“Toxic workplaces” are a hot topic in business literature currently. And apparently, rightfully so – negative work environments seem to be growing, both in number and in their reach across multiple sectors. Employee surveys continue to document the downward spiral of job satisfaction and employee engagement across all types of industries and work environments.
But a “victim” mentality is starting to emerge in the world of work (which probably reflects this growing tendency in our culture at large). The tenor of the message increasingly sounds like:
“Woe is me! I work in a toxic workplace”, or
“You should feel sorry for me because I have a really terrible boss”.
My professional expertise is in helping workplace environments become more positive and healthy, so I am fully aware of the negative, damaging communication that occurs in many work settings. Sometimes I am appalled at the stories I hear from employees, supervisors and managers (the dysfunction impacts all levels of an organization) and the damaging statements and actions that are occurring.
But we are not passive victims that don’t have the capability to impact those with whom we work on a daily basis. As I remind those groups to whom I speak, being “dysfunctional” is not limited to everyone else – we often contribute to the sickness of the system in which we work. (Surprise! You are not perfect and you are not right all of the time!)
If you work in a toxic workplace – one which is poisonous, damaging, and even potentially dangerous to the mental and emotional health of those who work there – there are steps you can take to make your workplace less toxic. You are not just a helpless by-stander.
First, do a self-assessment. Ask yourself and consider, “What am I doing that really isn’t that helpful in creating a positive workplace?” This could include both actions (complaining about a co-worker to another colleague) and attitudes (harboring anger and grudges for past offenses). Consider the following terms, and see if any might apply to you:
- Grumbling Irritable Complaining
- Quick temper Unpredictable Territorial
- Impatient Quick to find fault Rarely compliment anyone
- Gossiping Uncooperative Withhold information
- Unreliable Non-communicative “It’s their problem” attitude
The second pro-active step you can take is to actively disengage from participating in negative interactions. This can mean – quit complaining, (remember the saying, “If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything at all”?). Also, when you are involved in a group discussion and it turns negative, excuse yourself. You don’t have to say anything, and don’t judge others. Just quietly excuse yourself and don’t contribute. Your leaving will send a message – and may lead to a follow-up discussion with one of the team members (“I noticed you left when we started griping about management’s lack of communication.” “Yea, I’ve decided to try to not engage in that type of discussion. I’ve found it really isn’t helpful.”)
Beginning to communicate positive messages to others is the third simple step we each can take. Often, the easiest way is to share your appreciation for your teammates, and the work they do. A simple “thanks” can be meaningful – especially if it’s specific (“Jen, thanks for getting your report to me on time. That will help me get the information together for the manager’s meeting without having to rush at the last minute.”) This can be effective in “softening up” even those colleagues who seem fairly hardened and angry, though it may take some time.
“That’s it?”, you may ask. Quit being so negative and try to be more positive?
Yes, that is the starting point. We know that toxic workplaces are comprised of many components, but one of the key aspects is the accumulated negative communication (and lack of positive messages) that feed off of each other and become like a poisonous gas which suffocates those working in it.
Also, we know that when individuals start taking responsibility for themselves and their actions, and they have a sense that they can make a difference – change can occur.
So even though you may work in a really toxic environment, don’t succumb to the belief that it is all just happening to you. Figure out what you can do to not add to the trash and help clean up the air a bit.
Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant and speaker who “makes work relationships work”. Dr. White is co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, and Sync or Swim (a fable about working together as a team.)