Photo by Danilo Alvesd on Unsplash

Toxic Colleagues: Dealing with Their Negativity

In any organization, there are some who are opposed to any change, even positive change. They have often worked within the same structure for years, and it provides their comfort zone. They can be toxic colleagues.

Most people, though, are resistive to change not because they actively oppose development, but because they are simply anxious. You can’t ignore this silent minority; they can become huge allies.

But the bulk of your efforts will be directed towards those that are actively opposed to structural or policy change. It is important to identify and deal with them if you want to ensure the success of any new initiative.

There are two primary ways to work with individuals who resist or derail. You either work to get them on board, or you work around them.

You can’t wish difficult people away, but there are strategies to help you deal with them.

Those you can co-opt and bring on board

What’s In It For Me?

This individual is very invested in the status quo and has a stake in continuity. Their current point of view is threatened by any change.

You need to demonstrate that stonewalling, or attempting to derail the change, will only meet with their defeat. Help them appreciate that it’s better to be part of the future than be left in the past.

Do this by showing them that:

  • the current conditions are untenable.

The Wheeler-Dealer

The Wheeler-Dealer is looking to professionally gain from the initiative. They are showing simple resistance, but rather, are primarily interested in extracting some type of quid pro quo for supporting your efforts.

For example, the VP of HR ingeniously claims that it would take months to recruit the extra accounting personnel needed to upgrade your financial systems. But, she might contend, if only you could release additional funding to upgrade her department’s reporting systems, it would speed up the process.

The quid pro quo may be of mutual benefit, and you can consider complying and co-opt their resistance.

If it’s pure ransom, though, then you may need to recruit the assistance of your CEO or Division leader and work around this mountainous island. Put the onus on these leaders, since you’ve hit a roadblock, by intimating that only they can solve the problem.

“I’ve prepared the way for implementation but have encountered one roadblock. It’s one that will require your direct clout to remove, since it’s an issue that involves corporate priorities and funding set from your office.”

Those you need to work around

The Prima Donna

This colleague believes he or she is instrumental in helping the company to attain and maintain its standing. Success has gone to the Prima Donna’s head.

The most common culprits are the best-performing salesperson, or the developer of the company’s IP or technology. They will invariably point out why your ideas are problematic.

The best defense is to discuss the problematic issues in a group setting (e.g., executive team meeting), where you can marshal the support of others. Just be sure that you don’t publicly humiliate the Prima Donna. If humiliated, they will unleash their fury (directly or behind your back) to protect and restore their wounded self-esteem.

Be careful that the Prima Donna doesn’t play their trump card. They will argue that they’ve developed priceless expertise over the years. And are far more invested in the company than you, the consultant. This will cause others, including the CEO, to react with caution and potentially spend inordinate amounts of time second-guessing your ideas or developing defensive measures — just in case your initiatives are faulty.

The Prima Donna’s goal is to show intellectual prowess, and thereby enhance their ‘key to the business’ position. Ironically, in spite of their successes, they are insecure.

So, what tactics should you employ?

  • Acknowledge that the Prima Donna’s concerns may have a legitimate basis, but demonstrate that those potential outcomes have a low probability of happening and are non-fatal
  • Draw parallels to how the organization has effectively handled other similar risks in the past
  • Supply information about how you can address any concerns — preventive and contingent actions — so that others involved in making a decision will realize that there is no need for any delay.

The Passive-Aggressive

The passive-aggressive person will use many of the same tactics of the Prima Donna. They will, however, cloak their criticism under the guise of, supposedly looking out for the best interests of the organization. It’s hard to pin anything on them because they don’t come at you head-on.

The major difference (and challenge) with dealing with them is that, even after you think you’ve resolved their concerns, and received the go-ahead for your endeavors, the passive-aggressive colleague will invariably “forget” to follow through with their end of the deal.

We’ve been buried and simply haven’t had the time to follow through — We’ll hop right on it.”

Meanwhile, another three weeks go by without forward movement on the project or program.

With the passive-aggressive person, you’ll need to

  • cut-off any possible escape.

The Worriers — Most Everyone Else

As mentioned earlier, the major source of resistance will generally come from people who are simply worried. They’re not toxic colleagues, they’re just anxious about any change, even positive change.

Take care not to ignore the worriers as they will easily be swayed by anyone who taps into and exploits their anxiety.

Therefore, the best defense is a great offense.

  • Articulating a game plan, even if you know full well that you will be modifying it; you will instill confidence.
  • Show people that you know what you’re doing and have traveled this road before.
  • Begin by communicating to your fellow executives and direct reports, then branch out.
  • What results you hope to achieve
  • What’s in it for them
  • How you plan to measure progress
  • What hurdles might be encountered so that they can better prepare
  • What recourse they have to ask questions

Carl is a business psychologist and leadership development expert who focuses on the development of high performance leaders.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store