Working with ‘toxic coworkers’ may seem like a cliché. But, there’s a huge difference between working with colleagues you simply don’t get along with, and people whose presence makes you super miserable. Toxic coworkers can drain your energy by spewing negativity, or manipulate situations to assert their dominance over you.
Are you caught up in a sitch where your coworker is slyly undermining you in front of your boss? Or, maybe they outright set you up for sabotage by not giving you all the right information you need to do your job. Perhaps they even talk about you behind your back, or spread rumors about you after you’ve trusted them with personal stuff. (Next time, spare details about your noods).
Worse still, they might gaslight you into thinking you’re not good at your job, even when your other co-workers assure you that you’re on your shit. (If you weren’t good at your job, would you be where you’re at now?),
So, how do you go about establishing boundaries when you have to deal with office bullying, or feel like you’re in a scene of Mean Girls 2? To find out, we spoke with Sara Stanizai, the founder of Prospect Therapy, and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Long Beach, Calif.
Stanizai suggests limiting early on how much personal information you disclose to colleagues. It might not mean that you’re necessarily limiting what you share, but you’re proactively thinking about how you want to present yourself to others.
Give it some thought ahead of time and ask yourself, “How much do I want my coworkers to know about me?” Stanizai suggests. In this way, you’ll safeguard yourself against potential rumors, and possible preconceived notions about your capabilities.
“Gaslighting is someone purposely manipulating your perception of things,” Stanizai said. “99% of the time it’s done purposely, but I guess it could be done unconsciously… If you suspect that that’s what’s happening, the number one way to undo that is to get a neutral third party involved.” (Read on for how to do that).
“If you find yourself changing the way you are, if you’re more of an extroverted person, and you find yourself withdrawing … that might signal to you that your boundary has been breached,” Stanizai said. Think, then, about how a particular relationship with a coworker or colleague might be impacting your mood and personality. If, say, you’re pretty introverted, but find yourself venting to more and more people and that’s out of character, it’s a sign that your boundaries were breached in a big way.
How do you call someone out if they have crossed your boundaries? Or undermined you? Do it out of the heat of the moment, and during a low-key time at work. Stanizai advises trying a line like, “Hey, I’m noticing that we both have super different perceptions of how this is going. Can we talk about it?” If you, however, don’t have a mature enough coworker to handle that, see below.
Asking someone like HR, or a supervisor, to step in on a personal situation can seem nerve-wracking. But, a third party is often a good way to get an objective view on the sitch. And, it can help establish some accountability for all parties involved. This is key, especially if you don’t have a written account of what’s going on.
To loop in someone without putting up your coworker’s guard, Stanizai advises the opener: “I’d like to get someone else involved. Who do you think it should be?” Consider asking a manager who doesn’t supervise either of you. The goal is to get someone else involved so you can hash out how to make your work relationship better.
It can be scary-hard to approach a difficult coworker. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes some time to find the right way to communicate, or to resolve the situation. Just don’t let that toxic garbage simmer until you’re totally miserable.