How to Survive Toxic Work Relationships by Thriving

Topic(s): job performance, personality, stress
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Destructive de-engergizing relationships: How thriving buffers their effect on performance
Authors: A. Gerbasi, C.L. Porath, A. Parker, G. Spreitzer, & R. Cross
Reviewed by: Kayla Weaver

How can we possibly survive toxic work relationships? After all, the workplace is replete with human interaction and relationships: employees actively communicate with coworkers and supervisors in both one-on-one and team settings to complete tasks and projects. However, not all workplace relationships are positive; some are downright de-energizing. A relationship is characterized as de-energizing when it is both negative and draining, and this type of relationship can have serious implications for employees.


When employees engage in de-energizing interactions they use up valuable cognitive and emotional resources that may in turn affect their work-related activity. Individuals may dread interacting with a de-energizing coworker, ruminate about the interaction, and carry over these negative reactions into other work tasks and interactions. In addition, employees may spend excessive amounts of time thinking about their de-energizing relationships, which may lessen their cognitive processing abilities, such as ability to recall or comprehend information.

Even more concerning is the recent finding that de-energizing work relationships are also related to lower job performance (Gerbasi, Porath, Parker, Spreitzer, & Cross, 2015). Employees in the information technology (IT) department of a global engineering firm were asked to report the number of energizing and de-energizing relationships they had within their department. The results of the study show that employees who report more de-energizing relationships had poorer work performance than employees with fewer de-energizing relationships. Thus, de-energizing relationships may negatively affect employees’ job performance.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that all de-energizing work relationships can be remedied, although perhaps some can, which means employees may have to find mechanisms to reduce the negative effects brought on by de-energizing relationships. 


Thriving is a relatively new psychological idea that is characterized as something that people do to “navigate and change their work contexts to promote their own development.” Individuals who are thriving maintain their own personal energy stores that may be used to help counteract the deleterious effects of draining relationships. To test this relationship, the researchers conducted a second study involving 535 senior associates and principals at a management consulting firm.

Consistent with the findings from their first study, the researchers found that employees who reported a higher number of de-energizing relationships were less likely to ‘meet or exceed expectations’ on their performance evaluations. In addition, when employees’ levels of thriving increased, so did the probability that they would ‘exceed expectations’ on their performance evaluations. These findings suggest that de-energizing relationships can harm performance while thriving may be related to improved performance.

However, the most interesting finding came from individuals with both high numbers of de-energizing relationships and high levels of thriving. Individuals who experienced multiple de-energizing relationships and reported high levels of thriving had a greater probability of meeting or exceeding expectations on their performance evaluations than individuals who had multiple de-energizing relationships but reported low levels of thriving. As a result, the study shows that thriving may help to buffer against de-energizing relationships so that performance does not suffer. Thriving individuals may be more resilient than non-thrivers, allowing them to endure repeated interactions with de-energizing coworkers. 


Given the negative consequences associated with de-energizing relationships, organizations should aim to improve workplace relationships among coworkers. But this task may prove to be challenging, and might require multiple interventions. For example, the authors suggest that organizations can implement 360-degree feedback processes to identify possible problems. In addition, employees who cannot avoid de-energizing relationships can try to limit these interactions, develop their level of thriving, and engage in energy management exercises throughout the workday. Finally, organizations can train and coach employees to engage in positive, collaborative behavior rather than de-energizing behavior. Coaching employees on conflict management, problem solving, and communication strategies may eliminate behavior that is perceived as de-energizing, and as a result, improve work relationships.

Gerbasi, A., Porath, C. L., Parker, A., Spreitzer, G., & Cross, R. (2015). Destructive de-energizing relationships: How thriving buffers their effect on performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(5), 1423-1433.