This Is How To Survive In A Toxic Workplace: 3 Secrets From Research
Do you deal with some awful people at work? Do they annoy you beyond belief at times?
Actually, it’s a lot worse than that — whether you realize it or not. In addition to making you miserable, those impossible bosses and jerk co-workers can reduce your productivity, reduce your empathy, and even give you a heart attack.
New nurses bullied by veteran nurses and doctors put forth less effort and develop less empathy for patients. Service employees who are subjected to customer aggression report more mental and physical health problems and are less committed to their jobs… a twenty-year study that tracked six thousand British civil servants found that when their bosses criticized them unfairly, didn’t listen to their problems, and rarely praised them, employees suffered more angina, heart attacks, and deaths for heart disease.
Stanford professor Bob Sutton has a new book coming out: The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt.
It offers a ton of excellent strategies for staying sane when you’re surrounded by horrible people. Let’s look at a few of the top tips Bob has to offer…
Dodge Bullets, Neo
The numero uno strategy for dealing with the workplace dregs of humanity is simple: avoid them. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, but before you start having revenge fantasies the first thing you want to think about is how to minimize contact.
Because the worst thing these monsters can do isn’t annoy or harass you — just like in a zombie or vampire film, they can turn you into one of them. If you spend most of your day around a jerk, your chance of becoming a jerk more than doubles.
In 2016 Housman told Fast Company that they discovered a “toxic density” effect: much like research shows rudeness spreads like a common cold, they found that sitting near a destructive jerk dramatically increases a worker’s risk of infection. Housman explained, “If you add a toxic worker to within a 25-foot radius of a focal worker, the chance that the focal worker becomes a toxic worker themselves more than doubles (112.5% increase).”
Ask if you can move your desk. Spend time working in conference rooms or public spaces if possible.
But that’s not always an option. So you may need a Secret Service detail. One of the best meta-strategies for coping with jerks is to band together with others who are suffering with you.
If you’re lucky, you might have a supervisor who can provide some cover. But co-workers can help too.
If you and your allies take turns “jumping on the grenade” and handling The Beast it can offer each of you some stress-free time to recover and actually get some work done.
A 2013 study of nearly two thousand Finnish dentists found that when they worked in close cooperation with their dental assistants, dentists suffered less pressure to present fake emotions to their patients and performed their jobs better. Part of the reason, the researchers suggest, is that a skilled dental assistant (who usually sees patients before the dentist and often sees them more frequently) can “buffer” the dentist from difficult and demanding patients. In other words, they take the patient’s flak and cool them out, which spares dentists from having to deal with it.
But sometimes there’s nowhere to hide and there’s no way to limit exposure to a boss who roams around making life intolerable. So be a smart mouse and try hanging a bell around the cat’s neck.
If the boss has a sympathetic assistant, get them on your side. They can tell you when the dragon is in a fire-breathing mood and when he’s relatively calm and stable. This will allow you to know when it’s safe — and when it’s time to cower in the bathroom.
In some places, the boss’s administrative assistant is recruited to inform colleagues when the boss is in a foul mood (and should be avoided or handled with care) or feeling upbeat (and it is a good time to visit or raise a sensitive subject.)
(To learn more tips on living an awesome life, check out my book here.)
But maybe the duck and cover approach ain’t gonna fly. Here’s where we need some serious psychology to keep your head on straight when someone is intent on making you miserable…
Mind Tricks That Protect Your Soul
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy recommends something called “reappraisal.” That’s a fancy word for interpreting your situation differently. You may not be able to change the situation, but you can change how you perceive it. (Shout out to my ancient Stoic homies.)
It’s not a crisis — it’s a challenge. It’s not a frustration — it’s a puzzle to be solved. They’re not an intolerable boss — they’re a cranky child.
Social psychologists and other researchers have shown that reframing (or “reappraising”) disturbing facts or distressing experiences in a more positive light — while not a cure-all — can provide relief. For example, whether the same experience is portrayed as a fun and exciting challenge — versus a distressing threat — can transform how people feel and perform in response.
You want to depersonalize whatever stress they’re giving you. They’re in a bad mood or they have issues. It’s not about you. Don’t treat dealing with them like a nightmare, take a lesson from Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Special Forces soldiers who all deal with stress by reappraising it as a game.
But you will have to talk to your tormentor every now and then. And they’ll probably do their shouting act. When they do, take a tip from debt collectors who routinely take abuse from the people they call. Slow your speech down and the more worked up the other side gets, the more calm you want to be.
We were taught that the more irate the debtor — the more he or she screamed, swore and insulted us — the more long pauses we should take before answering questions and the more clearly and calmly we should talk.
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
So you can reappraise or slow things down to help you cope. But you don’t want these strategies to make you complacent when you’re dealing with serious abusive behavior. So how do you fight back?
How To Fight Back
To sum up the bulk of the research in one word: Don’t.
It’s usually not worth it. First off, it’s unlikely to work. As Bob notes: “Hornstein found that 68% of the payback efforts that he studied failed to stop abusive bosses.”
And having a desire to punish actually makes you miserable.
Carlsmith explained, “In actuality punishers ruminate on their deed and feel worse than those who cannot avenge a wrong” and people “who don’t have a chance to take revenge are forced, in a sense, to move on a focus on something different.”
Finding another job, switching roles, or avoiding the problem person have less of a chance of blowing up in your face and can put you on a better track to happiness.
Still wanting revenge? Fine, have it your way — you bully. We’ll call this the “In case of emergency, break glass” section.
Before taking the warpath, Bob suggests you think about three critical resources:
- How much power do you have? If you’re the janitor and you’re having problems with the CEO, good luck. If your tormentor is a peer, you’ve got a better shot at taking them on.
- Documentation: Avoid “he-said, she-said.” Keep track of abusive incidents, emails, etc. Go into the fight with real proof.
- Solidarity: This is the big one. Don’t fight back alone. Research shows a team effort to bring down a jerk is far more successful and safer than trying to be a hero by yourself.
A study by Professor Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik found that when bullied employees banded together to fight back, authorities punished 58% of the abusers and none of the bullied employees were fired. But when employees battled alone, only 27% of the bullies were punished and 20% of the bullied employees were fired.
And when you approach a superior or the HR department about the problem, you’re much more likely to have your complaint well-received if you have evidence and you seem like you’re focused on the greater good, not just a selfish desire to get even.
Research on “moral anger” and “righteous anger” suggests that confrontation is most likely to reform offenders, be seen as socially acceptable, and mobilize support when: 1) It is justified — there is good evidence that the person is doing something bad. 2) The motivation for the confrontation is seen as constructive and aimed at improving the greater good; not just a selfish, vindictive, or irrational urge to inflict harm on an enemy or nemesis.
(To learn how to deal with workplace psychopaths, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot from Bob. Let’s round it up and find out how you can reappraise bad behavior without even trying…
Here’s what Stanford professor Bob Sutton has to say about dealing with those impossible people in a toxic workplace:
- Avoid them: Move your desk, get backup or throw a bell around the cat’s neck so you know they’re coming.
- Use Reappraisal: It’s not a disaster, it’s a challenge. It’s not a blog post, it’s a masterful work of epic writing.
- Fight Back — Carefully: Don’t seek revenge. But if you do, evaluate the power dynamics, document everything, get help, and focus on the common good.
Reappraisal can be incredibly powerful. You use it all the time — and often you don’t even know it. Many years ago I had an awful landlord. Just talking with the guy usually had me wondering how I’d need to angle his body to properly bury him in the flowerbed.
But my roommate at the time was unflappable when dealing with the tyrant. I asked David how he did it. David replied, “His mother has cancer.”
In the blink of an eye, the landlord went from an evil jerk to someone who was suffering. His rudeness didn’t stop, but I never let him get on my nerves again. I’d reappraised his behavior without even trying, just by seeing him in a different light.
Fighting bad behavior rarely works. Avoiding it is a great strategy but it’s not always an option. Both of those two rely on the outside world being changed, and that’s why they’re difficult.
But what you can always control is how you interpret what you see. So reappraise the awful behavior to something more acceptable. And as soon as you’re done weaving a more tolerable story, move on to step 2:
Run for the exit.
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