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WORK SMARTER

Stop worrying about toxic colleagues. You will never, ever change them

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Don’t waste time on difficult people – protect yourself by zoning them out, urges Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

Let us think for a moment about what really makes working life difficult. Or, rather, not what but *who* makes things really difficult. Toxic people. Colleagues who land you in it. So-called friends, better described as frenemies. Many bosses. Anyone who is passive-aggressive. Or just plain aggressive-aggressive. A lot of bosses. Did I mention bosses? (I am not good with hierarchy. I cannot be alone in this.) I am reminded – painfully – of a man I knew over 15 years ago, who promised me a promotion and pay rise, and then promptly resigned the next day, not having secured any of these things for me. I still have a mental voodoo doll of him.

Our reaction to these people is often completely overwhelming and can threaten to topple our mental health. Or, at least, that’s how it is for me. But how are you supposed to handle this? Especially when it’s often impossible to get away from these people and you see them every day. And when it is not realistic to tell them to do something that is not printable here.

A new book by a career coach called Craig Collinson has some great, practical thinking on how to stop these people from throwing you off your stride. In Improve Your Life: 21 Strategies That Will Make The Difference, he warns about the dangers of surrounding ourselves with pessimists, prophets of doom and toxic moaners, quoting this saying: “Dear Optimist and Pessimist, While you were all arguing over the glass of water, I just drank it. Sincerely an Opportunist.” Collinson’s strategy? Get in early with the water-drinking and don’t get caught up in all the negative-versus-positive talk. It’s a waste of your time and energy. You will never convince mean and delusional people to be normal, or not to promise you a pay rise when they know no such thing will be forthcoming.

You will never convince mean and delusional people to be normal

Collinson points out that there are frequent mentions in self-help circles of “Circle of Concern” versus “Circle of Influence”, both terms coined by the bestselling author Stephen Covey. The Circle of Concern describes the aspects of our lives – and the people – that occupy our thoughts, but which we know deep inside we cannot change. This category includes toxic colleagues. Some people live exclusively inside this circle, torturing themselves and obsessing about their nightmare boss. But it’s futile to worry too much about the characters inside the Circle of Concern. These difficult people will never be our allies.

Where we can change things properly – and be optimistic – is in our Circle of Influence. The Circle of Influence is non-toxic friends, family, work colleagues. It’s anywhere where we have a direct, day-to-day measurable impact. The less time you spend with irritating people who belong in the unchangeable Circle of Concern, the more time you can spend in your persuadable Circle of Influence, a place where you can always exhibit kindness, responsibility, patience, insight and generosity. Just think: even if you just show these characteristics while making tea for your more tolerable colleagues, you will be making the world an immeasurably better place. (Personally, I struggle with exhibiting these characteristics in any circumstances on a hot day. We all have our challenges.)

Collinson advises giving a name to the people who drain us, so that we can remind ourselves to keep our distance: “energy sucker”, “emotional vampire”, “drain”, “saboteur”, “Negative Nelly” and “Captain Miserable”. You don’t have to tell them you’re doing this. That would be a bad idea. Just stay away, whether this means zoning out in a conversation, insulating yourself emotionally by not taking what they say personally, or physically moving away and saying, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now.” In other words, when you identify one of these people, make the tea, drink the water, run a mile. No voodoo doll required.

Improve Your Life: 21 Strategies That Will Make the Difference is published by FCM Publishing 

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