Toxic Workplaces Survival Strategies

We all know that toxic leaders are prevalent in most organizations, regardless of the size and recognize the negative impact they can have on the individuals that work for them, as well as on their peers and other teams they encounter. What if the entire workplace is toxic? Individual toxic leaders can be identified and counselled to improve or move on. What if you find yourself in a toxic work environment? As much as we try to avoid them during a job search, we may inevitably find ourselves in one. This is not the result of a few individuals but stems from an entire workplace culture.

Characteristics of a Toxic Work Environment

I recently had a conversation with a friend who left their position after several difficult years. As their work environment was described to me, I explained that they had been working in a toxic workplace culture.

Some of the challenges this person was experiencing include:

  • Poor communication due to a lack of transparency, unclear expectations and inadequate information sharing.
  • Unfair treatment due to favoritism or preferential treatment for peers and others in the organization.
  • Negative work culture due to gossiping, backstabbing and other forms of hostile behavior.

Other challenges that could indicate a toxic work environment also include:

  • Lack of support for employees through lack of training, lack of resources or leaving employees feeling isolated or overwhelmed.
  • High turnover, which usually indicates underlying issues within an organization, such as dissatisfaction with management, poor working conditions or lack of career opportunities.
  • Micromanagement or overbearing supervision due to a lack of trust in employees’ abilities, thus stifling creativity, reducing autonomy and lowering morale.

How You Can Survive a Toxic Workplace

The strategies you can invoke if you are working in a toxic workplace are different depending on where you are positioned on the workplace food chain – without formal leadership responsibilities and with formal leadership responsibilities.

– Surviving Without Formal Leadership Responsibilities –

If you find yourself working as a non-leader in a toxic work environment here are some strategies to deploy to protect yourself and make the job more palatable:

  • Document everything by keeping detailed records of any perceived toxic incidents which could be critical if you need to escalate the issue or seek legal advice. Your documentation should include dates, times and descriptions of what happened.
  • Rely on your support network of trusted colleagues, friends or family members. Just discussing your situation may help provide some emotional relief. Consider professional help if the stress becomes overwhelming.
  • Communicate your concerns if you can find a trusted ally within the organization. This can be a very risky action if they are not as trustworthy as you believe. You will need the previously mentioned documentation to detail how the toxic environment is affecting your productivity and well-being.
  • Explore other opportunities as every other step may fail if the toxic culture is widespread. Update your resume and start looking at other opportunities. Having a plan can provide some sense of control and hope. Networking with other industry or professionals in your discipline to open up new opportunities.

– Surviving With Formal Leadership Responsibilities –

If somehow you misread the situation and found yourself in a leadership position in a toxic culture, there are a few additional levers to pull to alleviate or manage the situation – assuming you’re not the source of the toxic culture.

  • Assess the situation by conducting an honest evaluation of the workplace environment. This can include anonymous surveys, one-on-one meetings, and open forums where employees can share their concerns and experiences without fear of retaliation. The bottom line is that the leader has to leverage their humility and empathy to build trust and know their people to understand the root causes of the toxicity.

Document the situation using a situational influences modeling tool. We use one as part of our organization and individual leadership programs. This model is also incorporated in the new leader training program we built for the military. In the model, every leadership situation can be summarized into primary and secondary situational influences.

The three primary situational influences that impact a leader’s effectiveness are the:

  • Leader – includes their personality, abilities, and expertise.
  • Followers – the Leader’s constituents and their values, norms, and status.
  • Environment – the atmosphere in which the Leader and Followers interact with which includes the culture, tasks, change, societal and government impact.

These influences must work in equilibrium for the Leader to lead effectively. If any of the influences fall out of equilibrium, the Leader’s leadership abilities could be negatively impacted. When any of the three influences exert a stronger or weaker influence, the Leader must adapt to bring the model back into equilibrium. This is illustrated by the influences being the same size in the model (below left).

The influences can get out of equilibrium, such as when the Leader is working with strong or powerful Followers such as doctors at a hospital, tenured professors at a university, a union workforce or professional athletes (above right).

The influences can also get out of equilibrium when the Leader is facing a challenging Environment. This can occur when an industry is facing dramatic changes like the shift in how consumers shop caused a challenging environment for brick-and-mortar retailers. A toxic workplace is another example of an out of equilibrium Environment (below left).

Another way the influences can get out of equilibrium is when the Leader overwhelms the Followers and the Environment (above right). This is not leadership in any form; it is simply intimidation or toxicity.

In addition to leading the primary leadership influences, which the leader must manage the secondary leadership influences, which include their supervisor and peers.

Whatever the situation, to be effective, the leader must adapt to return all the primary influences back to equilibrium. Adaptation strategies are covered in Chapter Nine of the book, “The Path to Elite Level Leadership.”

After the leader has comprehensively assessed the situation, other tools at their disposal include:

  • Transparent communication by acknowledging the issues and their commitment to addressing them. Transparency about the steps being taken to improve the environment builds trust.
  • Providing support and education through training programs on topics such as effective communication, conflict resolution, and stress management.
  • Leading by example is the most important step to take by modeling the behavior you want to see in your team through respect, empathy and integrity in all interactions. Being approachable and open to feedback shows a commitment to making positive change and inspires your team to follow suit.

I worked in a toxic culture several years ago. I got the position because the company I was previously working for was being purchased and with the pending dissolution of my department I called upon a colleague who recommended me for a position at one of their divisions. Given the situation, I didn’t do as much vetting as I should have. I was just a staff person without much responsibility. I actually worked for a couple of toxic leaders during my tenure there in two different positions. I now realize that was the type of person they hired and the entire workplace was very toxic.

I start documenting the situation, based on a colleague’s suggestion, but was “rescued” by an opportunity that arose through networking that led me to provide international consulting in areas with challenging business environments like the Middle East, Africa and China.

Some closing thoughts on working in a toxic workplace. You need a trusted mentor in either situation, preferably someone outside of the organization. It is critically important to establish those relationships before you need them. They need to know you well enough to make quality recommendations.

Keep your eyes and options open. If you see a mass exodus, especially in the leadership ranks, make sure you have options in place. You don’t want be the last person turning out the lights.

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