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How to Survive Toxic Relationships at the Office

When work relationships turn toxic, these three actions will help.

Key points

  • Tricky group dynamics can emerge at the office, such as regressive behaviors, trauma responses, coupling, splitting, and power struggles.
  • Office relationships deteriorate quickly when there is weak leadership, work overload, and a lack of appreciation from management.
  • Avoid toxic work relationships by steering clear of petty dramas, find a self-care buddy, increase creativity, and keep an eye on the future.
Source: Adi Goldstein/Unsplash
Source: Adi Goldstein/Unsplash

Why do some office relationships deteriorate into high school histrionics, complete with backstabbers, gossipers, seducers, and drama queens?

Is there a way to thrive at the office when relationships turn toxic?

Group dynamics at the office

As a group therapist, I've spent a lifetime studying the dynamics that emerge in groups. I've witness people who felt depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed at the office become masters of group dynamics after building interpersonal skills and social confidence. (See " How Group Therapy Helps .")

But before we explore why work relationships turn toxic, here are several tricky group dynamics that often emerge between co-workers at the office.

1. Regression behaviors

Emotional regression occurs when social anxiety, triggered by interactions at the office, revives negative group experiences from your past. These experiences are rooted in your childhood: i.e., your relationships in your family, community, or peer group. For example, if someone was a bully in school, that person is more likely to be aggressive at the office and try to dominate others. If someone experienced emotional neglect at home as a child, that person is more likely to crave approval and validation or be particularly sensitive to rejection. Emotional regressions are important to understand so you can break free of repeating unhealthy childhood patterns at the office.

2. Trauma responses

Group dynamics commonly trigger trauma responses. When people have a history of negative group experiences—in other words, if they were hurt or wounded by groups—they will naturally feel unsafe at the office. They will have difficulty trusting others or may appear guarded, detached, or disassociated. (See " Reasons You May Feel Nothing .") When trauma responses reemerge in individuals at the office, anxiety becomes overwhelming and even has the power to distort reality.

3. Coupling and splitting

Large groups are quick to break off into couples or fracture into smaller groups. It’s natural for people to look for other people with whom they identify and try to form alliances. It is a way of lowering large group anxiety—the smaller the group, the more manageable the relationships. Coupling and splitting off are natural but grow destructive when driven by negativity.

4. Power struggles

Groups can induce powerful feelings of competition. In competitive environments, feelings of jealousy or envy can lead to increased tensions among co-workers, attention-seeking behaviors, grandiosity, and even the wish to undermine or cause others to suffer.

3 causes of toxic office relationships

As you can see, when group dynamics emerge at the office, they require strong leadership to keep them in check. With strong leadership, these dynamics are well-managed and rarely threatening. However, with poor management, relationships deteriorate quickly. Here are the top three reasons:

1. Weak leadership

Weak leadership is the number-one cause of toxic relationships at the office. Weak managers come in many forms: They may be tyrannical, controlling, inept, absent, or threatening. Under weak leadership, workers lack the emotional support, guidance, and clear objectives to perform their jobs well. When leadership fails to provide these essential needs, workers often turn on each other, grow apathetic or passive-aggressive.

2. Work overload

When employees are overloaded with work, stress builds, sleep is deferred, and caffeine and working hours are increased. Under such conditions, tension spreads throughout the office and weakens employee morale, fueling dysfunctional and destructive behaviors that lead to burnout.

3. Lack of appreciation

There are many ways to show appreciation to employees: words of praise, promotions, public acknowledgment, and, of course, pay increases. When such expressions of appreciation are withheld, employees begin to feel resentful and grow hypocritical of management and each other.

Ways to avoid toxic office relationships

If you’re stuck in a toxic work environment, here are three suggestions to help you survive:

1. Avoid drama

Don’t be pulled into petty conflicts. Keep firm boundaries; avoid falling into a pattern of blame and complaint. It’s important to speak up and be a force for change, but complaining all the time will drag you and your co-workers down. You’ll also lose everyone's respect.

2. Increase self-care

There are so many ways to help yourself naturally build resilience, such as increased exercise, diet changes, and meditation. If you have trouble motivating yourself, find a self-care buddy and support each other.

Strive to expand your mind beyond your work life. Look for creative outlets to energize you. Write, paint, draw, take an improv class; anything to get your creative juices flowing and insolate you against burnout. (See " How to Be Self-Awakened .")

3. Keep an eye on the future

If you’re plotting an escape, start looking around for better options. Update your resume, polish your interview skills, talk to friends, see a headhunter or career counselor. There’s an old saying: You can do the time if you know the sentence. Once you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you’ll be better insolated against toxic relationships and feel freedom is just around the corner.