Handling Emotionally Harmful Employees and Toxic Coworkers

December 12, 2013 | By | Reply More

harmful employeesEffective communication is about connecting with the people who can make your life better, right? But what about the people who don’t want to make your life better?

As noted psychiatrist and business consultant Mark Goulston has found, communication techniques can be equally effective for disconnecting from people who want to con you, use you, or crush you. “Sometimes you’re so entangled financially or emotionally that it’s tough to do what I call a jerkectomy,” Dr. Gouldston acknowledges in his new book, Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone. “But painful or not, handling these people (or getting them out of your life entirely) is critical to your success and your sanity.” To defend yourself against harmful employees and toxic people in the workplace, try these techniques:

Needy People

These toxic people suck the life out of you, because no matter what you do for them, it’s never enough. If you feel like yelling “Toughen up!” at the person, try the “wince confrontation.” Here’s a sample script: “All of us feel disappointed, hurt, or upset from time to time. Yet you whine, complain, cry or blame somebody else almost every time I ask you about something you haven’t done. It’s too exhausting to be around you. You have the right to act anyway you choose, but I have the right to excuse myself or avoid you, which I will do. So, I hope you’ll start taking responsibility for yourself and find a way to keep from falling apart when you’re feeling upset.” With needy people, you need strong medicine. If the person is smart enough to take your message seriously, you’ll see a change for the better.


Bullies come after you because they think you’re easy prey. Refuse to follow their script, and they usually give up and seek an easier target. When a bully tries to intimidate you with a verbal attack, strike back with your body language. Make eye contact. Stand up straight, be relaxed, and cock your head as if you’re listening, but not very hard. Let your arms hang casually, instead of folding them defensively across your chest. Act polite but ever-so-slightly bored, as if your mind is elsewhere. Often, this unspoken response makes bullies feel uncomfortable or even foolish and causes them to back down.


You know these people. They’re the ones who hit you up every day for a favor. (“Could you cover the phones for me?” “Do the graphs for my PowerPoint presentation?” “Pick up the lunch tab?”) Strangely, they never seem to have to have time or energy to help you in return. Try avoiding takers, but if you can’t, neutralize them. Plan ahead by having specific requests ready for the takers in your office. The next time a taker asks you for a favor, say “No problem!” and then insist on a quid pro quo, with no room for backing out. Because you don’t say “no” to the taker, the taker won’t have any reason to take offense. Do this once or twice and the taker will stop asking you and start searching for another patsy.


These people aren’t out to hurt you, but they don’t give a damn about you either — except as an audience for their own wonderfulness. A narcissist’s motto is, “So … enough about you.” (And that’s true even if you haven’t opened your mouth yet!) Narcissists are always on the center stage, expecting you to sit in the wings and clap for them. They aren’t necessarily bad people at heart. Often, they’re just spoiled. Sometimes, narcissists can be exciting and energizing people to work with, if you understand their behavior. Manage your expectations by never expecting a narcissist to do something that is not in his or her best interest. That way you won’t feel blindsided when your business partner acts narcissistically, and you’ll be able to keep your wits about you.


Whenever you encounter toxic people and attempt to analyze their problem, always keep this in mind: Is it possible — just barely possible — that the person with the problem is you? Take a hard look in the mirror, and you might realize that you’re the one who tends to be needy or a bit of a bully, who tries to take advantage of coworkers or behaves narcissistically. But not to worry. We all screw up in different ways. What separates the good people from the toxic ones is the ability to face those screw-ups and learn a lesson from them.

Adapted from Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyoneby Mark Goulston (AMACOM; September 15, 2009, $24.95 Hardcover)



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