Is Your Co-worker Toxic Or Are You Just Being Unreasonable?

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You may have noticed, in your travels around the wonders of the world-wide-web, that referring to people – colleagues, friends, family members, neighbours – as toxic, is increasingly fashionable.  Generally we all know what this label is supposed to mean – outrageous behaviour, selfishness, outright meanness and general lame-ass subpar levels of humanity.  There’s a lot of it about!

I just wonder a little, if all of the behaviours and people who get saddled with the ‘toxic’ label really merit it.  Certainly I wouldn’t dispute – even just based on personal experience – that toxic people exist, and can really make your life miserable if you allow them to.

I do wonder, though, if sometimes people who are merely difficult are getting graced with the label ‘toxic’.  Or, indeed, if occasionally it is toxic people doing the labelling, and a little projection is going on.  That is, the viewpoint that, ‘Anyone who gets in my way is bad, wrong, evil and, let me add, TOXIC!’  is holding sway.

It doesn’t take projection, though, to mislabel individuals who may, rightly, be regarded as hard work and less than a pleasure to deal with.  In fact it’s all too easy to do.  But difficult doesn’t necessarily mean toxic.  It can mean perfectionist, or moody, or sad and blue, or hyper-organised, or tense and anxious, or any one of a multitude of things that don’t necessarily carry the baggage of implied meanness of spirit that ‘toxic’ does.  

How do you tell if your colleague is a genuine Problem Colleague, or merely one of the above or something similar? Well, perhaps the best place to start to look is in the mirror.  Are you willing to reflect on any conflicts and stresses you’ve experienced in relation to this person?  If so, you may find that you have contributed to them in some way yourself, when looked at objectively.

If you really don’t feel you have contributed in any way to the bad feeling or bad experiences you associate with this person, then perhaps they are indeed toxic.  Or perhaps you are!  I’m of the opinion that a prime indicator of a toxic personality is an inability to see themselves as at fault in any way whatever, on any occasion.  You could go either way with this: we’ll never know…

But if, on close examination, you find that either you have been a factor in the problems you’ve had with this person, or there are mitigating circumstances for their behaviour, then it might help.  If you are less hasty to label them as toxic, but instead, perhaps, as challenging, or difficult, or annoying, you may feel more kindly towards them and get along better with them.  This could provide a nicer atmosphere at work for you – and for them, too!

Again, I’m not disputing the existence of the truly toxic co-worker.  But if we attach that label to every difficult colleague, then its importance and seriousness only become diluted.  Remember, before you go slapping labels around, ask yourself – is this person a toxic timebomb, or just a terrible trial to work with?

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