A man knowing how to deal with a toxic person at work by putting his hand up to him.

Are toxic people making your workplace intolerable? Are you afraid that confronting them will make things worse?

Just as there’s no one definition of what makes someone toxic, there’s no one way to deal with a toxic person. You must judge for yourself what strategies will be best depending on the situation and the people involved.

Keep reading for some practical advice on how to deal with toxic people at work from organizational psychologist Robert I. Sutton.

How to Deal With Toxic People at Work

Sutton’s advice on how to deal with toxic people at work corresponds to the amount of interaction required with them. For each subsequent approach, the level of interaction increases: 

  1. Leaving the jerk’s environment entirely
  2. Reducing your interactions as much as possible
  3. Lessening the jerk’s power over your mental state
  4. Fighting back with offensive tactics

Approach #1: Remove Yourself Entirely From the Jerk’s Environment 

Sutton argues that one of the best ways to deal with chronic jerk behavior is to get away from the person entirely. This might mean moving to a different company, moving to a different location, or switching jobs within the same company so you’re under a different boss. Being entirely out of the jerk’s orbit prevents you from experiencing damaging encounters with them.

Strategy: Avoid Forming New Professional Connections With Jerks

Sutton argues that when possible, you should avoid entering into connections with jerks in the first place. If you’re never involved with them, you don’t have to go through the trouble of confronting them or planning a careful escape. Additionally, you don’t have to experience the emotional stress of engaging with them. 

To avoid jerks, pay attention to how new business connections—whether they’re potential coworkers, bosses, clients, and so on—interact with and talk about the people they already work with. If they’re respectful to both you and their existing colleagues, they’ll likely be fine later on. However, if they’re nice to you but rude, condescending, or dismissive toward other people, they’ll probably eventually turn on you too.

You can also tell if someone’s a jerk by talking to people who have worked with them before. If those people have a lot of negative things to say about working with the person in question, then it’s best to avoid entering into a new professional relationship with them.  

Approach #2: Reduce Your Interactions With the Jerk

Sometimes, it’s too difficult to avoid a jerk entirely—for example, maybe you can’t afford to switch jobs. In such cases, Sutton suggests reducing your interactions with the jerk as much as possible.

Strategy: Separate Yourself From the Jerk Physically

Sutton argues that if you have to work with a jerk, you should create as much physical distance from them as possible. Research shows that this works because you’re much more likely to interact with someone using all forms of communication if they’re physically closer to you. 

Therefore, if you distance yourself from a jerk, you won’t have to engage with them as much, and they’ll have a lesser effect on your mental well-being. It’ll also be less likely that their jerk behavior will rub off on you.

The farther you can move away from the jerk, the better—try working in a different building, on a different floor, or on the other side of the office. At the very least, move your desk so you’re not in their immediate vicinity.

Approach #3: Lessen the Jerk’s Power Over Your Mental State

According to Sutton, sometimes distancing yourself isn’t possible—you may be forced to work closely with jerks for extended periods. When a lot of interaction with a jerk is inevitable, you can lessen the jerk’s power over your mental state by changing your mindset. In doing so, you can protect yourself from the negative effects of their behavior even if you’re frequently exposed.

The best way to do this is through the cognitive behavioral technique of reframing—taking a negative thought and reworking it into something more neutral or positive. Reframing is based on the psychological premise that your thoughts dictate how you feel and act. If you can change your thoughts about a situation—like a jerk’s rude behavior—then you can change how you respond.

Strategy #1: Focus on What You Can Learn

Sutton offers several strategies for reframing jerk behavior so it mentally affects you less. First, try focusing on anything you might gain from your interactions with the jerk. Is there a bright side to the situation you can find? If you can find a positive element, it can help you look back at a situation and feel better about it or get through a long-term connection with a rude, disrespectful person. 

For example, maybe your boss seems nice at first but turns out to be emotionally manipulative and narcissistic with poor personal boundaries. The bright side of that situation might be that your experience with this boss taught you the warning signs of narcissistic, abusive behavior. Therefore, you can more easily avoid working with similar people in the future.

Strategy #2: Find a Way to Empathize

Alternatively, you might try finding a way to empathize with the jerk so you can eventually forgive them. Research shows that forgiveness benefits the person who was hurt because it allows them to move on from the situation. Forgiving thoughts can lessen the physiological stress response and alleviate sadness and anger. This doesn’t mean accepting or excusing the jerk’s behavior—it just means letting go of your resentment toward it, which only hurts you. 

For example, say your fellow supervisor frequently yells at her employees, and this causes morale problems among the staff. Your higher-ups won’t do anything about it, so you have to continue working with her. Instead of developing a simmering resentment toward her, you try to empathize with the fact that she felt she had to become aggressive to work her way up through the company, even if she’s misguided. This allows you to forgive (though not excuse) her shortcomings and work with her productively.

Approach #4: Go on the Offensive Against the Jerk

Finally, Sutton states that sometimes, the only way to deal with a jerk is to go on the offensive against them. This might mean confronting them directly or getting people with more power than you to address their behavior. 

Whatever your method, tread carefully—if the jerk finds out that you’re moving against them, they might retaliate and cause more problems for you. Therefore, it’s important to pause, consider your options, and ask for input from others before making any decisions about your approach. There are three primary considerations to address before you decide how to go against the jerk:

Consideration #1:How much influence does the jerk have over you? The more control they have, the more careful you need to be.

Consideration #2: Do you have concrete evidence to support your claims against the jerk? The more documentation you have of their bad behavior—such as emails, text messages, notes, videos, and so on—the more credible you’ll seem. This prevents the issue from devolving into your word against theirs.

Consideration #3: Are there other people who can join in confronting the jerk? The more people you have supporting you, the more influence and credibility you have.

Here are two of Sutton’s specific strategies for combating jerk behavior directly: 

Strategy #1: Calmly Explain the Problem With Their Behavior

According to Sutton, in some instances, calmly pulling the person exhibiting jerk behavior aside and explaining how they’re negatively affecting everyone else can halt the worst of the problems. This strategy is best used for people who generally have good intentions and aren’t aware that their behavior is hurting others. 

For example, say your coworker frequently makes others feel stupid by shooting them down when they ask questions or make suggestions. You’re friends, so you pull him aside to let him know that he’s offended many people with his attitude. He’s taken aback and embarrassed by unknowingly hurting others, and he promises to be more conscious of his tone and approach in the future.

Strategy #2: Harness the Power of Humor and Sarcasm

For jerks who won’t respond well to a calm, direct approach, Sutton suggests using humor and sarcasm to more subtly put them in their place. Using humor allows you to hit back at their behavior with your own insults while still being socially acceptable. It takes away some of their power when people can laugh at them and shows that you’ll push back against them. However, be careful with this tactic, as it can start a dangerous cycle of mudslinging between you and the jerk. They might want to get you back if you humiliate them.

For example, say you’re assigned to work with a notorious bully on a project, and she immediately starts changing your work without your permission. You might confront her by saying, in front of your manager and the rest of the team, “Hey, I noticed you’ve been very interested in my work lately—changing it and deleting it. I appreciate your enthusiasm, and I’m sorry to disappoint you, but your attempts are futile. You see, I have a secret weapon that protects my work from your changes: It’s called version history.” This approach maintains levity while undermining her and exposing her bad behavior to everyone else.

Exercise: Develop a Plan for Dealing With a Jerk

Now that you’ve learned some of Sutton’s strategies for dealing with jerks, apply them to a jerk in your life.

  1. Think of a recent encounter you had with someone who exhibited jerk behavior at work. Describe it here. (For example, maybe your boss made you and your coworkers stay late on Friday night to finish a project, but he left early. Or, maybe your coworker snapped at you when you asked her for help.)
  2. Did this incident have any negative effects on your well-being at or outside of work? If so, what were they? (For example, maybe you’re burnt out and stressed because you feel like your boss has unreasonable expectations, and you’re sacrificing your free time for a job that doesn’t serve you. Or, maybe you were surprised but not that upset about your coworker’s snappiness.)
  3. Based on the circumstances, which of Sutton’s strategies would work best for dealing with the jerk? (For example, there’s a general culture of overworking and disrespect at your job, and most of the supervisors are like your boss. Therefore, finding another job to get away from the jerks may be the best option for you. Or, you decide not to address the incident of your coworker snapping because she’s normally nice, and you found out that she was stressed because her dog was in the hospital that day.)
How to Deal With Toxic People at Work: 4 Practical Approaches

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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