Surrounded by Toxic Co-Workers? This Helps Explain Their Actions

Toxic co-workers collide in an angry scene from the film 'Knockout'
Toxic co-workers collide in an angry scene from the film ‘Knockout’ | Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Toxic relationships can manifest anywhere, including at home and in the workplace. In fact, most of us probably have “that guy” or “that gal” at our place of employment, whose mere presence seems to lower the overall mood, impact productivity, and shut your own personal sense of peace and well-being down. These are toxic co-workers, and try as you might, you’re going to have a few over the course of your career.

Toxic co-workers may be the result of a toxic work environment or may be born of the nature of the work itself. There are jobs and careers that are seemingly innately toxic, and working them day in day out can take a toll on an individual. The only thing you can really do, if you find yourself working with someone who is generally unpleasant, is try your best to not emulate their behavior — or let it get to you.

We’ve become rather accepting of not only toxic work environments but toxic co-workers themselves. The courts have even given these people legal protections to act like jerks at work, surprisingly enough. But that doesn’t mean we can’t wonder what it is that makes these people so awful and take measures for course-correction. The problem is that it’s difficult to get inside someone’s head.

Well, the experts at Northwestern and Harvard University have managed to give us a glimpse at those firing synapses, and figure out why some people are just so difficult to deal with. As it turns out, our minds tend to give us blinders when it comes to our own behavior and ethics — or recollections of our behavior, anyway.

Psychology and ethics

In a new study from researchers Maryam Kouchaki and Francesca Gino — of Northwestern and Harvard, respectively — it was found that our brains conveniently forget memories of ourselves that are harmful to our own self-image. Or, as the researchers themselves put it in a follow-up published in Harvard Business Review, “When people fail to live up to their own moral standards, this knowledge is unpleasant and threatens their self-image as honest and good. Consequently, they engage in various strategies to reduce their distress, including forgetting these memories.”

Here’s the most important nugget:

“We found that people are more likely to forget the details of their own unethical acts as compared to other incidents — including neutral, negative, and positive events, and the unethical actions of others,” the researchers said. “We call this tendency unethical amnesia, or obfuscation of one’s unethical acts over time. Unethical amnesia is an adaptive mechanism for coping with the psychological distress and discomfort of behaving unethically.”

The study itself, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, looked at how and why so many seemingly awful events or decisions are glossed over by so many people, including those who commit them. Volkswagen’s air quality cheating scandal, for example, is mentioned by the authors.

Their findings go a long way toward explaining why people act the way they do — which explains why some of our co-workers and professional colleagues can be so difficult to deal with. If this study is an indication, then our toxic co-workers and tyrannical managers simply don’t realize that they’re being awful; their brains dump those memories in an effort to preserve their positive self-images.

Essentially, they either aren’t seeing the red flags that their behavior is throwing up, or their brains aren’t processing the message. It goes in one ear, and out the other.

Toxic co-workers: a gameplan

An angry man gets in the face of a co-worker
An angry man gets in the face of a co-worker | iStock

With studies like this one shining some more light onto the inner-workings of our colleagues, the real question is this: How can we take this information and make it work for us? In the case of dealing with unethical or toxic colleagues, it can be difficult. Even approaching some of these people with concerns about their behavior can spark off an ugly interaction — one that most of us would rather avoid.

But seeing as how, as this study says, some people are seemingly oblivious to their past mistakes and undesirable behavior, it can be worth a shot to have a sit-down with the troublesome individual. You don’t want to be confrontational, but maybe a polite invite to have lunch or a strategic smoke break can give you a chance to bring up a questionable decision or interaction, and discuss it.

That can still backfire, though, so be ready for it. Surviving a toxic or tough work environment isn’t easy, but the more we learn about how and why people act the way they do, new methods for dealing with hostility can and will be deployed to make improvements. This study is another brick in that wall and gives us all a little more insight into our toxic colleagues’ inner-workings.

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