Toxic Colleagues

How to deal with toxic people in your workplace

When we’re out in the real world we describe something toxic as a thing that is poisonous to every member of a group. For example:

  • Chocolate is toxic to dogs
  • Uncooked eel blood is toxic to humans
  • Chilli is toxic to pigeons

With this logic, is it really right to say that a person is toxic? Can one person be so poisonous that they affect everyone else in a toxic way? 

True, there are some people who you would describe as not so friendly or tactful out there, but not one of them is an arse to every single human on the planet. Also true, there’s no one in the history of the world who was universally liked by everyone. 

This is great news because it means that no one has power over you - they can’t control what you do and how you feel, because when dealing with people, so-called ‘toxicity’ is very subjective. 

Let's unpack this:

Here’s an example of a typical scenario where a secondary school head of faculty (we’ll call him Steve), is having a conversation with his coach about his challenges when dealing with the very ‘toxic’ Mrs D. 

Coach: What would you like today’s coaching session to focus on?
Steve: Eeerrggghhh it’s my role as the science HOF. It’s not going well. Honestly, I’m having some real problems.
Coach: Tell me what is happening.
Steve: Well, it’s Mrs D. She’s completely undermining me. Every time I give her a deadline she misses it. When I tell her that something needs to be done she ignores me. She’s that last one to get her data in, she arrives late to faculty meetings and she’s just doing me head in! She is such a weak link and she’s really bringing me and the rest of the team down with her terrible attitude. 
Coach: So, you are feeling that she is not pulling her weight?
Steve: That’s absolutely right! She’s just terrible and never has anything nice to say about anyone or anything!
Coach: What is it that you would like to achieve?
Steve: Easy. I want her to leave. The whole team is suffering because of her and her attitude. There’s nothing I can do to make her see sense. The whole team is at a stand still because of her and while she’s around there’s just no point trying to do anything because she’s destroyed all of the morale in the team. 

Woah there Steve, cool your jets dude and take a breath. 

Our mate Steve has become completely overwhelmed by the situation and without realising it - he’s letting Mrs D totally control every aspect of the team dynamic. If Mrs D truly was toxic, there would be nothing that Steve, the coach, the principal or the MoE could do about this situation so... isn't it great to know that there is no such thing as a toxic person. 

What Mrs D has done here is provide Steve and his coach with a very valuable learning opportunity - here’s why:

The coach’s role here is not to help Steve to run Mrs D out of town. Although from Steve’s place of desperation that may seem like the best solution, it won’t help the fact that THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A MRS D!

Steve clearly has some very limiting thoughts about Mrs D, particularly his belief that her packing up her Bunsen burners and leaving, holds the key to the success of the team. If you want to use the word toxic, let’s agree that it’s this thought that is toxic to Steve’s ability to lead his team. This thinking gives all of the power to Mrs D because her behaviour is controlling how Steve thinks, feels and acts. 
But, Mrs D isn’t the one being coached here, Steve is. His thoughts, feelings and actions are the only thing that he has influence over and THAT is what a coach will help him to focus on. A coach is crucial here to help Steve to develop his leadership skills by thinking about strategies for dealing with this situation. 

Here's how coaching can help:

Here is a simple line of questioning that a coach can use to help Steve to turn his stinky situation around. 

“What have you done to support Mrs D to improve her performance?”
“What else … “
“What else … “

“What else could you do to help her to improve her performance?”
“What else … “
“What else … “
And so on until Steve has at around 5-8 different things that he can try to improve his leadership capabilities. 

And then most importantly:
"What will you commit to doing first?"

It’s important to note that at no point is Steve ‘fixing’ Mrs D or doing things to compensate for her. He is coming up with ways to support her to do the work that she needs to do to pull her socks up. Mrs D will certainly need to know why changes have to be made, but she is the one who will be very much in the driver's seat of doing the work, with Steve on the sidelines to support, encourage and challenge where needed. 
So the secret to dealing with toxic colleagues is no secret at all - build your coaching skills, increase your leadership capabilities and don’t let the actions of one person derail your quest to become the happiest and most successful educator you know. 
Cheers to you for changing the world one question at a time. 


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