6 Signs of a Toxic Professional Relationship

Every so often we must face the telltale signs that a business relationship in our lives is toxic. This is more than just a difference in personality or communication styles. Professional relationships can move from “Well, you’re not quite my cup of tea but we can find common ground in working toward the same goal.” to “We don’t see eye to eye on critical principles and communication has become manipulative and abusive.” quick enough to make our head spin – and leave us wondering how we missed the early signs. The truth is that many signs are hidden, ignored, or not seen as threatening at the time. It’s only in hindsight that we can see where they appeared and why we may have missed them.

So, what are the signs that things are more than just a personality difference or some stressful engagements? And how can you professional and gracefully end the abuse? I share the following perspective from personal experience.

Fortunately, such instances are far and few between, and make me appreciate rational and respectful people all the more. A recent client engagement, however, made me realize that toxic relationships can enter your life in the most unassuming ways. Though we want to think our professional skills are sufficient to rise above any conflict and make things work with virtually anyone, there will be relationships where this simply isn’t possible. We must cut ties, cut losses, and remove the (very!) heavy burden of carrying around toxic relationships in the workplace.

The most critical step is identifying red flags at their first mark. Based on my experience, here are the six most common indicators that a professional relationship is toxic and headed for disaster. If you spot these red flags in any of your own professional relationships right now – whether it’s a client, colleague, or supervisor – it’s time to take a critical look at what you’re willing to accept and where you may need to take a stand and walk away.

 1. They interrupt and don’t listen when you speak.

A toxic relationship is one where communication is one-sided. This is a way to assert control over someone else and to make them feel inferior. We all have “bad” communication moments where we may focus more on our own words and interrupt someone else in a moment of passionate thought, but when this becomes the standard for every interaction, it’s cause for concern. You may be facing a toxic relationship if you can’t get a word in edgewise in a conversation, the tone is hostile, and when you do speak you can tell that they did not listen to what you just shared.

 2. They question or contradict your ideas and skills.

If you are able to voice your opinions and share your ideas (which should be welcomed and celebrated in a healthy work environment!), yet are met with constant pushback and questioning, this can be more than just exhausting but also degrading. It means the person does not respect your ideas, skills, or knowledge. They don’t value your voice or feel that you can be trusted to do the right thing and achieve results. If this is the underlying sentiment, it is an extremely toxic relationship that most often does not get better over time. Rather, they actively want to see you fail so they can feel justified in their behavior. 

 3. Their requests change constantly and erratically. 

In a toxic relationship, control becomes the name of the game. For whatever reason, one person feels the desire to control another. This can be accomplished by disagreeing with everything the person does. It’s not right. They want something different. You didn’t do as they asked. You must not have listened or must lack the talent or knowledge to accomplish the task. These are lies, of course. If you notice that even when you fully accommodate the other person’s requests (even against your own better judgement) that they’re still dissatisfied, this is a telltale sign that the issue is not with the task but with the person or people involved with the task.

 4. They require an inequitable amount of your time and brain space.

You’ll see the underlying theme here is control. In a toxic professional relationship, a person will feel that they own your time and are granted full access to it. They may send you an inordinate amount of emails in a day with various requests. They may constantly request meetings or phone calls to go over items that really don’t require that degree of engagement. These are control mechanisms and signs that the relationship is one-sided and toxic. You will have situations in your career where you will need to work closely with people and there may be heavy engagement throughout the day, the key difference here is that the requests come with entitlement and show no gratitude or understanding for your time or the fact there may be other things deserving of your attention aside from them.

 5. They are quick to turn to personal attacks.

Have you ever had a conversation that went from a minor pushback on an idea to all of a sudden the other person is throwing out personal attacks? That’s pretty toxic. In a recent engagement, I stated to a client that I was not in full agreement with a particular approach to a strategy (which is the consulting I’m paid to provide). Rather than a rational, “Okay, let’s see if there’s some middle ground.” or “Tell me more about your approach and why you think it’s right.” The conversation escalated to attacks on my work ethic and experience. Yikes! That conversation ended my professional relationship with that person and for good reason. It was not the first red flag. If anyone in a work environment quickly resorts to personal attacks, that person is out of line and usually has an unfounded argument they cannot support with rational points.

 6. Your foundational values are not aligned. 

Finally and most importantly, a valuable lesson I have learned from every toxic relationship is that the root of the problem is usually due to a misalignment of foundational values. Politics, religion, and upbringing never have to make their way into any conversation, but they do shape our underlying beliefs and how we treat others. Look for early warning signs and go with your gut. If this person speaks badly about other professional relationships or has a clear track record of various colleagues, employees, and vendors cycling out of their life, the common denominator is clear. You are not likely to be the exception who will change all that. Give someone the benefit of the doubt to whatever degree you desire, but take special care to protect your peace, time, and work-life balance. Those are far more important than winning someone over, being “right,” or taking on every new project that comes your way!

Can you relate? Foremost, I’m sorry if you can – but it’s also an important learning experience! Share your advice as to how you identified and survived toxic professional relationships. In doing so, you just might help someone else avoid the stress and hurt that comes from such engagements. 

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