I wasn't quite prepared for the response to a recent article about toxic people in the workplace. It was quite a deluge, and I'm still reading email from people.
It's a little odd, after writing this column for more than seven years now, when something hits a nerve with people. Apparently, dealing with curmudgeons in the office is a growing problem, one that is making all of us feel unsettled.
It might be related to the current political climate, or the challenges of working alongside people in different age groups. Maybe some of your coworkers have been working in an office setting for so long they are becoming more grouchy by the day. Whatever the root cause, I do know there is one solution that can help. It might even be a little surprising.
I spoke about this topic on a recent radio broadcast, talking about my Christian book. (Scroll to the end of the program to hear the discussion about toxic people.)
It hit me that the problem with toxic people is not that they are all around us or that it's a growing problem. It has more to do with our reaction to toxic people. I've learned in my own work life to stop and think about how much toxicity is inside of me, and to control how I react. The more irritable I become, the more agitated and coffee-deprived, the more anxious I am about work, the more likely it is for me to react poorly.
Here's the thing. There will always be toxic people around. We can't control that. What we can control is how we react. I'll provide a good example of how that works.
Let's say you wake up in the morning and you can't find your socks, your laptop, or your toothbrush. Things are not going so well. You wander to the kitchen and discover that someone forget to buy milk. It puts you in a bad mood, even if that "someone" is you.
Those minor challenges in the morning build up. You feel unsettled. By the time you get to work, you are ready to snap at people. That one guy in sales walks past and smirks, and you react by rolling your eyes. In a meeting, everyone seems on edge. You react by complaining and arguing. That's right. You've become the toxic person.
It doesn't have to work that way.
What if you dealt with the internal toxicity in a different way?
First, not finding your stuff is not the end of the world. You can buy new socks. Instead of boiling over, sit down and read a little, linger at the breakfast table, or call your spouse. Deal with the steam rising from your own head. Drink an extra cup of coffee or cook another few slabs of bacon. The more you can reach a place of calm and let the stress dissipate form you, the easier it will be to deal with difficult people at work.
And here's my biggest piece of advice.
I had to learn this the hard way, and I'm still learning it. Why do we let them bother us anyway? The people who seem to get the most attention in our own inner thoughts are often the people who don't matter to us that much. They are jerks. That's been firmly established. But are they important jerks? Do they compare in any way to our kids or our spouse, to trusted friends, to a colleague who cares about our welfare?
We react because we're in a bad mood. And yet, it isn't worth it.
Don't use up all of that mental and emotional energy reacting to angry people in the workplace. Save your energy, time, and expertise for the people who matter the most and the most pressing projects. Become the person who is never toxic.