Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Toxic Coworker

In this post, I am going to depart from my discussion about instructional design to discuss a topic that I have been thinking about lately- the Toxic Coworker. Instructional designers invariably work with others, and dealing with personalities of all types is absolutely critical to the instructional designer's work.

My Past Experience with a Toxic Coworker
Let me start by sharing an experience I once had with a toxic coworker. (This is one of a couple of examples that stand out). This person was over a project that was interesting to me, so I added it to my regular workload. But as I worked with this person, I noticed several classic characteristics of a toxic coworker. This person:
  • Constantly critiqued me and others
  • Complained daily about work situations
  • Gossiped about and slandered other coworkers
  • Found fault with everything I do
  • Was regularly angry and used foul language
  • Told lies to me and about me and others
Actions Bring Results
What was interesting was that even though this person was over a project that I and many people wanted to participate in, eventually most of those people stopped participating in the project. It may seems obvious, but as a general rule, a person's words, attitudes, and actions always bring some kind of reaction. This is how it always works- if I do something, then something happens. So, for this particular person, these were the results of the toxic behaviors:
  • People didn't feel good when they are around this person.
  • People knew the person was probably also gossiping about them, so they did not trust that person.
  • People felt like they were being controlled and belittled. They felt like the person did not respect their knowledge and skills.
  • People were worried about presenting anything to this person because they didn't want to expose themselves to excessive critique.
  • Most people avoided talking to this person because they just didn't want to hear the complaining.
  • People saw this person as manipulative, so they didn't trust the authenticity of the person.
  • End result: people stopped being involved with the project that was intrinsically interesting.

What do People Want in a Work (or any) Relationship?
In any work, social or family relationship, I believe that most people generally want to have positive interactions that bring positive results. this doesn't mean that giving and receiving critical feedback does not happen- it can and must happen for positive results- it means that the critical feedback be delivered by someone who seems genuinely concerned about the success of the project and about the success of the individuals.

People generally want the following in their relationships with others:
  1. To be around people that like or respect them.
  2. To be around people that build them up, that help them learn and grow.
  3. To have positive, productive interactions with others.
  4. To have autonomy in their work and a sense of unity with others in their overall purpose.
  5. To be able to succeed.
  6. To trust and to be trusted.
If people don't have these things, they will eventually move on, even when the project or activity or relationship is interesting or important to them.

Why write about this?
The thing that is really sad to me is that the toxic individual I described above really had some excellent knowledge, skills, and experience. This person had a lot to offer, but instead of sharing knowledge and building others toward better things, this person belittled others, controlled the work, and squeezed the life and enjoyment out of the project.

We all interact with others every day. And in those interactions, we have a great deal of power- we have the ability to foster positive, proactive, building relationships. We have the capacity to positively influence others and bring them along in our quest for excellence. But we must avoid the toxic attitudes and behaviors that kill healthy relationships. More importantly, we must be willing to contribute to and encourage the success and happiness of others.
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