A toxic work environment affects everyone in the workplace. Negativity leads to diminished trust between team members, stifled creativity, and it can hinder the mental wellbeing of employees. Learn how to survive a toxic workplace, including actionable advice for managing negative and manipulative people at work.
How Toxic, Negative People Affect the Workplace
Negativity in the workplace stifles creativity by scaring people into settling for the status quo. When you’re worried about the negative fallout that might follow a failed idea, you’re less likely to try something unique or suggest a new way of doing things. Innovation is rare and difficult to implement in a negative or toxic work environment.
It’s difficult to separate ourselves completely from our work, especially considering how much of our time we spend working. A negative or toxic work environment can take a toll on your mental health. It’s tough to remain positive when the people you spend a large part of your day with are consistently negative or exhibit toxic behaviors such as manipulation, defensiveness, or passive aggression.
A negative work environment will diminish the trust employees have with fellow team members and management. When a team doesn’t trust each other, it erodes morale and hinders productivity, making it extremely difficult for employees to make efficient and effective decisions.
Read our guide on Trust in the Workplace, which covers how to build trust at work, how to build trust with employees, and how to regain trust once it’s lost.
How to Survive a Toxic Workplace
Manage Your Own Toxicity
Be honest with yourself: are you contributing to the toxic environment at work? It may be completely unintentional, and you may only be reacting to the toxicity of someone else, but do other people’s negativity make you temperamental or argumentative in return? How obvious is it to your coworkers that you don’t want to be there? Could you be a source of negativity for them too?
Don't get sucked in, and don’t allow the toxicity of your workplace to change who you are. If you can see that a conversation with a coworker is going to end in conflict, or two coworkers are discussing something that offends you, extricate yourself from the situation.
Adding positivity to the workplace can ward off negativity and toxic attitudes. If you think a coworker has done a good job on a project, let them know. If a coworker is able to answer a question you have, thank them, and let them know they’re appreciated. Remember that your interactions shouldn’t all be transactional in nature—a random act of kindness may completely turn a coworker’s day around.
Practice Meditation and Breathing Exercises
If the constant negativity in your workplace is affecting your mental health, meditating alleviates stress and anxiety, and it improves your focus. Meditation doesn’t take long, and it’s remarkably uncomplicated. You can meditate at home, in the car, on the bus, or even in a private area at work. Some meditation exercises only take five minutes to restore your sense of calm and focus.
A key part of meditation (and managing your emotions in general) is controlling your breath. Our brains need a lot of oxygen to function properly. When we’re angry, our bodies get tense, our heart rate speeds up, and we take fast and shallow breaths. Our emotions get further exasperated because our brains aren’t getting the oxygen they need, making it difficult to think clearly.
Taking time during the day to focus on our breath is key to keeping control of our emotions. If a coworker’s negative attitude is bringing you down, step away from your workstation, and try box breathing—a simple technique that encourages slow, deep breathing to relieve stress and improve focus.
Think About Your Circle of Control
The only attitude you truly have control over is your own. Try as you might, you cannot control the actions of others. Determine the aspects of your toxic work environment that are inside your circle of control and the many things completely outside of it. If something is in your control, you can work hard to change it. If it’s outside of your control, it’s up to you to figure out how to move past it.
Learn more about your Circle of Control and How to Combat Lack of Control at Work.
How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People
Manipulation in the workplace is another form of toxicity, though it may be more difficult to recognize. Anger or negativity is easy to spot, but manipulation is more subtle. You may be being manipulated at work without even knowing it.
Dealing With Manipulative People
Manipulative people, especially narcissists, love control. They will learn more about you so that they can use it against you in the future. At first, it may seem like they’re interested in getting to know you, but you’ll find a manipulative person will always steer the conversation in the direction that best suits them, and they’ll do or say whatever they can to keep your attention. They use guilt to their advantage, and in public, they may try to undermine you with a critical remark or bad joke at your expense.
Dealing With a Manipulative Person at Work
Don’t give a manipulative coworker the attention they desire. Remove their control by disengaging, and don’t give up too much of your personal information. Even if they’re doing all they can to provoke you, it’s best to disengage since all they want is your attention—good or bad.
If you think the manipulation is going too far and it’s impeding your ability to work effectively, you may want to speak to your HR department.
Dealing With a Manipulative Boss
In the workplace, it’s difficult to weed a manipulative person out of your life, especially if that person is your boss. You may find it difficult to bring your concerns to HR if the person being toxic or manipulative is the one in charge.
In these cases, focus your efforts on what you can control. Don’t let your boss get a rise out of you. As much as you may want to react, remember that they are trying to provoke you. Only you can control your emotions—practice mindfulness activities like meditation, breathing exercises, and journaling.
Learn how to survive a narcissistic boss in our article: How to Handle Intimidation at Work. We discuss the dark side of an intimidating workplace and share strategies for managing a mean boss.
Gray Rock Method
What does “going gray rock” mean?
The phrase “go gray rock” refers to a method of dealing with toxic, abusive people and those with personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder.
The gray rock technique works like this: when an individual is speaking with a manipulative or narcissistic person, they become emotionally unresponsive and boring—essentially acting like a rock—which undermines a narcissist’s attempts to goad them into an argument or further manipulation. Since this emotional detachment robs a narcissist of the attention they so desire, they’ll become bored by the situation and move on.
How to Use the Gray Rock Technique
Admittedly, the gray rock method is a little easier said than done, and some will find it more challenging than others. If you’re dealing with a toxic person who isn’t a part of your family or workplace, the gray rock technique may not be necessary; instead, consider ceasing communication with them entirely.
If the toxic person is a member of your family, an ex-spouse, or a coworker, the gray rock technique may help.
Implementing the Gray Rock Method at Work
Don’t ignore them
They may see this as a challenge. Avoid interactions if possible, but when faced with one, reply with short or nonverbal responses, and limit or avoid eye contact by focusing on a task in front of you. Acknowledge that you have heard them, but don’t further the conversation in any way; instead, use responses like mm-hmm, uh-huh, or meh. If they try to lure you into a deeper discussion, try smiling, nodding, or shrugging to limit further engagement.
Don’t ask them questions
A narcissist wants your attention and your admiration. Asking them questions enables them to go on and on about themselves and further criticize or minimize the accomplishments of others. Asking questions furthers a conversation, something you absolutely want to avoid. If, however, you have a question specific to work, keep everything rooted in fact, and offer no personal opinions.
Don’t talk about your personal life
A manipulative person will use any details they can to bait you into an interaction, and personal information is a gold mine for them. It’s also important not to suggest your personal life is going well without them, as they’ll see this as another challenge, and it will make them angry.
Be boring, but don’t make it obvious
Be as boring and bland as possible, but remember that the gray rock method will only work if your coworker believes you really have nothing to offer. If they sense you’re trying to put one over on them, they’ll become angry, and their attacks will amplify. You don’t owe them your interest; focus on a work task and offer nothing that could continue the conversation. Go ahead and be as dull as, well, a plain old gray rock.
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