What do you when there is a toxic person in the workplace? It could be your manager, team member or subordinate. You really need this job and cannot just walk away. You cannot change them either, perhaps you have tried repeatedly and failed dismally. How do you survive working with them daily?

Create a work alias or alter ego

It helps to separate your personal self from your work self. As soon as you step outside the door on your way to work, assume a new identity, a work identity, a professional identity. This will shield you from the emotional and mental blows of the workplace and the anxiety they bring. It will also inspire you to not take things personally, behave in a professional manner, as opposed to how you would react in social or family circles. Being a different person at work, will help take the pressure off you and assure performance and efficiency regardless of whatever you face.

We have seen many famous performers do this successfully, for example Beyonce Knowles being Sasha Fierce when on stage. The alter ego overrides any personal defects that may threaten performance like lack of confidence, when they became this alternative person, they become brave, and it also shields them from harsh criticism, knowing that the critics are attacking the performer and not necessarily their true self.

Master Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence can be defined as the ability to understand and manage your emotions. The ability to self-reflect, self-regulate and self soothe. As a by product of this, one is then able to see when they are projecting unto others or when they are being projected on. In simpler terms, it is the ability to differentiate between one’s issues and those of others. Emotional intelligence is a useful key to personal development and relationships. Here is how to master it:

1. Building connections with likeminded people. Choosing one’s tribe or a social circle they are comfortable in, whose values are similar. 

2. Being able to calmly confront people and call out bad behaviour in a gentle, professional and polite manner. Neutralize negativity and squash gossip at the source to prevent it from spreading.

3. Making use of organisational channels of reporting and procedures for grievances as opposed to tackling work problems as an individual.

4. Listening, observing, and assessing situations before acting. This offers up a window of opportunity to choose the best way to handle situations instead of always going by reactive impulses which are not always the best.

5. It also helps to reframe situations for example not viewing it as competitiveness but rather a quest for excellence or adopting those positive characteristics you see in people that really intimidate you, to empower yourself and learn a thing or two from them.

6.  Remove activities, things or people that make you unhappy. Anything that drains you or zaps the energy out of you, will only pull you back. Remove and replace that with things you are comfortable with. Let go of all the dead weight and obsolete things in your life. Identify what triggers the low self-esteem. These are things that cause you to immediately feel small or insecure.

Go Deep!

This means Do Not:

(D) Defend

(E) Explain

(E) Engage

(P) Personalize

Toxic people including narcissists need a constant supply for conflict and power plays. Starve their need for drama and attention so they have nothing to feed on. Do not take the bait. Do not accept their invitation to a fight. Stand your ground and do not allow them to break you, or take away your power, peace and joy. Stop loading a gun for them to shoot you with! Don’t give them power to determine how you will feel or react!

“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and besides the pig likes it” -George Bernard Shaw

“Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference”-Mark Twain

Take care of Number 1. Understand that the person will never change. Recognize what you are working with. Do not try to control or convert them. Work only on your approach, expectations and protection. Stick to the facts only and avoid involving your feelings and opinions. Keep conversations short and relevant to work matters.

If all else fails, be a Gray Rock!

Just like a gray rock blend in, be colourless, flat faced and uninteresting. Being unappealing and forgettable will soon make the serial provoker lose interest and they will go off to find new prey! Become detached, indifferent, emotionally unavailable and emotionally unresponsive. Give no ego gratification, no emotional clues or reactions, do not ask them anything about their personal life and give no details about your personal life either. Most importantly be totally harmless, calm and serene otherwise you will push the toxic person to the deep end and they may retaliate, putting you in danger.

Prepare for retribution when they become aware that you are no longer feeding their need for chaos, but be patient, the initial period of agitation will soon pass. Please note that gray rocking is not being rude. It is a means of defence while not provoking or escalating a toxic situation.

Gray rock strategies:

  1. No emotional reaction “Oh ok, I see your point”.
  2. Agree with them, let them win “I hear you. I have noted this with thanks”.
  3. Discourage explosive confrontation “I need time to think about this, can I email a response later?”
  4. Change the subject “Interesting, isn’t the weather lovely today?”.
  5. Head nod and smile and politely excuse yourself “I am so sorry to cut you short, I need to rush off to a meeting, chat later”. And ensure later does not happen!
  6. Invite a witness to one on one meetings you cannot get out of “May I check with……to see if they can offer insight in this matter, will get back to you to schedule and we can continue this conversation in their presence?”

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