Is your practice a toxic workplace?
In conducting research for our book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, my team and I surveyed hundreds of employees (and leaders) from a wide range of industries and sectors. We then individually interviewed dozens whose stories intrigued us. During those interviews, we discovered three core contributors to causing a toxic workplace environment that is unhealthy and even dangerous to the well-being of its employees.
Contributor #1: Dysfunctional employees
When we use the term “dysfunctional,” we are being descriptive, not putting a condescending label on people. “Dys” means “problem,” and dysfunctional people have serious difficulties functioning in daily life.
Dysfunctional employees tend to blame others and make excuses, rarely accepting responsibility for their actions. They withhold or distort information and communicate indirectly through others. They usually have a sense of entitlement, believing they should receive raises and promotions in spite of their inconsistent performance. And they are masters of creating conflict and tension within the workplace.
Contributor #2: Poor policies and procedures
A toxic workplace can feel like some combination of chaos, incompetence and anarchy. How anything ever gets done can seem to be a mystery.
Some organizations have incredibly poor communication. Communication between departments is sporadic and incomplete (or nonexistent.) A second component is when there are no written, standardized ways of doing things (or the written version is so old, it is no longer applicable). The third common expression is when people “go around” existing policies. The policies are there, but no one follows them.
Contributor #3: Toxic leaders
It is important to note a toxic leader doesn’t have to be at the top tier of the organization — they can occur at the department level, or as a front-line supervisor. We identified 10 common characteristics of toxic leaders. To summarize, these leaders may be very competent (in a technical sense) but their motives are distorted. Toxic leaders are totally focused on their interests and achievements and will use others to get what they want (by any means possible).
What can you do if you find yourself in one of these toxic situations? The key is to identify how unhealthy your work environment is and take action steps to limit its negative impact on your life. Here are some practical self-care steps for a person working in a truly toxic workplace:
First and foremost, employees must take care of themselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. (The organization won’t.) Remember, a toxic workplace is dangerous, so you have to proactively protect yourself from the various risks present:
- Do your job. Don’t get so distracted by the chaos around you that you don’t complete your basic work tasks.
- Keep track and write down what you’ve accomplished. Document meetings and phone conversations (by emails, even to yourself).
- When necessary, have a third party present when meeting with a toxic leader or colleague.
- Don’t sacrifice yourself and your well-being to try to save the organization.
Keep from becoming a helpless victim
Yes, you may work in a negative, unhealthy environment, but you are not a passive victim. There are actions you can take to make a difference in the interactions around you:
- Avoid engaging in negative conversations and behaviors. Walk away. Disengage.
- When possible, draw attention to positives. Your comments don’t have to be work-related — they can be about the weather or how the local sports team is doing.
- Take steps to develop a long-term exit strategy. Keep from becoming trapped in a desperate situation. Start to explore options. Get additional training.
Take care of yourself — both physically and emotionally
When individuals work in a toxic environment, they put themselves at risk for the following:
- Physical and medical problems (loss of sleep, weight gain, high blood pressure)
- Emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger)
- Relational difficulties (withdrawal, irritability, loss of friendships)
So, keep important health-maintaining activities going in your life, including exercise, sleep, friendships and hobbies that renew you.
Clear the “fog” from the dysfunction around you
Toxic environments frequently lead to getting “fogged” — not being able to think clearly. Make sure you surround yourself with supportive friends and family (and possibly, colleagues) who can give you objective feedback on your work circumstances. We need others we can use as a “sounding board” who can give honest, unbiased feedback on our situation. Ultimately, they may need to tell us when we need to consider looking for another job.
Finally, determine how much longer you are willing to work in this setting if matters don’t change. Identify some trigger points that indicate “enough is enough. It is not safe to stay here.” Then begin to explore other options. You don’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire!
PAUL WHITE, PhD, is a psychologist, speaker and leadership expert who “makes work relationships work.” He has been interviewed by the New York Times, BBC News and other international publications. He is the coauthor of the best-selling book “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace,” which has sold more than 550,000 copies (with Dr. Gary Chapman, author of “The 5 Love Languages”). For more information, go to appreciationatwork.com.