Handling a toxic work environment with purpose

I was having a drink with some ex-colleagues a few weeks back, and one of them commented how this comment that I made in my Mad Max post was a bit obvious:

When you work in an organisation with a toxic culture, you have 3 choices. You can a) Try to fit in with the culture and keep your head down, b) Try to make positive change to the dysfunctional culture; or c) Get the hell out of there and never look back.

It is fairly obvious isn’t it? But there are interesting (in my head) things to note about the types of people who succeed in toxic workplaces and those who are crushed by despair.

I’ve had the pleasure to work in toxic workplaces a few times in my career as a consultant. Generally as a consultant this happens because you are landed in companies that are relatively “challenged” – otherwise you wouldn’t be there.

Lifehacker describes a toxic work environment as any workplace where the work, the atmosphere, the people, or any combination of those things make you so dismayed it causes serious disruptions in the rest of your life.

So let’s go through the options…

Fitting in with a toxic work environment and keeping your head down

In my experience, this option is exercised by people who:

  • Don’t really care about their jobs and simply want to remain employed at any cost
  • Have lost their self-confidence and can’t see a way out
  • Think that work is not something to be enjoyed and therefore this is normal
  • Have told themselves that they will leave once they fix the place

Remaining in a toxic work environment is dangerous because it can reduce your self-esteem and motivation to the point where you do far less than your best work. The real issue if everyone remains in this situation is that it becomes what my former boss used to call an “echo chamber” of negativity where all you hear are the issues with the workplace – nobody is saying anything positive.

Keeping your head down in a toxic work environment is one way to survive – but there is no chance that anything will change with this approach. If your problems stem from a boss who isn’t very talented, then it’s unlikely that they are going anywhere soon. The question I would pose to those people who are simply surviving in their workplace is:

Can you handle dealing with this situation for the next X years? And more importantly, is it worth it?

Are you getting value from your employment such that it’s worthwhile being in an environment that will wear you down and stress you out?

Trying to make positive change to the toxic work environment

Culture change in organisations takes years. In a small dysfunctional team, it could take less time depending on the seriousness of the issue. Unfortunately, if you’re dealing with a toxic work environment even in your small team, the fact that dysfunctional behaviours can continue uncontested usually indicates a wider issue with company culture.

You can’t make change to a toxic work environment by yourself. I won’t go into detail about what you should do to change your culture, but HBR have a good article about sustainable culture change here.

The more I think about it, as an individual, there is very little you can do to change a toxic work environment, other than carry out positive behaviours, act as a role model and try to enlist others to do the same. You are fighting against a savage beast that has become this way over time.

Does this mean it’s time to give up? Trying to change the whole organisation? Yes. But not time to give up getting what you need out of the place.

Once again, it comes down to purpose – everyone I’ve seen that thrives in a dysfunctional workplace (that isn’t a maniac) is someone that knows why they’re there. They have a purpose for being in that environment. It might be to gain a certain set of skills, a certain amount of experience or to bolster their CV so that they can do something else in the future.

These people have a tendency to remain sane because they know what they’re getting from their current situation – they have a target and it helps to prevent them being emotionally drawn into the problems in the workplace.

Getting the hell out of a toxic work environment and never looking back

This is always a good option, but only if you are not continuously running away from bad work environments. Sure there are lots of them out there, but if you are always running into issues, maybe it’s your fault.

The unfortunate part about this option is that it is taken quite often by people who we would rather stay. The problem with these pesky people who have high self-esteem and oodles of self-worth is that they won’t put up with crap for too long before they’re out of there.

I once worked in a large project where a new project manager came and stayed for one week. One week! I can’t blame him for his choice and the running joke was “He must have been good, because he took one look and knew it was a bad place to be”. Apparently he was quite talented and would have been good for the project, which is a shame.

It’s because of this that toxic work environments keep on thriving. The good people leave, the ones with no confidence or no aspirations stay for the long term and become more downtrodden.

Overall, the point remains – understanding the purpose of why you are working where you’re working is my advice to those stuck in terrible work environments.

If you can’t really think of a purpose other than “I’m getting paid”, then the door is a good option – there are plenty of nicer workplaces that you could spend your time contributing to where you self-esteem won’t be eroded. Good luck!

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