Toxic work environments happen for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes, leadership is just so arrogant. Sometimes, there are cliques. And sometimes, there are just too many processes and systems broken. But what about when you have a coworker who just seems to negatively impact everyone in their path. How do you know if they’re actually toxic, and what can you do about it?

3 Questions to Solve the Toxic or Not Question

Toxic coworkers come in all flavors. A common thread is that they can make your everyday work life more challenging. But, I find that I’ve mislabeled some people over the years. I’ve been labeled a highly empathetic person, so I’ve often been surprised when I stumble across someone very challenging to work with. Admittedly, I find it rare, but every now and then, I find them. And years ago, I used to simply label them toxic. With time, space, and more life experience, I tend to think there’s more to the story. And I often wish that I could rewind and interact with them with a different perspective.

1. Am I trying to see this from their perspective?

It’s probably about 15 years ago, and I found daily interactions with one coworker constantly challenging. Simple questions about the weekend often left me scratching my head. I interpreted the person as someone willing to step on anyone to get ahead. I assumed I was working with someone who wanted to be rid of me. In reality, I had a coworker with various personal struggles that were leading to a security clearance revocation.

2. Am I misinterpreting the situation based on my personal fears?

Around that same time, I had a unique schedule and remote options available to me that no one else in the company did. In retrospect, any comments that highlighted my schedule or location received a little bit of a defensive response from me. In reality, I was sensitive about my work schedule. I had a hybrid situation with a part-time flexible schedule. My boss was a trailblazer. He made it possible for me to work long after I thought it was going to be possible. But despite his support, I read stings into comments that possibly weren’t as passive aggressive as I heard them at the time. I’ll never be able to go back and re-hear them with more experience to properly interpret, but I have to believe that some of the pushback I thought I was getting was more perception and less reality.

3. Am I considering my coworker’s personal goals?

At other points in my career, I’ve been frustrated at my level of work compared to my coworker’s efforts. I’ve often had to take a step back to consider the different trajectories they might be headed. Or I have to think about where they’ve been before too. Have they had challenging leadership before that makes them wary now? Or are they trying to change their whole career path at some point? It doesn’t mean that they get a free pass to act however they want to at work. Responsibilities are a given. But you may be able to give them a little bit more benefit of the doubt and see the bigger picture.

Read the Room

For me, it’s taken time and a more honest assessment of where I was personally years ago to see things in a different light. I was a bit tired at the time and felt like I was burning the candle on both ends. I didn’t have time to slow down – it seemed. But perhaps if I had, I may have seen the warning signs. I may have understood the awkwardness in the relationship had less to do with me and more to do with the fact that someone was personally struggling. I may still have opinions about their leadership abilities, but I tend to doubt that they were to the toxic levels I interpreted all those years ago.

Make sure you’re looking for clues in your coworker’s life. They could tell you that it’s not you – it’s really just life is hard. It can help you understand how to respond better. But also look for ways in your life where you might be reading things wrong based on your personal bias and fears.

Of course, if that coworker is as toxic as you think they are, you’re going to need some back-up. It might mean adding extra people to your CC line or to your meetings, or it could mean an HR session. Ignored problems tend to fester and grow, so reach out to any lifelines available.



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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.