How to Handle Toxic Personalities in Business

As we all go through life and it’s many twists and turns, there is one thing that we will all encounter from time to time, and that is toxic personalities.

A few caveats as we dive into this discussion-first, for the purposes of this article I will stick to dealing with these types of people in business.  We all know, however, that we also deal with them in our personal lives, in our friends (frenemies) and family.  I’m sorry to say that I cannot address your Aunt Edna that comes to Thanksgiving Dinner every year with her passive aggressive “helpful” comments:

  • You’re so pretty (handsome), I wish you would lose those extra pounds.
  • You’re so smart, why can’t you get a better job?
  • You were such a good child, why can’t you get your children to behave better?
  • You have such potential, why can’t be more like your cousin – sister – brother – etc.?

Second, these tactics are reserved for the truly awful, thus my use of the word toxic.  The word “toxic” means:  poisonous, virulent, noxious, deadly, dangerous, harmful, injurious, pernicious.  Therefore, these tips are reserved for those people in your business life that meet one or all of these defining words.

Here are my top 7 tips for dealing with toxic personalities in business…

  1. Don’t waste your valuable time trying to figure out why a toxic person behaves the way they do. It is human nature to try to understand human nature.  You will go from scratching your head in wonder to lying awake at night trying to figure it out.  Here is the secret – you can’t, so don’t try.
  2. Keep all your interactions with a toxic person professional, on point and succinct. People like this tend to have their ups and downs, sometimes they are perfectly pleasant and easy to deal with, other times they turn into your worst nightmare.  Resist the urge to engage them further when they are “behaving”, it only takes a matter of seconds for them to revert to their toxic behavior, often with no warning.  If you keep your communications professional, bland and direct you will reduce the amount of times that you actually have to deal with their less than friendly side.
  3. Don’t take it personally. Your toxic person is likely the same with most, if not all, people in their lives.  This isn’t about you and although I won’t say take a look at your behavior from time to time to see if there is something you are doing wrong, don’t overanalyze or blame yourself.  It’s not your fault.
  4. Don’t get sucked into lengthy battles over email or social media. When toxic people misrepresent us or insult us, it is our tendency to want to fight back.  Trust me when I say, you won’t win any battles with this person, you won’t change their mind and you will likely be ending up making yourself look bad if you engage them in this manner.  On social media, it places your reputation at risk and onlookers will see you as unprofessional for calling out this person publicly.  On email, you can go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth again…  You will not change their minds and will only succeed in making you anticipate the next set of crazy that will be delivered into your inbox and stress you out.  Toxic people tend to be overly dramatic and emotional, their communication style is usually lengthy, all over the place and sometime vicious.  Don’t invite that into your life by engaging in a back and forth battle.
  5. Keep a record of your dealings. These people will often misrepresent things you have said or outright lie. If you keep a record of your communications, you will be able refute erroneous facts and help them with their faulty memories.  This can include things like, you promised me a big discount, you promised me that the shipment would be expedited, etc.  Even when you do “catch them in a lie”, resist the urge to gloat.  Simply point out what actually transpired and play it off as “that is not what we agreed on”.  When possible, keep your communications in a written format so that you have an indisputable record.  Do not expect, however, your toxic person to admit that they lied or be contrite, they will play it off as they misunderstood or forgot.  In other words, catching them in their lie won’t make dealing with them any easier.
  6. Know when it’s time to say goodbye. At some point, a toxic person simply starts taking up so much of your time that you need to send them packing.  How do you know it is time?  The answer is simple, they are costing you money.  This can come in the form of wasting your valuable time, stressing you out so that you are not as productive or straight out not paying you on time or in full.  If they are costing you money, it’s time for them to go.  End the relationship quickly, directly and professionally.  Whether they are an employee, a customer, a vendor or any other business contact.  Cut them loose, you will feel much better when you do.  Then you can get back to what is important to you.
  7. Once you say goodbye, never ever under any circumstances welcome them back into your business (or life). Once you have successfully eliminated a toxic person, stay the course.  Do not let them back in no matter how much they tell you that they will change, they may for a while but they will always revert back to their former behavior, it is who they are.  If you have small interactions with them, just be professional and polite but keep them at arms-length and remember what you went through to get them out.

Unfortunately, dealing with toxic personalities is a part of life and business, it is how you handle it that will ultimately determine how much heartache, time and money it will cost you.  Remember you can’t change people and how they act, you can only change how you react to them and how you handle your own emotions.  Applying these principles should take the sting out of dealing with a toxic personality.

Need more help handling negative feedback? Check out Issue 5 of the Cut to the Trace eZine, where we discuss handling negative feedback from customers professionally.

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