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Learn how to manage conflict with toxic people

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9 toxic traits to look out for (and how to deal with them)

a woman with pink hair is being mean to a man which shows her toxic traits

Do you know someone who is always negative, critical, and unsupportive? How about someone who scares you a little at work, or seems to tell lots of lies?

If so, they might be showing signs of toxic traits. Or it might even be you who's acting out like this.

Toxic traits can be harmful to both yourself and others. Dealing with someone's toxic behavior can have a bad impact on your wellbeing and psychological safety. And acting in a toxic way can put strain on your relationships and limit your career opportunities.

Below, we'll explore what toxic traits are, how to identify them, and how to prevent them from developing in ourselves. We'll also go through some advice for dealing with toxic coworkers and friends.

Table of contents
List of 9 toxic traits you should look out for
What about toxic masculinity and toxic femininity?
How to deal with a toxic coworker or boss
How to keep your own toxic traits at bay

List of 9 toxic traits you should look out for

To begin with, it's important to remember that you're probably not in a position to diagnose anyone with a mental illness or psychological condition. That should be left to qualified medical professionals.

And looking out for toxic people in a general sense takes some emotional intelligence, and you're going to be using your subjective judgment here.

Remember that you're just as prone to cognitive biases and poor judgement as anyone else. Especially when you're on the receiving end of someone's poor behavior, it's easy to let your emotions take over and cloud your viewpoint.

So make sure you're well-rested, level-headed, and not feeling hangry when you think about these - eat a sandwich first!

That said, if someone's displaying certain bad behaviors repeatedly over time, you can be fairly certain that it's a toxic trait. And with that, you'll be better equipped to deal with them.

1) Passive aggression

Passive-aggressive behavior is when someone tries to express their anger or frustration indirectly, instead of communicating openly.

For example, a passive-aggressive coworker might make sneaky comments about your work instead of telling you directly that they think it's subpar. Or, if you're in a relationship with someone who's passive-aggressive, they might start sulking instead of telling you directly that they're upset.

If you've got housemates who have a dispute with you, they'll leave snooty notes around the house for you to find - "please do NOT use my coffee jar again!"

It's usually the sign of a poor relationship or inability to properly express emotions. It also goes hand in hand with the next toxic trait.

2) Conflict avoidance

Conflict avoidance is when somebody goes to great lengths to avoid any kind of confrontation. They'll do anything possible to keep the peace, even if it means sacrificing their own needs or beliefs.

This often happens in toxic relationships - the person who's conflict-avoidant will put up with a lot of bad behavior because they don't want things to get messy or uncomfortable. And as many people will know, this only leads to further resentment down the line.

They may also have a fear of abandonment, so they'll stay in relationships that are harmful just to ensure that they won't be left alone. If you're someone who avoids conflict, ask yourself whether your fear is worth more than your happiness. Sometimes taking action really is the best step.

3) Constant negativity

If someone is always negative, critical, and unsupportive, they're exhibiting a toxic trait.

This kind of person can really bring down the mood in any situation. They might have a pessimistic outlook on life, or be hypercritical of others.

They might also make frequent complaints, often about things that are out of their control. And instead of offering constructive feedback, they'll just shoot down anyone's ideas, no matter how good they are.

These people can be hard to work with, and can badly affect team performance. Sometimes, they're just set in their ways and you can't change them, and all you can do is include them as best you can.

4) Toxic positivity

While constant negativity can certainly wear others down, the other end of the spectrum—toxic positivity—can be just as oppressive and harmful.

Research shows that frequently suppressing negative emotions decreases your mental health and emotional wellness. Workplaces are increasing fueled by positivity and positive thinking, which can be a good thing, there is a fine line that needs to be maintained so your team feels psychologically safe enough to be able to speak up when something is genuinely wrong.

If you hear managers or colleagues dismissing other team members' concerns or even saying something as seemingly innocuous as "stay positive and you'll feel better" when replying to a legitimate concern, it's time to step in.

Everyone deserves to be heard and shaming others for how they feel (even unintentionally) is the perfect recipe for high turnover rates.

5) Self-centeredness and arrogance

This is one of the most recognizable toxic traits. Arrogance and self-centredness are two sides of the same coin.

People who exhibit these traits think highly of themselves, to the point where they feel that they're better than everyone else. They might have an inflated sense of their own importance, and see themselves as above others both in ability and in worth.

They might be unable or unwilling to empathize with others, and only care about their own needs. In a work context, this can make them very difficult to manage - they might not listen to direction or feedback, and will only do things their way.

In a personal relationship, this trait can cause all kinds of problems. If your partner is always putting themselves first, they're not going to be very good at meeting your needs. And if they think they're better than you, it's only a matter of time before they start treating you badly.

Professional success often goes hand in hand with self-centredness, and people like this can use their unusually high self-confidence to climb the career ladder rapidly.

These are also classic signs of narcissism, a recognized personality disorder.

6) Lying and manipulation

We're all guilty of telling the occasional lie sometimes. Bending the truth is sometimes necessary to ease over social tensions.

But someone who does it constantly, to the detriment of those around them, can be called a compulsive (or even pathological liar). It can be a trait that exists on its own, or it can be a sign of deeper issues like narcissism or psychopathy.

Psychologists typically have a lot to say about how someone's childhood and upbringing has an impact on their tendency to lie as an adult. (And having toxic parents certainly has an impact too.)

If you notice that someone lies a lot, it usually takes a sensitive approach to confront them. They might even try to lie their way out of it when caught red-handed.

Just gently let them know that you're aware of the situation. There's no need to escalate unless absolutely necessary. Sometimes all it takes is some honest communication between the two of you to get yourselves on the same page.

7) Destructive criticism

Destructive criticism is when someone makes negative comments about somebody else with the intention of hurting them. It could be a personal attack, or it could be an undermining remark about their work.

It's often disguised as helpful feedback, but in reality, it's anything but. The person delivering the criticism doesn't care about the recipient - all they're interested in is putting them down and making themselves feel superior.

If you're on the receiving end of destructive criticism, your best bet is to remove yourself from that situation as quickly as possible. Distance yourself emotionally and mentally, and don't entertain their nonsense.

And if you're the one dishing out the destructive criticism? Well, maybe it's time for some self-reflection.

8) Gaslighting

Have you ever been in a situation where you start doubting your own memory or perception of events? That's gaslighting.

It's a form of psychological manipulation in which the person gaslighting tries to make you question your reality so that they can assert their own.

It's a subtle, long-term tactic that abusers often use to maintain control over the other person. It's especially effective on people that are less assertive.

While it can take a while to identify, direct confrontation can sometimes be the only way to deal with it. Seek help from others before you make any major moves.

9) Abusive or controlling behavior

Abusive or controlling behavior can take many different forms. It could be threats, physical violence, or emotional manipulation.

Either way, it's a sign that the person exhibiting this behavior is not in a good place emotionally. They're using their power to control and dominate the other person. There are good and bad types of power - and this is a bad one.

If you're being abused or controlled by someone, your best bet is to get help immediately. At work, tell someone in management what's going on as soon as possible. In your personal life, you could get advice from friends, family, law enforcement, charities and government services - remember, even if it doesn't seem too bad, make sure someone knows about it. Unfortunately, minor forms of abuse can escalate into something more serious over time.

10) Incivility

Incivility is a wide term that includes a range of behaviours you'd typically call 'rude'.

So this includes making insulting or demeaning comments, joking about someone at their expense, being distracting or inappropriate, or just being plain rude to someone.

Saying nasty things to someone (or about them while in earshot) certainly counts. Being impolite during a social interaction is counted here, too.

As you'll see from our article on workplace incivility, it can lead to worse things down the line - unwanted physical contact, aggression, threatening behavior, and more.

So treat incivility as an indicator for potential trouble in the future, and if you can, deal with it early on.

What about toxic masculinity and toxic femininity?

Toxic masculinity is a term that broke out on the world stage in mid-2016. Since then, it's been used to label certain bad behaviors that are done by men. These include forms of aggression, over-confidence, sexual harassment, bravado, and domination. It's also explained as the cultural expectations for men to act in those ways, which damage men and boys that don't want to act in those ways.

On the other hand, toxic femininity isn't written about as much, but it has been identified by some thinkers as a comparable phenomenon.

Toxic femininity might involve shaming men for not being 'manly' enough, or implying they're weak or unattractive to harm their confidence. Or it could involve encouraging another woman to exaggerate their traditionally 'feminine' traits to their detriment - like being passive and inoffensive rather than speaking out.

Really, these two terms aren't very scientific, and it's debatable whether they exist at all. The definitions are so loose it seems impossible to have a sensible conversation without throwing jabs at the opposite gender.

There are general differences between the sexes that you can observe through populations. But attributing certain behaviors to someone's gender is usually a bad idea, because it implies that trait is shared by all the other members of that gender - which is stereotypical and unfair.

So, instead of treating toxic traits as gender-based, let's just see them as they are - held by individuals.

How to deal with a toxic coworker or boss

Most of us have worked with a toxic boss or a coworker who's really difficult. And if you haven't, then chances are you'll encounter a toxic environment at some point in your career.

Especially if you're in a high-pressure industry, people can really rub up against each other. This can manifest in all sorts of poor interpersonal conduct.

Dealing with a toxic person at work can be draining and frustrating, but there are some things you can do to make the situation better. Here are some of the most reliable methods:

  • Firstly, try to understand why the person is behaving that way. There might be something going on in their personal life that's causing them stress, and that might be impacting their work. A bit of empathy could
  • Then, try to communicate openly and honestly with them. This won't always be possible or desirable, but it's worth a shot. Again, it could give you an insight into why they're acting that way, and might help you build a useful connection with them.
  • It's also important to set healthy boundaries with this person. If they're constantly interrupting you or crossing your boundaries, let them know calmly and assertively what behavior is acceptable and what isn't.
  • If that doesn't work, you can try to limit your interactions with them as much as possible. If they're your boss, that's not always possible, but if it's a colleague that you're not obliged to work with, you could try to move your seating arrangements, or ask to be deployed to a different department. The less you're exposed to their toxic ways, the better.
  • You might also want to find someone else at work who you can vent to or lean on for support. Just chatting about the problem with a sympathetic ear can be cathartic enough to give you the strength to deal with them. Just be aware of office politics; be discreet and make sure it's someone you trust.
  • It's easier said than done, but try not to take it personally. This person's bad behavior says more about them than you, and if you can navigate a difficult encounter with dignity and without getting upset, you'll come out of it in a better position.
  • Finally, if the situation is really bad, you might have to consider leaving the job altogether. Nothing is worth sacrificing your wellbeing and mental health for, so take their behavior as a sign from the universe that it's time to start looking for other options.

How to keep your own toxic traits at bay

If you're worried about your own toxic traits, don't worry - we all have them to some extent. The key is to be aware of them, and make sure they're not running the show.

The first step is acknowledging that you might have some of these tendencies. If you're in denial about your personality traits, then there's no way you can change. So take a good hard look at yourself, and try to be honest about where you need to improve. It might even be worth asking a friend or coworker about it. Someone who's

Once you've done that, start making an effort to act differently. If you find yourself being passive-aggressive, start communicating openly and honestly instead. If you tend to tear people down, start practicing constructive criticism instead. It might not be easy at first, but stick at it.

You may well find that new friends enter your life, new opportunities open up, and better things start happening around you.

Coaching for toxic traits

If you're looking for a more targeted approach to certain traits you have, consider one of our coaching programs. If you think some of your attributes stem from a lack of confidence (like constant negativity), Personal Power will help you increase it. You'll learn to stand up for yourself, prevent self-sabotage and negative self-talk, and figure out how to be competitive in a healthy and non-aggressive way.

Or, if you think your toxic traits stem from trouble building relationships or communicating (like passive aggression), you'd do well to go through Increase EQ. This coaching program will strengthen your emotional intelligence, increasing your ability to express yourself and read how others are feeling.

The programs only take two sessions each week, with 5-15 minute sessions. After 8 weeks, you'll have a new mental toolkit to face your life challenges with.

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