Socialization is an integral part of our working lives. The desire to be accepted by others and to get along with them is a vital motivation of human beings. It’s no surprise that “toxic” inter-personal equations and encounters at workplace can deal a massive blow to productivity and wellbeing of people and organizations. The damage is substantial whether these interactions happen at a peer-to-peer level or across hierarchy levels. Of course, in the latter case it can be particularly hard when you’re at the receiving end.
What do we mean by toxic equations or encounters? Most of us know at least a few overly dominating control freaks and megalomaniacs of varying hues, don't we? The ones with a penchant for emotional outbursts, aggression, obnoxious put-downs, victimization, plain jealousy and more. And also the fine art of sophistry and ruthless subterfuge that (like wine) seems to get better with age and experience! It can be quite in-your-face or subtle, the latter being exceptionally venomous by the time you realize what has hit you! Yes, there’s something called slow poison too!
For some, it is about asserting superior status, power, authority or capability (real or perceived). It can leave you feeling crushed at an emotional level with anger, fear, frustration, self-doubt, hopelessness and plummeting confidence, all taking a heavy toll. Especially when it’s a superior authority figure who indulges in this borderline bullying and exploitation, the experience can be nerve-wracking. You feel as if you’ve been boxed into a corner with limited options and you’re simply expected to kowtow to someone’s agenda.
There are many ways in which we can cope with such a situation. Sometimes, it might make sense to leave the scene and opt for major changes in job/career. It might be good to start afresh. But, quite often the answers aren't so easy and straightforward, and your options may be limited. Change might bring in bigger challenges and uncertainty, and not everyone might have the guile and grit to face these. And also, what’s the guarantee that you wont end up in similar situations again?
In this article, we’ll explore the other option of staying on, howsoever frustrating it might seem at the moment. How can you stay on without wallowing in self-pity and seeing yourself as a hapless and hopeless victim. We’ll also look at how to empower oneself with a narrative of options and possibilities. What can be done to ensure that the option to stay put may eventually turn out to be a decent choice, and a great learning experience too?
An important health warning is in order at this stage! This isn't a feel-good binaries based self-help write-up about the triumph of the good and the virtuous over evil. Naivety and haste aren't great assets in this journey! Being clever, careful and retaining the power of the “surprise strikes” might yield better results. There are many suggestions given in the article. Pick what works for you. Some of them will push you out of your comfort zone. A few might be downright provocative as well. Especially for those who take their “innocence” too seriously! Let me put it this way: You can’t escape dealing with the political maelstrom in the organization, even if it isn't to your liking. Play the game smartly and without compromising your core beliefs and value system. That’s perhaps the best way to manage the toxic agents, if indeed there is a best way of sorts. We’ll find out more in the upcoming sections.
I have borrowed ideas from the field of Emotional Intelligence to organize the remainder of this article as a workable model that you can use. So, we’ll have two sections focused on yourself, and two sections focused on the folks who’ve become a pain in the neck! The approach involves awareness and regulation. Understand yourself and others, regulate yourself and then manage the relationship. It’s as simple as that!
Very often, toxic encounters can make you feel spaced out. As we saw earlier, it can trigger several negative and harmful emotions. It is very easy to get defocused and rush into mindless reactions. Instead of genuinely improving the situation, some of these reactions can cause more damage. It takes two to tango, and you are also very much in the picture in this toxic encounter. Some of these points can help you get a better perspective.
Know your CORE interests/outcomes & Non-CORE interests/outcomes
Henry Kissinger and Henry John Temple from across the Atlantic at different times in history spoke about the impermanence of friendships, alliances and enmities. Only our interests are eternal or permanent. Isn't that true in lives of people too? At least to a large extent?
So, even as you’re flummoxed by the toxic onslaught, take some time off to consider what are your eternal interests in the particular context that you’re operating in? Forget about this person for a moment. Now, what are the outcomes that truly matter? What are you really looking for? What are the opportunities and results that you’re aspiring for? Some of the answers to these questions might be obvious. Some may have evolved as well. It helps to revisit this, at least as a constant reminder, a kind of compass that’ll help you find your north star! And also, what are the NON-CORE interests and outcomes? Things where you are a bit more flexible. Make a note of this too. We’ll come back to it later.
Define your Boundaries and Non-Negotiables
As I said earlier in the article, the age of innocence maybe over. At least some part of your responses to toxic situations might need a few well thought out give-and-take strategies to be in place. Or in simple English, you’ll need to cut some deals, period!
Now, while you do that, it is important to define your boundaries. We all have our value systems and beliefs that are important to us. All I am saying is that when you set out to make these deals, it is essential to know what your “non-negotiables" and red lines are. This understanding can save you a lot of trouble and heartburn later, especially when the heat becomes intense in the kitchen! For now, identify them. We’ll use these inputs when we get to deal with the situation.
Become Aware of your TRIGGERS and Responses
We all have our unique life experiences that have shaped our mental make-up significantly. A news item about horrific crimes to a particular group of people may elicit different reactions from me and you, even if we both agree that it’s bad. The same is true with our toxic encounters too.
Do you know what exactly is pushing you off the edge? Is it the choice of words that the person seems to use when angry? Or is it that smirk on the face? Is it the tone? Or that supreme arrogance and nauseating condescension? Are there particular expressions that make the interaction go on a tailspin?
Spend some time to understand the triggers, and your typical responses. A lot of it happens unconsciously. But awareness can help you regain some of the power. And you may even help the other person in the process. Remember, you’ve set your sights on the core interests and outcomes that matter to you, right? Do you want the automatic responses to torpedo them, and just watch helplessly?
Understand & Calibrate your VICTIM Mode & Bursting Pressure Cooker Mode
This is an extension of the previous section. Sometimes, we’re so consumed by our VICTIM mode post-toxic-encounters. Also, it may not be a single incident. Maybe, the frustration has been building up for a while. The pressure cooker has been on the flame for far too long. And all it needed was one nasty encounter for the cooker to burst! I’m sure you get the drift.
Reflect on these modes, and be aware. Have incidents been piling up and building pressure? Is the relationship on a likely downhill course? What will it take to reverse the trend? Note down the answers and ideas. Who knows, some timely intervention may still help you salvage the relationship?
Once you know your triggers, the pressure cooker valve can be periodically opened to let off steam! This is where self management comes in. It is important to use the awareness from the previous section thoughtfully. Let’s check out a few options.
Part X and Part Y: Associate & Dissociate Smartly
Dissect the toxic encounter and the experience and identify the following two components.
Part X: Genuine concerns, worthwhile ideas and pointers.
Part Y: Nonsense, Noise, Drama and a whole lot of GAS!
Scratch beneath the surface of every toxic encounter, and you’ll see a mix of Part X and Part Y. The proportion might vary. Sometimes Part Y might get disproportionate airtime. Discard such encounters, as they’re adding little value. Connect the points in Part X to your CORE interests and outcomes. Are there any actions worth pursuing? If yes, it is time for you to reframe the experience a little bit. Maybe it wasn't all poison! Alright some of it was. But you now know that is limited to Part Y, right?
As you can see here, this process looks logical and simple enough on paper. In reality, the drama and gas can overwhelm our sense of proportion and perspective. And that’s where managing one’s energy can be of help. It’ll help you to “associate” with Part X, and “dissociate” from Part Y. Smartly of course. Deep abdominal breathing, counting from 10 to 1, a quick stroll in the park, or some window shopping, maybe your favorite music. Well, go ahead and prepare a list of options that you can readily deploy. The idea is to change your state, and wear a hat of “resourcefulness” that will help you take action on Part X. And also to help you discard the gas from Part Y without letting it pollute your mind-space.
Just be compassionate on yourself! Focus on the outcomes, benefits and interests. You’d rather chase the right opportunities to shift the energy & build the perfect momentum and tempo, than get stuck in quicksand, true?
Managing your energy will also help you in real time when you’re in the midst of a toxic encounter. We’ll find out how in the upcoming sections.
You can also check out my recent articles on Anger Management and Handling Tough Conversations for some more ideas and options.
Now it’s time to turn the gaze at the toxic prima donna. We saw earlier that it is important to separate out Part X and Part Y in the toxic encounter. While you’re at it, it’ll be great fun to observe the protagonist of our drama. Keep your eyes wide open. Listen like you’ve never tuned in before to something like this! You’ll collect plenty of insights that’ll stand you in good stead for a long time. Now that you've chosen to stay back, you might as well do this, okay?
Sensory acuity is the ability to see, hear and feel diligently and mindfully so that we can accurately observe, study and calibrate ourselves and others. There is some amazing work on sensory acuity done in the field of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). It’ll help you with self awareness and social awareness in emotional intelligence parlance. Check it out on Google for more ideas.
Deconstruct the BULLY
The bull is in the china shop, and you very well know what’s in store! Well, there aren't many surprises here. But let us go for the story behind the story. It’s time to deconstruct and decode the bully. What exactly is hiding behind all this faux aggression and bravado? You might be tempted to say “I can’t even stand this bully for five seconds. Now you want me to do a psycho analysis of this oaf?” That’s fine. Keep in mind your CORE interests we’d looked at in the section on Self Awareness. Deconstructing the BULLY can help you get back some control, once you're through with this section.
Primary Drivers behind the Aggression and Bullying
Many bullies are actually weaklings grappling with inner demons of varying kinds. You cannot gather all of this information at one go. And of course a lot will be sourced through surrogate indicators. Take a look at these questions.
- What is primarily driving the bullying tendencies?
- Are they suffering from certain complexes? Maybe feelings of inadequacy? Or some perverse superiority complex that’s partly deserving and mostly arising out of self-aggrandizement?
- Are there any triggers that you might have inadvertently created?
- What Weaknesses are they HIDING?
- Are they bereft of appreciation or validation?
- Are they feeling intimidated by you or others (for example their peers who’re more savvy)?
- Do they sense danger and threats from peers or competitors?
- Do you see there is low self esteem?
- What do they secretly think and believe is lacking in them?
- Which are the blind spots?
Observe them also at times when they’re relaxed. Talk to them informally and gather some more inputs, so you can strengthen the knowledge repository! The idea is to get a better understanding, and also identify the chinks in the armor, if you may! What exactly is hiding behind that seemingly tough exterior?
The more you get to understand them, you’ll also figure out ways to exert greater influence on them! In simple English this might translate to “controlling them better”. But of course you know your value system criteria well enough! This is also a good chance to spot new opportunities and convergence of interests that you can pursue. Are there people in the wider network, including their peers and competitors, and those positively predisposed to them that you can connect up with in due course of time?
Now, this may be bit controversial. But, I am tempted to recall what Robert Green mentioned in his book on the Laws of Power. Sometimes, you will need to make such people dependent on you and your capabilities for the sake of your growth. In a way you are playing on their fears and insecurities. Place it in the larger context of your core beliefs, values and your core interests. You’ll soon notice many possibilities opening up. It is no longer an unequal battle, as you now have access to information that has the potential to change the equation altogether. If you can meaningfully complement them and fill in the gaps, they may see you as part of their support system and not as a threat. Now, I am sure you’d agree, that can be a huge change for the better.
It isn't as if you are trying to manipulate or destroy them. The idea is to look for WIN-WIN propositions. And even help them emerge out of the woodworks!
This is also a good time to evaluate the potential “gains” that may have accrued to them if you’d just rushed into the usual emotionally charged responses. That is, if their machiavellian tricks had “succeeded”. Instead, aren’t you both now likely to move towards a better zone of collaboration? But, it’s in your interest to safeguard your interests too! Continue the good work with all those energy management tips and techniques. That’ll also help big time.
Now, with all the homework done so far, you are ready to start working on redeeming the toxic relationship.
Build & Maintain Rapport
This may have been tough if we had directly airdropped ourselves into this section of the article. Luckily, all the work done so far would have helped you in gaining a more expansive and compassionate outlook. Yes, you’re right! The change is easier when we’ve first worked on ourselves, and our own thought filters. Maintaining eye contact, and acknowledging frequently with open gestures and non-verbal cues can help to a large extent. Develop a style that is unique to you. That will make it genuine and relatable.
At times, it helps to massage their ego and lavish praise on them, especially if you’ve figured out that they’re looking for acceptance. Even good relationships can go haywire if people have a tendency to score points with each other always. Sometimes, proving ourselves right can wait, so long as there aren't any harmful impacts.
Surprise them with your presence of mind
On previous occasions things seemed to go according to some script. They seem to push some buttons and like Humpty Dumpty, the relationship kept tumbling down after that. Even if they raise their voice, keep focused on not letting them get the reaction they’re anticipating. Reveal PRECIOUS little, and confuse them with your non-verbal cues that seem to be so different now! Pretend as if you aren't exactly losing your sleep worrying about their approval! What’s the vicarious thrill they’re looking for? DENY IT ruthlessly, cleverly, and calmly!
A tactical retreat may not be a bad idea. Become the Go-To Person within the wider network, for your particular and unique strengths. Make others want to collaborate with you. Tap into their network liberally, and expand your zone of influence via formal and informal channels. Only you know that this has been going on for quite some time! Not as an afterthought to the recent fight! Make use of resources and help from this network smartly.
Go back to them at a later stage and very matter-of-factly push items that take you closer to your core outcomes. They’ll develop a feel for the steely resolve with which you’re pushing your agenda without necessarily threatening theirs! So yes, meet them half way wherever possible, in a seemingly liberal spirit of give and take. Ensure that Part X is always kept intact. The more work you can do on your self management, especially on your energy, you’re likely to see even better results. When they’re in a reasonably good mood, praise them subtly (or explicitly). Laugh at their banal jokes liberally. Do whatever it takes, within your defined value system and boundaries.
With clinical precision, get more mini and micro outcomes (aligned to your core outcomes and interests) into your kitty over a period of time. Stoop to conquer.
Even when you’re having your way, display minimal to zero trace of excitement. Let them think they’re winning!
You’ll learn the art of striking hard when they’re least expecting. Mash the potatoes only when they’re boiled and tender!