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Got a toxic colleague? Here’s how to handle it

Managing an overbearing boss, a nasty colleague or a team member who dodges tasks requires a high degree of professionalism and a lot of clear communication

When Shantanu Bhattacharya started a new division in his office, one person refused to cooperate, making it difficult for the entire team to work.
When Shantanu Bhattacharya started a new division in his office, one person refused to cooperate, making it difficult for the entire team to work. (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

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For 26-year-old Khusboo Upendra Sangoi, a public relations executive, trouble began when she got a new boss. During a phone call with a senior in Delhi to discuss a survey for a client, she gave strong feedback on the bias of a few questions. “A few minutes later my new boss headed to my cubicle and insulted me in front of everyone. I was shocked,” she says. Her boss was furious that she had spoken to a senior without consulting him.

It became worse. The new boss placed restrictions on when the team could take breaks, on what they could wear and how often they could talk to each other. “Our working styles were different,” says Sangoi. “He was in his early 30s and wanted to control his team, while I wanted freedom in my working style. Our egos clashed,” she says. It came to a point where she had to quit or do something about it.

Since Sangoi wanted to continue to work in the company, she decided to change her perspective. The book The No Asshole Rule by Robert I. Sutton helped. “After reading it, I was motivated and changed my behaviour, trying what Sutton calls the team working technique,” she says. Sangoi tried it all: She used humour to defuse a situation, didn’t react to annoying actions, focused on her work, and listened more while talking less. Slowly, her boss also eased his restrictive behaviour. “I worked really hard to gain his trust and make him realize that he needs to be friends with his juniors to get them to work well,” she says. When she quit a few months to follow a better opportunity, her boss went to her company’s managing director with a request to retain her.

(Photo: iStock)

Learn to manage relationships

As you grow professionally, you need to learn to manage your work relationships, says Neharika Vohra, professor of organizational behaviour, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. You can’t expect to get along with everyone in your office. “Our mettle is tested not when we have good relationships but when we have to work with someone we do not like,” she says, adding that’s when you need to focus all your social and emotional intelligence on achieving your goals. One option is to treat it like a challenge. “Focus on what you like about the person. Focus on the task you have to do together and ways to achieve it rather than how you cannot stand the person,” she adds.

At the end of it, remember, that you don’t need to necessarily like your colleague, you just need to work together to the benefit of the company and your team, says people manager 45-year-old Shantanu Bhattacharya, who is a director in a multinational company in Mumbai. In late 2013, when Bhattacharya started a new learning content division in a company in Pune as its head, he struggled with a direct report. “He was almost my age and had been considered for my role first. Though I was able to build a good rapport with him initially, it changed once the team expanded. He felt neglected or sidelined,” says Bhattacharya.

Within a few months, the colleague was unable to work, started to indulge in office politics and couldn’t communicate professionally with stakeholders or team members. Other colleagues distanced themselves from him and no one wanted to work with him, putting Bhattacharya, who was the team leader, in a difficult position. “I decided to focus on his core skills, keep him busy and gave him tasks that were orientated towards individual contribution, while taking the onus of interaction with his team members,” he says. Even in the difficult situation, they worked together for five and a half years till Bhattacharya left the organization.

Communicate professionally

Even the most complicated relationships can be made stronger by having an open line of communication, says Ramya Kandhasamy, a 32-year-old manager in the optimization strategy team in Verizon Media, a media company. Kandhasamy faced a bad situation recently when she had to collaborate with a long-time colleague who was also managing another team. “We had completely different opinions in our approaches and decisions for that project and we firmly believed our respective points of views and were not willing to compromise,” says Kandhasamy. Her colleague’s comments or dismissals made her feel like her inputs were not valued and the relationship was fast becoming “unhealthy and vicious”.

Kandhasamy decided to have a one-on-one with her colleague and be honest. “I also asked my colleague to point out the problem they had and apologized for anything I had done to make the situation bad,” she says. The conversation was fruitful as her colleague apologized too. “We realized that whatever happened between us was situational and unintentional and found a way to work with each other turning our relationship into one where we began to value each other’s opinions,” she says.

What helped the most, adds Kandasamy, is that both of them put the best interest of the company first. “We still have our differences, but we have learned to respectfully agree to disagree when we are not on the same page,” she says, adding that honest communication, constantly even with colleagues you get along with, is the key to keeping healthy work relationships.

Perceived negativity is rarely one sided. To be honest in your communication, self-reflection is important too. “You need to reflect on what it is that you are contributing to bring in negativity in this relationship,” says Vohra. Be self-critical and see if the things you don’t like about your colleague are actually something that you might yourself possess. “Often if you start working on it within yourself, the relationship improves too,” she adds.

Though trying to work with a colleague who might have turned toxic is necessary, you also need to remember to document all issues and infractions. “You need evidence of bad performance and attitude ready in case the issue goes to the HR or management,” says Bhattacharya. “Ultimately, if the person refuses to change, don’t try to protect them, cut them loose even if it’s difficult.”


Quick guide to managing office

Find the source. How is this colleague’s action affecting your work? What do you and your boss disagree on? Identify the cause of the clashes you have.

Communicate honestly. Try to have an honest discussion with the person. Bring up specific issues and suggest a work-around.

Focus on what you like. If liking your colleague is crucial, jot down what you like and dislike about this person. Focus on what you like, their strengths as team members, rather than things you can’t stand.

Be professional. It’s all right if you can’t stand your colleague. Make your relationship professional, polite and distant, and aim to complete your work. Focus on work rather than the personality of the colleague.

Document all instances. Put down all infractions and instances when the other person wasn’t professional. You never know when it might cross a line and you will have to share it with the management or HR

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