how to survive a toxic team member at work

Almost every one of us has been stuck in a toxic team environment. Most of us feel a little helpless and panicky when a working relationship goes sour. Every day that you have to face a negative situation at work feels like torture. Even with the increased attention on building positive corporate cultures, we can’t always pick who we work with.

A dysfunctional work environment can lead to poor health and even damage your personal relationships outside of the office. Instead of letting toxicity ruin your workplace experience, learning how to effectively handle a toxic team environment can mitigate its impact on you and your productivity.

Tips For Surviving Toxic Team Members

Bullying is now widely recognized in the adult workplace. Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem behavior that stops in high school. Most of the professionals I coach have experienced workplace bullying. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27% of the workforce has been bullied at work, and 72% of workers are aware it happens.

• Calmly speak up. My clients do not start out feeling comfortable with speaking up against the abusive behavior. Instead of giving in to intimidation tactics, vocalize when the bully exhibits undesirable behavior. Politely, calmly and firmly communicate that you will not tolerate abuse. Often times this will short-circuit the bully’s ability to feel “safely” aggressive.

• Connect with management. Talking to your manager might make you very uncomfortable at first. Regardless, if you’ve tried everything else, it’s important to make your manager aware of the issue. Remain neutral, stick to the facts, clearly communicate what actions you have taken to manage the situation and ask for their input.

• Set boundaries. What if the bully happens to be your boss? Set realistic fact-based boundaries through assertive communication, even if being assertive is the last thing you want to do. Bullying happens most commonly to my introverted clients who are not likely to push back. It’s critical to firmly yet politely establish workplace expectations. If nothing changes, engage human resources for help.

Backstabbing is another common and destructive tactic from toxic team members. I was a victim of vicious backstabbing and rumor-mongering in my early career. It makes you angry, frustrated and resentful. Unfortunately, it can also damage workplace relationships and make it difficult to trust others.

Most people don’t feel comfortable confronting the situation or the perpetrator. However, if you continue to be silent, the backstabber will feel like they have the upper hand. Here are a few ways to professionally counteract the toxic behavior.

• Don’t counter-gossip. Trying to “one-up” your backstabber will only make you look bad. Take the high road. Early signs of a rumor-monger is a tendency to spread nasty stories about others or gossip. Avoid this person and don’t sink to their level. Be likable and build positive relationships with others on your team to prevent toxic spread.

• Don’t overshare. Be cautious of who you share your ideas with. Never share ideas (or anything else) with a gossiper. Develop open communication with your manager and make sure that they are the first to know your thoughts. This can prevent theft of your contributions to the team.

• Confront them. While this sounds terrifying to most people, confronting the backstabber may help the situation. From time to time, your toxic team member may have it out for you because of an imagined slight. Usually, these are misunderstandings that can be brought to light and resolved during a calm and open conversation.

If the toxicity is perpetuated by your boss, connect with as many people outside of your team as possible. It’s important to build a strong network to circumvent negative labeling. Most backstabbers suffer from deep insecurities. If you are more competent, capable or personable, you might present a threat to their fragile ego.

Bigotry is another toxic trait that should be gone with the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, some people are either completely unconscious of their behavior or ignorant of its toxic impact. Bigotry can be hidden in behaviors such as stereotyping or generalizations. Any time a person batch-labels a demographic, gender, generation or personality trait, it can lead to bigotry. For example, generalizing someone as a millennial can be annoying and impede your ability to connect with that person.

• Celebrate individualism. Confront the bigot’s perspective head-on by emphasizing the positive characteristics of their target. You can also counter their assumptions with facts. Often, the bigot is unaware of their toxic trait and they need to have their eyes opened.

• Don’t conform. Be comfortable with voicing a calm professional opinion that you do not agree with the bigot’s perspective or assumptions. Silence can lead to assumed assent to the behavior. Don’t smile or laugh just to keep the peace, even if the bigot is your boss. Set firm boundaries on what types of behavior you will accept.

• Document and follow up. Document behavior by sticking to the facts, and follow up with the appropriate parties if the bigotry continues. Workplace diversity is not a buzzword; most companies take it seriously. It’s important to cite specific instances, and it’s even better if there are witnesses to the offensive behavior.

Google recently attributed its poor workforce diversity demographics to “unconscious bias.” Stereotyping can limit your ability to connect with other people from all walks of life or other cultures. It’s also damaging to the victim’s self-esteem. This and other toxic behaviors can limit your organization’s ability to perform, negatively impact morale and even lead to high attrition rates.

If there can be one single ingredient to success, it’s the ability to build and foster positive relationships. Toxic team behavior destroys valuable collaboration and productivity. If toxicity is ignored or perpetuated by your leadership, you might want to consider employment elsewhere. Regardless, learning how to effectively handle a toxic team environment brings you one step closer to a healthy work-life balance.


  • Erin Urban

    Career growth & leadership development coach, author and speaker focused on lifting others up into powerful positive transformations.

    Erin Urban, LSSBB, is a certified professional development coach, speaker, and author with a mission to inspire powerful positive transformations. With an extensive background in leading individual, cultural and organizational change initiatives: Erin is a certified leadership development coach, Forbes Contributor, and founder of UPPSolutions, LLC. For more information, visit and connect with Erin on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.