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Dealing With A Toxic Coworker

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Two coworkers sit beside each other at a table giving the other the side-eye and glaring across their laptops.

We’ve all worked with them. Maybe it’s the CEO’s grandchild. Or perhaps that coworker who is always playing up to the boss and trying to take credit for everything. Or, worst yet, it’s your boss!

Regardless of the form it takes, what you’re dealing with is a many-headed, many-faced beast: the unbearable coworker.

Assuming that the normal routes of conflict resolution have failed, management can’t or won’t do anything, and the culprit has no intention of leaving, short of quitting, you have no choice but to deal with them. But how? Fear not: here’s a few tips for bearing with the unbearable.

Is it worth it? … Or not. We all work for a variety of reasons, the importance of each varying from person to person. When considering a truly unbearable colleague, there are two contrasting questions you should ask yourself right away.

First, is your disagreement with this person worth your job? Second, is your job worth having to put up with this person?

The fact of the matter is that remaining in a position is a choice you make requiring many decisions and tradeoffs. Is your problem with this person so important that you would risk your job over it? Or is it something you can more or less ignore, save for dealing with them in the occasional meeting? And on the flip side, if your issues with this coworker are so great that they jeopardize your mental health, happiness, and ability to perform at your job, is it worth it to stay? These can be hard questions, but they are absolutely vital to consider when dealing with these types of difficult situations.

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes:

Assuming the issue isn’t bad enough to make you leave, you have to come up with strategies and ways to live with it, and the coworker in question. An old adage of unknown origin but believed to have been popular in novels from the 1980’s is “play stupid games, win stupid prizes”. In this case, you must ensure that you don’t get drawn into the drama with this colleague.

Engaging with them, especially if they are trying to get a rise out of you, will only waste your emotional energy and potentially make the problem worse.

Focus on your job, and make sure you are completing your tasks and meeting deadlines. The last thing you want is to compromise your own professional integrity and work output to the point where you become the problem.

Keep it professional:

There is one trick to dealing with an unbearable coworker that can meet with success no matter who they are: be professional. Whether the toxic coworker is your boss, your boss’s boss, or a teammate, you will lose all credibility if you lose your professionalism. Especially when you have to interact frequently with this person, make sure you keep your cool, speak and act with respect and professionalism, and respond gracefully no matter how rude, undermining, or aggressively they approach you. This isn’t simply a Zen tip on letting go of anger, it’s a way to manage relations to achieve positive outcomes.

The more professional you are, the less professional they look when they engage in questionable behaviors that are challenging in the first place.

It’s all about the end goal: wouldn’t you rather be the one who looks cool, calm, and collected while your unbearable colleague makes a fool of themselves?

Dealing with toxic coworkers is sometimes an unpleasant and unfortunately necessary part of professional life.

Remember to take a deep breath before reacting and use strategies to make your interactions as smooth as possible.

To quote Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you”, you can meet and overcome these challenges and challengers alike, and learn something in doing so.


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