How Leaders Defuse that Toxic Jerk at Work


By Dr. Sylvia Lafair

Did you ever stand with arms open, ready and willing to help someone at work, and their response was like getting a sucker punch to the gut?

You know the type. They laugh to make you feel stupid, or they criticize in front of a key customer. They do one up or whisper behind your back, just loud enough to know it is YOUR name being bandied about and then the whisper gets softer so you absolutely cannot hear what is being said.

You feel tension mounting behind your eyes, or you sense a slight tinge of nausea, or you are aware that your heart is beating just a tad too fast.

All your leadership skills are ready to go down the drain, your conflict resolution strategies fall by the wayside, and you have that old fight or flight moment.

Did you know that toxic, negative people can drive your brain into stress overdrive just like seeing a tiger growling and licking his lips in front of you? Recent research at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany helps us understand that exposure to strong negative stimuli is basically all the same. Seeing someone slap a child, listening to the sound of a tornado closing in near you, watching a nasty fight on the basketball court, and on and on, can cause YOU to feel stress.

Stress is serious business.

It means your health can take a dive if you have to be with toxic people all the time.

Next time someone at work is being mean-spirited, acting like a jerk, know that your stress meter is on the rise.

What to do when that toxic person smiles (or growls) and shows up in your space:

1. Take control: you can control your reactions, remember that.
2. Breath: big, deep breaths that put more oxygen in your system.
3. Set limits: ask what you can do to help if someone is complaining.
4. Set more limits: ask what they want you to do about the situation.
5. Set even more limits: ask what they will do to fix the problem.
6. Set the timer: the max time to give to the situation is 10 minutes.
7. Listen for the buzzer: At the 10 minute mark get up and get going.
8. Breath and walk: change your physicality and move around.
9. Take time to learn why that person bugs you so much.

Number 9 is the long term winner when dealing with toxic people at work. Good leadership skills require each of us to ask the question: what is it about this person that really pushes my buttons? All leadership training needs to have some time involved where YOU need to look at YOUR part in any encounter.

Let’s face it. Some people who you see as toxic will be seen as positive and helpful by others. Jack may set your teeth on edge by saying they need your help while Tom can ask for the same advice and you will see him as a regular, good guy.

What is the difference?

Get some good business leadership coaching to find out why some people are toxic to you and others are not. The key lies in checking in with your old childhood memories.

Ask yourself the question: who does this toxic individual remind you of from the past? It may be a parent or a sibling or a neighbor who was always telling you what to do.

Once you can shed a light on the person and pattern from the past you are on your way to emotional freedom. That does not necessarily make the person any less toxic to you. It does however, give you more room between what they say and how you react.

Some individuals who are particularly annoying have the following patterns: the bullies, clowns, rebels, and procrastinators who show up in your life over and over.

Next time stress hits the hot button and that toxic coworker or boss comes your way take that deep breath, set the timer and ask the right questions.

Please feel free to share your creative strategies for dealing with toxic people and even better, let me know what you learned about yourself and give some examples of effective leadership skills that have helped you keep the stress under control.

Sylvia Lafair, PhD is president of Creative Energy Options, Inc., a global consulting firm. Her focus on people skills takes her to companies such as Novartis, McGraw Hill, Microsoft, family firms and entrepreneurial companies where she helps develop solid teams and heighten productivity. Her Total Leadership Connections™ program has been named one of the top leadership programs by As an author, Sylvia’s books Don’t Bring it Work, GUTSY: How Women Leaders Make Change, and UNIQUE: How Story Sparks Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement, are all award winning. She is a keynote speaker, and executive coach. Visit her website at

Sylvia-Lafair-Stress-ImageSylvia Lafair