I remember one rainy day in Boston; my boss was pacing and screaming, red-faced, at someone on a conference call. I don’t remember what he said; I do remember, however, the windows on the building across the street.
I counted them while he was screaming (and since he was still screaming, I counted them again). It was my way of distancing myself from the epic craziness that was unfolding in front of me, and not letting myself get absorbed into the drama. (In hindsight, many years later, it’s kind of funny to picture him screaming at this little triangle-shaped machine on his table.)
Unfortunately, too many of us live through similar moments on a daily basis; whether it’s a boss or a co-worker, toxic people make it hard to feel positive about heading in to work. And worse, their toxicity can cause serious stress-related health issues, if you’re exposed to it for long enough. If the toxicity is directed at you, it can make you question your abilities and feel like you are being singled out.
This article on Huffington Post (How Successful People Handle Toxic People) brought back that window-counting memory (and many others) of people at work who were overwhelmed, self-absorbed, on power trips, or just plain unable to manage their emotions.
The writer, Travis Bradberry (author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0), gives several helpful tips: setting limits, staying aware of your own emotions, establishing boundaries, don’t let anyone limit your own joy, focus on solutions, and practice self-care. The article’s definitely worth a read, if you’re in this situation. One of his main points involves not spending time obsessing about the difficult person (thereby compounding your stress), but rather spending time figuring out how you can change your own behavior to limit the damage.
Quit thinking about how troubling your difficult person is,
and focus instead on how you’re going to go about handling them.
In my experience, managing a toxic boss (and his toxic pals) required quickly assessing moods and adjusting my plans accordingly. Since my boss could be mercurial, he could be in a jolly mood one minute and then slamming his hand on the table the next. If I walked near his office and sensed a “mood” brewing, I’d delay discussions about anything that could be a trigger. I’d come back a while later when he seemed back to himself, and broach the difficult subject then. Of course, if your boss (or whatever toxic person you have in mind) is chronically over-booked, or if you often have very time-sensitive topics, that might not be an option.
I also took up kickboxing (I must admit, occasionally I pictured his face on the sparring pad), ate better, started meditating and cultivated interests outside of work. At the time, I had too much of my own identity tied up in my job, anyway, so the mental distance I had to learn to create was good for me in the long run. And, in the end, I left the organization to find work I liked better and a boss (myself) who didn’t scream at others.
If you’re in this situation, please reach out to build a support system for yourself; surround yourself with people who reflect back to you the good work you do. Practice self-care. Build boundaries and awareness of your own ways you might trigger the person without meaning to.
And if you’re the toxic person, please… get help managing your emotions before you drive everyone out of your organization.