Workplaces are funny little ecosystems. You spend all your time working and developing complex relationships with everyone from the security guard to your shared desk mate, but occasionally, these fragile work friendships can go south.
Maybe someone stole your favorite LaCroix flavor from the office fridge, or maybe you realized you’d rather listen to the fire alarm than your coworker complaining about your clueless manager one more time. No matter the reason, what was once a fruitful give-and-take is now making you crazy for eight hours a day, and it’s time to jump off the friendship cliff. Of course, you can’t stop showing up to work or have a big tearful blowout. You’re a diplomatic adult, dammit, and you’re going to handle this like a pro.
Here’s how to identify when a work relationship has become a drain on your mental and emotional resources—and how to get yourself out.
Tune Into Your Spidey Sense—and Check Your Own Productivity
When an office friendship has taken a negative turn, the changes can often be subtle, and get worse as time goes on. In the past, you could have bonded over Game of Thrones or a mutual hatred of the company softball league, but suddenly you realize that something has shifted. It may seem obvious, but the first step is paying attention to your own behavior. How do you feel at work? How do you act before or after interacting with your colleagues—energized and in a good mood, or grumpy and resentful? Your office BFF might have your best interests at heart, but if your conversations leave you feeling worse than when you started, that’s a major red flag.
Similarly, keep an eye on how your pal is affecting your own job performance. Does someone sidle up to your desk while you’re trying to hit a deadline and natter on about how summer never ends? Have you wasted hours “getting coffee”—usually a euphemism for “talking shit”—when you should be working? Is half your day spent fielding Gchats or Slacks about your incompetent superiors or colleagues? Do you feel like you’re hitting your own goals, or are you constantly playing catch up? There’s a reason people like to repeat the saying, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Because it’s true.
It’s safe to say the friendship has become a problem “if you’re complaining to your other friends about this person a lot, if you find they’re taking up a lot of airtime in your life, or if you have anxiety or you dread being around them because they complain so much or are gossipy or negative,” says Lesley Alderman, a psychotherapist in New York City.
Another good question to ask yourself is, “How much is this person contributing to my life in a positive way?” Once you’ve identified a problem, you’ve got several different options on how to proceed:
“Downgrade” the Relationship
Workplaces are so interconnected that you might feel like you can’t get away. Alderman has a solution, called the “downgrade,” and it helps tame Slack rants, bitch sessions, or happy hours that turn sour. The trick is to become a little busier. “You’re not answering their chat as promptly as you used to and you kind of drift away,” she says. “People start to get the message that you’re not as available.” Basically, it’s the workplace slow fade, which eliminates confrontation and helps you quietly escape webs of negativity.
Create (and Stick to) Boundaries
Rules can make your interactions much simpler. If your regular routine is to go to lunch together every day, tell them you have to work or need to clear your head on a solo walk. You might feel strange saying it, but after enjoying 45 minutes of blissful, complaint-free silence, the weirdness won’t matter. Or draw lines elsewhere. If Toxic Todd loves talking about coworkers or mutual friends or rehashing old grudges, steer the conversation to something more pleasurable. Like the Will & Grace reboot. Or politics.
Try Not to Internalize Their Feelings
If you soak up other people’s stress or negativity, it’s time to create a force field. Their issues are not your issues, says Alderman, so try not to internalize their actions or feel angry because of them. You know that guy down the hall who does his job, skips the social stuff, and goes home to his wife or kids or pet ferret? He may be considered anti-social, but he’s actually a pro, and you can bet he doesn’t bring home any drama.
Make a Direct Address
If your work friend still isn’t getting the hint, step up your offense and give them a reason. Be firm, but don’t leave any gray area, and as Alderman notes: “They probably won’t be offended if you just explain, ‘I feel really swamped at work and I have to be focused a lot more and chit chat a lot less.’ Then you don’t have to feel like you’re directly criticizing them.” Try writing a casual script to lessen the chances that you’ll get flustered and forget what you’d planned to say. If they don’t respect your new boundaries, it’s OK to keep casually drawing the line: “Sorry, I’m so busy right now,” can go a long way.