The five types of toxic colleague (and how to handle them)

Do you work with toxic colleagues? Learn to spot the five main types – and find out how to handle them to minimise their damage to your career (and sanity).

As a mum you’ll be used to handling tantrums and unreasonable demands from children at home. But coping with a grown up child at work is a different matter.

If you run your own business, or work in or manage a team, you’ll need to deal with lots of different people – some of whom will be easy to get along with, while others may be quite difficult.

To help find the right tactic to cope with toxic colleagues, we look at some common personality types you could come across in the workplace, and suggest how you might handle them.

The five types of toxic colleague

If you’re unlucky enough to work with one of these five toxic colleagues, this is how you deal with them!

1) The steamroller

Steamrollers are bullies who use hostility and aggression to try to control their environment and get their own way. To handle them:

  • Stand firm and don’t let them get their own way if they’re being unreasonable.
  • Use firm body language – plant your feet firmly on the floor a little way apart, stand tall and straight and avoid defensive gestures by keeping your arms relaxed by your sides.
  • Maintain normal eye contact to show you’re not intimidated.
  • Stop them from interrupting you. If they try to, ask them to stop interrupting you and continue or repeat what you were saying.
  • Let them know when you don’t agree with their opinion and ask them to explain what they mean. 

2) The sniper

Snipers use destructive, underhand tactics to undermine your authority – often disguised as good-natured humour. To handle them:

  • Speak to them on their own, so they can’t try to turn the situation against you in front of other members of your team.
  • Identify occasions that they have undermined you and say that you’d prefer it if they came to you directly with any criticisms so you can resolve them.
  • If their sniping is aimed at other another member of your team, ask if they have problems with their performance (rather than just a personal dislike) and ask how they feel it should be dealt with properly.

3) The moaner

Moaners are always negative with an instant distrust of anyone in power – and, if left unchecked, can quickly infect an entire department with their pessimism. To handle them:

  • Be positive but realistic, acknowledge any complaints they make but don’t agree with them.
  • Acknowledge their complaint then add a suggestion, linking the two with ‘and’ rather than ‘but’ (which sounds like you are disagreeing). For example ‘I understand that you feel the coffee machine is too far away from your desk and will review the situation’.
  • Ask what solution they would suggest if they were in your place.
  • Say you appreciate their input and you will make the decision that you believe is best. 

4) The shadow

Shadows are difficult to deal with because they never openly reveal their motives or feelings, and are often unhelpful or evasive when asked for their opinion. So you’re never sure if they agree with your direction or are secretly working against you. To handle them:

  • Ask them open-ended questions like ‘Why do you think…?’ or ‘How do you feel about…?’ and then wait patiently for them to respond.
  • If they don’t reply, or try to evade giving a proper answer, acknowledge this and ask them why they are not answering your question.
  • Tell them clearly what you expect and ask them if they have any questions or objections to it. 

5) The know-it-all

Know-it-alls are experts in just about everything – and are happy to let you know exactly where you are going wrong. To them, knowledge and facts are power, and they enjoy the superiority and attention they feel this brings them. To handle them:

  • Make them feel appreciated and useful – and use their self-proclaimed expertise to your advantage by asking them questions if you need information.
  • Make sure you are certain of your facts before you challenge them on any claims they may make.
  • Thank them for their help.

Do you work with (or for) a narcissist?

If you have a narcissist in your office – or worse, running it – it’s highly likely that you’re experiencing a toxic workplace.

Read this article to discover the seven giveaway signs of a narcissist at work, and get advice on the best way to handle them.

Need more advice?

You can read more tips on how to deal with toxic people (and stop your own toxic thoughts!) in these articles: