned, everything in life sucks. And if it doesn’t suck right now, it most certainly will in the next 10 minutes or so. 

The Criticizer/Bully

Flashback to junior high school days when you used to watch that awkward kid being bullied in the hallways. Heck, maybe you were that kid one time. The workplace bully is notoriously aggressive and critical. It’s almost as if they see every conversation as a battle to be won. 

The Flake

These are the free-loaders. They have no problem coming up with ideas and being vocal during team meetings, but, just like Chicken Little, when it’s time to actually get stuff they’re gone. They might literally disappear — as in they went to the reference library 2 hours ago and never came back — or they may appear to have mentally “disappeared” — the part of the project they were supposed to do remains unfinished with no explanation as to why they are stuck or what they need to get it handled.

The Blatant

This is the highest level of toxicity and includes blatantly illegal activities such as sexual harassment, discrimination or other illegal activities. (Note: These truly illegal matters are best handled by the professionals, i.e. your supervisor, EEO officer, or HR.)

We all could do without these people in the workplace quite frankly. After all, you are a professional committed to your job. Why can’t they be too?! All you want is a workplace with zero toxicity and a highly cohesive team.

Tips for Tackling the Toxicity

So let’s talk about 3 things you can do to navigate the toxicity and expand your own leadership capacity at the same time. 

Ditch the labels 

It’s easy to slap somebody with a label. We’ve all done it. I just did it in the preceding paragraphs!

The problem is as soon as you slap a label on somebody, you spend the rest of the day waiting for one of three things to happen:

  1. Wanting that person to change and somehow being surprised when they don’t,
  2. Looking for ways to FORCE them to change, or
  3. Griping about why your organization SHOULD force them to change but won’t.  

All of these approaches are much like trying to teach a pig to sing; it frustrates you and annoys the pig.

The ugly truth is you’ll see and experience what you expect to see and experience which means as soon as you label someone a “Bully,” you set both you and the other person up for failure. “Once a bully, always a bully,” is the thought that you’re going to keep in your mind anytime you see that coworker, and you’ll respond accordingly. 

Let me make something very clear. I am not saying that you should have your head in the clouds, thinking that it’s all roses and butterflies around these toxic people, nor am I telling you to let this person walk all over you or sucker you into doing their job. 

I am encouraging you to take care of yourself so you can respond from the highest version of you so their ICK doesn’t get in your way.

Remember, what you put your attention on grows stronger.


This is another place where Powerful Appreciation can make a big difference. I mentioned this special process earlier when dealing with difficult bosses. Here’s how it works:

  • Once a day, for 7 days, find something about the toxic person that you genuinely appreciate and tell him or her. 
  • When telling them, start with the positive thing and THEN explain specifically how that behavior or quality allows you to be a better version of you.

Which brings us to Tip 2. 

Don’t fall into the hole with them

I hear you screaming, “Martha, you don’t get it! This person is always negative and will never change.”

I’m going to say something pretty harsh here so hang with me and know that I really am on your side. Using blanket words like “always” and “never” can be a warning sign that you’re part of the problem

Ouch! Did that just feel like a slap in the face? I know it’s hard to hear the that. However, it’s important for you to take a step back and check yourself when you begin thinking this way. 

The truth is the workplace is a complex mix of individuals with unique characteristics and skills. Difference of opinion and style is inevitable and that’s a good thing. 

Each of us comes to the world with a unique set of talents, skills, abilities, physical attributes, likes, dislikes, quirks, and even those things that other people call flaws. (Hear the toxic labelling coming out?) All those things come together to make a sum total package that uniquely equips a person for something. It’s true for you, and it’s true for your toxic colleague. 

That sum total package also contains a specific leadership profile as well as it’s associated “leadership…clearing throat… shadows,” those aspects that don’t always work and play well with others.

The challenge is that in order for us as individuals to truly identify the power, value and uniqueness of that package and own it such that those shadows don’t wreak havoc, you have to tighten up your own ship. 

Tighten up your own ship

Yes, I know you got here because you wanted help with a toxic colleague and now I’m talking about you, but hear me out.

When you are 100 percent grounded in your own unique leadership abilities—both the “good” and “bad” side of your particular version, all this goes away. This is not about blaming, forcing, tolerating, defending, fixing, or pushing back. It’s about coming from a grounded place that makes you unflappable. Not rigid, but unflappable. 

Unflappable means that you don’t get rattled. No matter what happens, you have the clarity, compassion, focus, and bandwidth to show up as the highest version of you. Things don’t knock you off your center, and toxic colleagues don’t get your goat. 

Does it mean that you like everything? No! Does it mean that you’re perfect at everything? No! Does it mean that you don’t get tired, sad, hurt, or pissed off? No! It doesn’t mean any of those things. In fact, it means that you do all those things with grace

But, here’s the interesting part. When you’re 100% grounded in your unique leadership qualities, when you become unflappable, a lot of these things don’t bother you anymore. You may not like the behavior, but it doesn’t rattle you. It sort of falls into the same category with ugly wallpaper; you don’t like it but you deal with it. And the stress of it doesn’t follow you home.

This is what it means to lead from who you are, not what you do

Putting It All Together

When you shift, everything shifts. Regardless of where you go, there will always be a toxic coworker. (They make them outside of government too. Trust me, I’ve worked on both sides.) But, you can use the Powerful Appreciation tool to help take the charge out of your interactions with these coworkers and create a better working relationship. Always remember to take care of you first; don’t lose yourself trying to fix someone else. 

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.