I’m in the middle of a series on self-awareness and what its absence does to teams. I started by discussing how to deal with someone who isn’t self-aware and provided a series of techniques to help the person see the error of their ways.

As I dug into the research on self-awareness, it became clear that you and I might be the proverbial people in glass houses throwing stones when it comes to complaining about other people’s lack of self-awareness. While 95% of us think we’re self-aware, only 10-15% actually are. That led to the second post in the series with some counter-intuitive evidence for what helps and hinders when it comes to enhancing self-awareness.

Now, let’s return to the original scenario of dealing with someone who isn’t self-aware. Only this time, let’s consider the possibility that your colleague or manager is acting like a jerk not because they don’t realize the impact of their behavior but precisely because of it. What if you’re working with (or for) a malicious, self-serving pain-in-the-butt who’s making uncivil, aggressive, hostile behavior their modus operandi?  Buckle up.

How Bad Can It Be?

Before we talk about what you can do when you’re stuck with a colleague who’s a nasty piece of work, I want to share some evidence of why you don’t want to succumb to their hostility. One fascinating controlled lab study by Porath & Erez demonstrated adverse outcomes worth mentioning:

  • Being subjected to rudeness or derision reduces problem-solving and creativity.
  • Being poorly treated disrupts cognitive processes, including thinking and memory.
  • Being on the receiving end of insults causes you to be less helpful to the perpetrator and other people around you who had no fault in the matter.

Given that being subjected to malicious, rude, or otherwise nasty behavior affects your job performance and your teamwork, not to mention your stress levels, it might be time to do something about it. But what?

Stop Rewarding Their Bad Behavior

My first recommendation will feel like blaming the victim but stay with me. If you reflect on how you behave in response to your colleague’s nefarious nonsense, is it possible you’re encouraging them? I know, I know, it’s not your fault… but could it be true?

If they scream and yell at you to prioritize their needs over those of others, do you begrudgingly move their tasks to the top of the pile?

If they make a snide remark about you to bolster their fragile self-esteem, does it send you for a loop and give them the dopamine hit they were looking for?

If they unrelentingly badger you to abandon your proposed approach to go along with theirs, do you relent?

It’s tough to confront, but are you making their bad behavior work for them?

As long as it’s working for them, they won’t stop. You’re going to have to interrupt that reinforcement cycle.

Change Your Self-talk

Another essential part of surviving a malicious co-worker is monitoring your self-talk and ensuring you’re not starting to buy into their baloney.

If you are letting some of their abuse get through (normal), try reframing your thoughts to something less damaging to your self-esteem or agency.

Instead of thinking that you’re weak and don’t know how to stand up to them, reframe it to they don’t know how to get what they need without yelling.

Instead of ruminating about a witty, coupe de gras comeback or a way you could get revenge (which Porath & Erez hypothesize might be the reason your performance is suffering—too much “you’re a jerky” and not enough “worky, worky”), think of one thing you could do to change the trajectory of the relationship or to get the work on track.

Instead of focusing on the nasty person’s negative behaviors, pick one colleague who treats you well and express gratitude to them instead.

Tap Into a Support System

Expressing gratitude to a colleague is a good segue into the third strategy; build your support network and let them bolster you when the going gets tough. You can use your trusted colleagues to check in and calibrate your reactions. It’s worth asking, “Am I reading more into this than I should be,” or “How did you interpret that comment?”

Beyond using them as a reality check, you can also turn to your teammates as allies who might have more success working with the meanie than you. There are snake charmers out there, and if you’ve got one in your network, ask for their help when the stakes are high.

Can I Reduce the Power They Hold on Me?

Here’s a somewhat cheeky way to upend the power relationship between you and the bad actor; start rewarding yourself when they mistreat you.

This technique is not my invention. Many years ago, a psychologist taught me a technique to reduce the impact of someone’s negative behaviors. He said to pick the things that the person says or does that are most like a sucker punch to the gut. Then count each time they happen. (Think of it like the punch card at your local coffee shop—one closer to your freebie.) When you tally enough points, share your success with a trusted friend who then treats you to a reward. I prefer a venti venting session (with my favorite Venti-sized Starbucks beverage—a half-sweet chai tea latte).

You’ll notice that soon you’re almost hoping the person will toss off their favorite condescending one-liner or chastise you in the hallway for not getting them their report two days before you agreed.

This isn’t taking the high road, but sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do to survive a toxic teammate. And interestingly, it might just unlock the relationship in a way you never expected.

Given the statistics on how many people are not self-aware (85-90%), I’m still betting that your noxious colleague doesn’t realize the damage they’re causing. But if you’ve already tried the constructive techniques I outlined in my previous post, it might be time to resort to the Plan B tactics I’ve summarized here.