Dealing with Toxic People: Superpowers Leaders Need

Unfortunately, toxic people are everywhere and all of us know at least one or two of these individuals and many of us are forced to work with them or engage with them on a social level.  They bring their poisoning drama into our lives uninvited and then leave a trail of unwanted fumes when they depart.  Funny (not!) some of these individuals are so lost in their own self-absorbed world that they are unware of the effects they have on other people, while others relish the control they feel when they unleash their poison on their prey. These toxic individuals can leave even the most confident person wondering what they have done, questioning their ability to lead, and losing the focus of their intentions.  When faced with these interactions on a regular basis, we can feel our stress levels rise and we all know what stress can do to a person.  (play the funeral music here!)

Cognitive Leadership is a process of getting the most from your brain and programming it for success. To activate the pathways in your brain by strategically aligning your beliefs, feelings, visions, and actions. With our focus on the brain on how it functions, it is important to note that stress can have a lasting negative effect on your brain therefore causing you to detour from your leadership vision and intentions.  Your hippocampus is the area of your brain that is responsible for reasoning and memory. Stress can compromise the neurons in the hippocampus and therefore affect your ability to reason and remember. Two very important qualities in a leader.  So, in order to reduce this negative affect on your brain, we have to reduce the affect that toxic people have on your life.

Let’s look at what superpowers a leader needs to possess in order to combat toxic people.

Set Boundaries: In Dr. Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries, (put link to resource page on my website where they can purchase this book) he talks about how boundaries are essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. “Boundaries impact all areas of our lives: Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us and under what circumstances — Mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions — Emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others.”

At work, we often feel we have little or no control over the chaos that comes from toxic people, but that is simply not true.  You can and should establish boundaries and you must do so consciously and proactively. By setting boundaries upfront, you will not be caught in a continuous cycle of difficult conversations with people who suck the life out of you.  By considering this individual (or individuals) and your interactions with them ahead of time, you can use your rational brain to identify how you will engage with them instead of reacting in the moment using the emotional part of the brain.

Work to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence:  The daily challenge of dealing effectively with emotions is critical to the human condition because our brains are hard-wired to give emotions the upper hand. Have you ever had that moment when you look back at a situation and say “that didn’t go as planned” “that is not what I intended to happen” “I wish I had dealt with that situation better. “You’re not living your intentions. Most likely your emotions got the best of you and “hijacked” the situation. This is where emotional intelligence comes into play. EQ affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities and make personal decisions that can achieve positive results. Without a high EQ, we may never be able to achieve those positive relationship results that we so long to achieve. Researchers and business experts agree that people with high emotional intelligence are consistently the top performers in their organizations. They are more resilient and flexible when things get tough.

Know Your Triggers:  As we just discussed, our first reaction will always be an emotional reaction, but how we control those emotions are totally up to us. Each of us has “triggers” that cause us to have moments when our emotions control our behavior and we react without thinking. We react before we allow the information to leave our limbic systems and migrate on to the rational part of our brain. The best way to combat this situation is to know what triggers your emotions and determine, ahead of time, how we are going to better deal with the trigger.  In my free e-book, 10 Triggers that Can Hijack Your Emotional Intelligence (put link here), I spend a bit of time exploring some triggers and what we might do to offset our reaction.

Be Solutions Oriented: Toxic people aren’t looking or solutions, they just want to bring up the problems.  Too often when adversity strikes, the first reaction is to focus on the negatives.  Toxic people will live here and want you to reside with them.  Instead, take the time to fully analyze the situation whether in a group setting or in solitude.  Focusing on solutions instead of problems, can revitalize your mind and help you focus on the future.  I coach leaders to instruct their teams to never come to them with a problem unless they have a solution to go with it.  This teaches your people how to be more solutions oriented and encourage them to think outside the box when identifying possible solutions.  When we start to think of more ways to overcome problems, we can grow from the situation and are more prepared for the next problem we will face down the road.

Stay Optimistic and Happy:  Negativity destroys relationships and can also rewire your brain.  (Put link to negative affect article here)  Toxic people will always find reasons to emphasis the negative in a situation.  Even when the news is good news.  Let’s say your company just received a big new contract, the toxic person will say “Just think of all the work that is going to create for us.”  When you are headed for vacation they emphasize how hot it is going to be at the beach or how cold in the mountains.  They are never happy for you.  You have to be careful that you don’t derive your sense of pleasure and satisfaction from others and let these folks dampen your outlook. Take the opinion of others, especially those opinions that were not sought out, with a grain of salt. Fixating on the opinions of others is only a fast rode to unhappiness, remember your self-worth comes from within.

Avoid the Gossip Trap:  Gossip is defined on Wikipedia as idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others; the act is also known as dishing or tattling. Toxic people love to spend their time talking poorly of other people.  It makes them feel better about themselves and they believe it can elevate them in the eyes of the person they are spreading this poison to.    Toxic individuals can often make this form of poison seem in your best interest.  “I’m only telling you this because I care about you and I thought you needed to know what Sally was doing (or saying).”    There are few things in this world that are more destructive than gossip.  I love that Dave Ramsey’s (Ramsey’s Solutions) company policy on gossip  (put link to YouTube video here).  “ I will fire your butt for this.  You’re the enemy and you will leave this building. I will warn you once and you will change.  Period.” I believe this should be our philosophy in dealing with gossip as well.  When someone comes to you with gossip, cut them off very quickly and let them know that you will not participate in or have gossip spewed in your presence.  End of conversation.  A great Proverb says it all:  “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from trouble”  Proverbs 21:23

Neuroplasticity is the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction. Basically, this means that you can change the pathways in your brain to remember behaviors you wish to change by focusing on the new behavior on a regular basis. What actually changes in the brain are the strengths of the connections of neurons that are engaged together, moment by moment, in time. The more something is practiced, the more connections are changed and made to include all elements of the experience.   It’s your “master controller” being formed for that particular behavior, which allows it to be performed with remarkable facility and reliability over time.  It’s not always easy to know what to say or how to react when you are faced with toxic people.  But by working on your interactions with problem people will train your brain to handle these situations in the future.  Practice, practice, practice.  Reviewing your plan of action in a variety of ways helps build thicker, stronger, more hard-wired connections in the brain and you will be on your way to living a life of intention.