Do You Know How To Deal With Your Toxic Workplace?

Published on 23 Apr 2019 . 1 min read

deal with toxic work culture deal with toxic work culture

As we women claim new spaces, there are also new issues that we face and have to deal with.

So what would my ideal workspace look like? I would love to work in a space where I am valued for my work, where my peers are supportive and are sensitive to each others’ needs and the company management is empathetic to its staff’s problems. While this may be the workspace of a few companies, many companies fall far short of such a setup.

What a Toxic Work Culture Looked Like for Me

I was in a toxic workspace where I cried every Sunday night because I didn’t want to deal with my co-workers and boss on a Monday.

I hated having to go to work and I believed that was normal because I had heard so much about bosses being horrible and work being difficult.

But as I have shifted to a new space I understand that that was a huge MYTH! And now while I may be exhausted I still love doing my job!

We often continue working in a job even when the culture is making us unhappy. It’s like that old analogy of frogs in hot water: If you put a frog into hot water, it would jump out. But if you put it into cold water that slowly starts to boil it would happily sit there until it is cooked. That was exactly what had happened and I would have stewed happily had I not changed my job owing to a twist in fate.

So What Exactly Is A Toxic Work Culture Then?

A toxic work culture is where you are not respected for your work, where there is no space to falter and make mistakes. In a toxic workspace, your peers are always trying to get ahead at your cost and you don’t feel a sense of camaraderie and friendship with them.

Toxic organizational culture must be analysed at several different levels.  Schein (2010) explains that the levels range from the very tangible overt manifestations that can be seen and felt to the deeply embedded, unconscious, basic assumptions that define the very essence of culture.

Let’s look at some more signs of a toxic workspace.

Signs Of A Toxic Work Culture

#1. Dismissive Of Employee Ideas:

A toxic work culture does not welcome employees to offer their ideas, input, creativity or strengths to the overall company strategy because they are merely worker bees. Managers dismiss the value of their people and employees are seen as cogs rather than worthy colleagues and business partners in producing excellence. This will suck the life, energy and motivation straight out of your employee.

#2. Dictatorial Manager:

The feeling of avoiding your manager at all times is not a good sign. It means you either fear or loathe your manager and facing him or her during the day probably means bad news because the exchange is never positive.

#3. Backstabbing, Criticizing, And Blaming:

This culture shows a lack of trust in the team and the fear that nobody can be trusted can be extremely detrimental to a person’s morale. In a space where you spend a large part of your day, you need to have a reliable support structure. While constructive criticism is always welcome constantly having to hear how badly you have done can instil a lack of trust in one’s own potential.    

#4. Gossiping And Spreading Rumours:

If the means of communication in the organisation is gossip, then it’s not a healthy practice and this collaborates with the above point that nobody can be trusted.

#5. Agreeing In Meetings, But Not Following Through Afterward:

This can be an extremely unhealthy practice where lack of honest communication can work to the detriment of the organisation. If work and responsibility are not carried forward by the concerned person, it can lead to a spiralling effect of not achieving the company’s long term goals.  

#6. Caring Only About Personal Agendas (Over Team And Company Goals):

At some point, we would all need to look beyond ourselves and work for something greater than ourselves. If everyone is aiming to achieve their personal goals then it would not help achieve the greater agenda of the organisation.  

#7. Poor Communication:

Do you feel like you’re left out of the loop regarding important information? A pervasive lack of communication characterizes most toxic workplaces. You may get little to no feedback about your performance, and when you do, it’s negative and harsh — not the constructive type

#8. You’re Told To Feel “Lucky You Have A Job”:

If you’ve ever heard this statement from your boss or HR, it’s a major red flag. This scare tactic is a means of threatening you into staying in a marginalized position and is symptomatic of an organization that thrives on bullying behaviour and control.

Signs You Should Watch Out For

Our gut can sometimes give us signs that something is not right. Even if we lack the ability to articulate our frustrations regarding the deficiencies in social dynamics, that doesn’t mean we aren’t sensing those deficiencies.

If a company’s attempt to create a community is less than genuine, it will create alienation and will fail to achieve the sought-after goals. Culture is shaped by values and beliefs that affect the way people work together organizationally. In today’s organizations, toxic culture can undermine the movement of an entire organization

At the end of the day, we all want to feel that our work matters and leave the office feeling fulfilled, not stressed and drained. It may not be possible to find the perfect organization. We may have to compromise in some respects, but hopefully, the only concessions we need to make are relatively insignificant.

The World Economic Forum published an article written by Bernard Marr which gave a list of things we need to watch out for as workers in an organisation.

#1. Immoral Or Illegal Activities

This is a huge red flag. If something the company or an individual is doing is wrong, you don’t have to be a part of it. If actions don’t sit well with your moral code — or worse, are patently illegal — get out as soon as possible. The person watching a crime happen can be just as culpable as the person committing it.

#2. Physical Danger

If you or others are put at risk due to unsafe working conditions, you should leave ASAP. No job is worth your life or long term health.

#3. Blatant Unfairness

As a kid, you probably heard, “Nobody ever said life was fair,” which is true, but you should expect some amount of fairness in the workplace. If employees are treated radically differently, co-workers steal your ideas or work and claim credit, or failures are blamed on others, this could be a sign of a very toxic work environment.

#4. Abusive Bosses Or Co-workers

Sexual harassment, racism, sexism, ageism, or any other kind of discrimination should not have to be tolerated. This might also include high aggression or bullying, intimidation, unreasonable expectations, or blatant lack of empathy.

#5. Dysfunctional Relationships

Sometimes the combination of personalities in a company can result in a toxic environment, creating gossip, cliquish behaviours, favouritism, grudges, back-biting, and unwarranted criticisms.

#6. Pervasive Poor Communication

If you get little or no feedback, only negative feedback, you get left out of the loop on important information, or bosses and coworkers are excessively cold and distant, that can also contribute to a toxic workplace.

#7. Chronic High Stress

Some jobs are innately more stressful than others, but if you are routinely exposed to high-stress situations with no opportunity for “down time” or a fear of bullying if you need to recover from stressful situations, that too can be toxic. If you are constantly expected to work more than 40 hours per week without extra compensation and have no opportunity for work/life balance, you might want to consider a move.

Ways in Which Toxic Work Culture Can Harm Us

#1. Beyond competitive, it’s cutthroat

Healthy competition is good and usually encourages you to perform at your best. But when the company encourages employees to sabotage each other in order to be successful, that’s toxic. When an employee feels it’s safe to try without concern that they will be punished if the results aren’t perfect, they will continue to learn and grow professionally.

Toxic companies prevent their employees from gaining new experiences when they don’t reward their efforts and when the only way to shine and get ahead is to step over others.

#2. Gossip and secrets are the basis for finding out information

Gossip can increase conflict and decrease morale. It results in strained relationships, breaks up teams, and affects productivity. And if someone gossips about others, you know you can easily be the target of malicious gossip yourself which can sabotage your future with the organization.

When you are the subject of gossip, it can destroy your confidence and take up all your time and energy to manage or ignore.

#3. The company pays lip service to diversity and inclusion

Many organizations will publicly declare their commitment to inclusion and diversity, but if you look under the covers, you don’t see much time, energy, and focus devoted to improving the culture. The leadership team is still all males and women are stuck in middle management without the opportunity to move up. Such a culture stifles our growth.

#4. Health effects

The most important and threatening effect of a toxic work culture is stress. We all know how stress can affect the best of us. It leads to hypertension, Diabetes, heart problems and just simply makes us really dysfunctional, be it in our workspace or at home. Stress can affect our relationships and takes a huge toll on our lives.

How To Cope With A Toxic Work Culture

#1. Remind Yourself Who You Truly Are:

Often times in a toxic workplace there is an abundance of tearing others down, passive-aggressive leadership, destructive gossip, conniving politics, and abundant negativity.  When you are surrounded by this daily it can really start to affect your own self-worth.  It is imperative that we learn to separate the negativity we are swimming in daily from the reality of who we truly are. 

Placing positive and uplifting quotes on the wall of your office or cubicle that will help keep your spirits lifted can be very helpful in these circumstances.  Also, taking time out each workday to take a short walk by yourself is a great way to detach and allow for positive self-talk to remind yourself of the qualities you possess that make you amazing.  Find ways to remind yourself of who you truly are.

#2. Remember, We Can Only Change Ourselves:

Another important coping step is to realize that we cannot control what other people say and do, we can only control our own actions and reactions.  The sooner we accept that the better for our own mental well-being. This realization allows us to let go of owning other people’s negative behaviour and it empowers us to focus on improving yourself. As they say, when life gives you lemons, make a tangy Shikanji!

#3. Make The Most Of A Bad Situation:

Most often our strongest personal growth comes from living through our most difficult situations. When you are working in a toxic environment, try to pay close attention to the lessons you can take away from the experience.  Perhaps you can learn the qualities in a leader that you never want to emulate. Perhaps you can learn the management mistakes that you would not want to repeat if the opportunity for management ever comes your way. If we have to slog it out we might as well maximise our learning, don’t you think?

#4. Avoid Negative Colleagues:

When someone really gets under your skin with incessant negativity, try not to be in his or her presence at work if it’s not necessary. This might mean taking your lunch at a different time or in a different place or asking for your desk to be moved. However, you can swing it, less face time with the office jerk will mean fewer stressful interactions for you to deal with.

#5. Talk With Your Boss:

Proactively suggest to your boss that the team holds a meeting to set up team norms and begin to address some of the challenging behaviours and conflicts on the team. This session should be a real and authentic interaction, in which team members can gain insight into one another’s perspectives, set clear standards of expected behaviour, and increase peer-to-peer accountability.

How Can We Fix A Toxic Work Culture

#1. Focus On Solutions And Not Complaints

Nothing is more toxic and contagious than employees complaining. Whether it be bad-mouthing each other, company leadership or dress code policies, complaints show a mentality of defeat rather than feeling empowered by the company culture.

What do you want to overhear instead? Solutions.

When workers believe they can change any problems that arise, they take action to alleviate issues instead of passively complaining. Positive growth is sure to occur when the focus turns to what is going well and what can be done better.

#2. Encourage Responsibility

Instead of letting laziness slide, be proactive and try these tips to promote responsibility in the workplace. If you’re taking steps to improve the culture but are still seeing negative behaviour in an employee, more serious action like a write-up or firing can be taken.

#3. Foster Positive Relationships Among Employees

The animosity between employees is a key ingredient of a toxic culture. Of course, it’s a given that your employees won’t necessarily be best friends. However, all employees should be expected to complete their job responsibilities and collaborate with staff and customers in a courteous manner.

To get the ball rolling, try a bunch of fun and unique team building activities. See how many hard feelings are left after a game of “organizational Jenga”.

#4. Define Your Culture – And Live By It

A critical component to any company’s success comes from outlining a purpose and vision. While most organizations have mission statements, many have taken a step further to define the values of the company’s culture.

#5. Coach Your Problem Employees

Probably every office has at least one person that the whole company points to as “the problem.” This doesn’t come from a mentality of blame, but rather from acknowledging that a person with a negative attitude and poor work ethic truly does affect daily operation and stunts company growth. But what can be done about such a person, short of firing them?

In his book Taking People With You, YUM! CEO David Novak shared about an employee who constantly wanted to cut costs at every opportunity – rather than adding value – and turned every meeting toward a negative direction. Novak didn’t want to let him go, so he had a frank chat with this employee – who, with constructive feedback, began to adjust his attitude to the betterment of the whole team. “I still believe in replacing people who are getting in the way of progress, but you need to be a coach first before you can make the right call,” Novak wrote in his book.

#6. Focus On Exceeding Expectations

Lastly, a great way to boost morale among the whole company is to implement a focus on exceeding expectations for everyone you come across during your day. Employee to employee, manager to employee, employee to customer – each interaction should have the emphasis of going the extra step. Not only is this good for business, but in doing so, it provides consistent positive exchanges for everyone involved. These shared experiences make everyone, customers and employees alike, feel like they are a part of something important and meaningful.

We are all going to have complicated relationships in our lifetime. While identification is one of the most important to begin working on a solution, giving it time and energy to improve is also extremely important. However, ladies, we need to stop accepting working in a space which undermines our abilities and stresses us out! We all deserve to work in good, happy and positive spaces!

“Having a great work culture is not an option – it is a necessity”

- Vani Kola (Founder, Kalaari Capital)

Tell us how you dealt with toxic work culture in the comments below and for more such discussions head to our Career and Exams community on SHEROES.

Vishakha Singh
Social worker, freelance writer, dreamer and full time health enthusiast. I believe that one has to choose her battles and I have chosen mine - women's rights.

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