Why Toxic Colleagues Seem to Get Ahead

Toxic Colleagues and climbing corporate ladder

A single toxic coworker can make each day at your workplace unbearable. Even worse, it often seems like management will reward toxic behavior, rather than punish it. If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re not alone. Not only are toxic colleagues far more common than they should be, but that feeling of negativity earning success is also widespread.

According to one study, four out of five employees reported working—or having worked—with a potentially toxic coworker. Randstad conducted a similar study and found that 58% of people have already left or are considering leaving their jobs because of factors like disrespectful or negative colleagues.

Interacting with toxic people, even just a few times a day, can leave you feeling drained and put you in a negative mindset. Even worse, if it feels like their behavior is furthering their careers, you may find yourself feeling like you’ve hit a dead end in your career or that there’s no hope for the future.

However, you can take measures to protect yourself and improve your mental health. We’ll dive into the effects toxic employees have on a business and discuss what contributes to certain people’s perceived success—along with overcoming toxic workplace dynamics.

How to Identify Toxic Behavior and How It Impacts Workplaces

Toxicity can take many forms. Though we often think of toxicity as just being outwardly rude or offensive, it’s not always so direct. A person could constantly disrespect your boundaries, such as invading your personal space or bringing up topics you’re not comfortable with. Micro-aggressions are extremely common forms of toxicity that can often go overlooked. Alternatively, a colleague might withhold information with the intent of sabotaging you, purposely fail to follow through on promises or commitments, and/or gossip or talk behind your back.

Many people who exhibit toxic traits will often describe themselves as the victim. Problems in the workplace are their boss’ or a coworker’s fault. Should someone above them on the corporate ladder attempt to reprimand them for these actions, they will deflect blame or come up with excuses. Toxic people will also often hold grudges, waiting to throw someone under the bus and get “revenge” for even the smallest slight against them.

When people act in this way, the entire workplace suffers. Among the many effects, productivity often drops dramatically. Numerous research efforts have proven that working in a negative environment causes people to work slower, make more mistakes, and generally care less about the result of their actions. And, as previously mentioned, these businesses often have far higher turnover rates. Having a constantly rotating workforce means nobody develops the skills necessary to perform a job well.

Why It Feels Like Toxic People Succeed

It is extremely common to feel that toxic colleagues are “succeeding” over you or your nicer coworkers. In some cases, it may even be true. A toxic employee charms and politics while everyone else is doing actual work. Add on the fact that they often blame others for issues or take credit for other people’s work and you have a recipe for more positive performance reviews.

However, even in cases where a toxic person isn’t actually receiving undue praise, we often perceive it that way. This happens for many reasons. Most people live and work with the idea that the world is perfectly fair—good, hardworking people are rewarded, and bad, toxic people are punished. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. So, when a toxic colleague goes without punishment, it feels like they are succeeding.

Maybe you or a coworker already raised concerns about their behavior with a boss or human resources. It’s not uncommon for these individuals to gloss over nebulous concepts like toxicity because there isn’t direct, visible harm. Sometimes they may even reprimand the whistleblower for stirring up trouble when there isn’t any. Once again, even if the toxic individual isn’t getting ahead of everyone else on the corporate ladder, it can feel like managers are favoring them.

How to Navigate Toxic Workplaces and Mitigate Their Effects

Overcoming toxic workplace dynamics can be difficult. First and foremost, you can try to have an open and honest conversation with the problematic individual. This may be optimistic, but some people may legitimately not realize what they are doing or how their behavior is affecting other people. Several researchers have found that the average person lacks self-awareness, especially in the workplace. Simply discuss your issues and why the person’s behavior is bothering you—or others.

However, if the toxic person refuses to respond to a practical conversation, try to avoid stooping to their level. Any time someone tries to gossip with you or otherwise involve you in their actions, try refocusing the topic back to work and what needs to be done to accomplish a task or deadline.

Much of the time, you won’t be able to change someone’s actions, but you can prepare for them and control your own reaction. Start to document exactly what kind of work you do, why you’re doing it, and how it impacts the company as a whole. If someone is blaming you for things they are—or are not—doing, you’ll have the proof to refute them. Should you need to get a toxic coworker involved, do so through email or another written form of communication, so that all responses are logged and retrievable. Any time they attempt to contact you outside of that method, ask them to send it to you in writing.

Keep hardworking coworkers in the loop and advise them to also log their work. Together, you can all foster a positive environment where you each build one another up. Even in a negative environment, working closely with people you can trust can make each work day significantly easier.

Find ways to eliminate stress outside of work. Practicing meditation and mindfulness can alleviate stress and help limit symptoms of anxiety or depression. Having a hobby or event you can look forward to after a hard day at your job can also make it easier to work through a negative environment.

If the toxicity proves too difficult to overcome, you may need to look into changing jobs. While this is often easier said than done, sometimes the best thing you can do for your mental health is to cut ties with a toxic workplace.