Working in a toxic environment is grim; but there are strategies that you can adopt to maintain your resilience and get through it. Here are some ideas about what you can do if you find yourself in a toxic workplace.
Many of my coaching clients are looking for support to maintain their resilience and wellbeing in a toxic working environment.
Let's start by having a look at a few examples of the sort of environments that people experience.
First we have those who work for someone they might describe as a classic narcissistic bully - the boss who is so lacking in empathy for others and so determined to maximise their own reputation that they are willing to work their staff into the ground, at all costs, to shore up their own success.
Then we have work environments that are encouraged by the leadership to be competitive rather than mutually supportive. Systems around feedback, bonuses, reward & recognition and so on are all set up to favour some and shame others. People don't really work together with mutual support and respect. Backstabbing and point scoring is common, making for combative attitudes and competitiveness.
A third example is where the leadership has a set idea of the sort of behaviours that they want to promote. This is all very well and good. There is great benefit in the theory behind promoting positive behaviours to build positive cultures. Where this soon goes wrong is where the leadership believes that their behaviours are the right and only behaviours to promote. Soon enough staff have to become a clone of the leader(s) to survive and thrive.
In all of these environments the toxicity comes from your inability to be your authentic self. You lose a sense of autonomy. Your actions and behaviours are controlled.
You cannot speak freely to the narcissistic bully. You just have to do as you are told.
You cannot be yourself in a competitive environment. You have to be on constant alert for the possibility that others might take advantage of you.
You cannot be the person that you normally are if they conflict with the behaviours that the leadership promotes. You have to be who they are.
Coping strategies that clients have adopted to maintain resilience and wellbeing include:
#1 Build an authentic network
You aren't alone. In fact, most people will be feeling what you feel. Search out those people and create a mutually supportive network. Become the leader that your leaders aren't and offer support to others who share your challenges. Building this social network (within or outside your workplace, can be incredibly strengthening).
#2 Put a drawbridge in place
Work is work, home is home, social life is social life. Put a drawbridge in place around work so that the toxicity is left behind at the front door of the workplace. In this electronic age, that isn't always possible, so if you're obliged to stay tuned to your electronic device outside the physical workplace, create a virtual drawbridge around that. Check your device at certain times defined times. Check it a particular room and not anywhere so that you don't feel at work anywhere in your own environment. Define what a drawbridge might look like for you, and stick with it.
#3 Don't get sucked into the negativity
As I say, you're not alone. Others will be feeling the same way. Bear in mind there are different types of coping mechanism. Constant chatter about "how awful this place is" is not one of them. It might feel cathartic in the moment. It might allow people to let off steam. But talking about the awfulness, the fears, about what's going wrong and who is to blame is just going to give the awfulness more power in your mind. Try and avoid being pulled into this type of environment too often. Bear in mind also that sometimes people might only kick-off this type of conversation to find out who isn't coping. This very type of conversation might actually be part of the toxic work environment.
#4 Be authentic and take the consequences
I've seen brave clients take this option. This is where they realise that their ethical core is bigger than their desire for reward & recognition. They realise that they believe in the organisation they work for, even if the leadership is making a mess of it. They stick around. They remain authentic. And they take the consequences - they take the backstabbing, the negative chatter, the boss's criticisms, the lower reward & recognition. They remain strong and resolute knowing that they are doing the right thing. This is tremendously difficult and takes some extraordinary resilience. But it is do-able. Great strength can be found in keeping yourself grounded in an ethical core that you believe to be right.
#5 Fall in line and fake it till you make it
This is a survival technique. You can't fight the system. You can't be your authentic self. But you see have a connection with the organisation and you see the toxic environment as a temporary phenomenon. So you decide to stick with it, play by the rules of the nasty game (with some boundaries around that - so that you don't harm others for example). You give the narcissistic bully what he or she wants. You become their No. 1 fan to feed their need to be special. And you know that when you make it, you'll change the system from within. I've seen it done. This is tough too - but with the right boundaries, the right social support and a good amount of personal resilience, this can equally be achieved.
#6 Develop an exit strategy
Finally we come to the exit strategy. If the environment is so awful that it cannot be tolerated, maybe it's time to accept that it's time to go. Build time in your schedule to tidy up your CV. Get it into the marketplace and start to look for a new opportunity. When it comes to that part of the interview where you can ask questions; don't be afraid to ask "what's it like to work here?" and don't be afraid to press for a clear answer around culture, behaviours, mutual support, competitiveness, appraisal systems, how reward and recognition work, ask about staff surveys and wellbeing scores, retention rates and staff turnover. You shouldn't be afraid to ask these questions because if you're being interviewed by a positive workplace, they'll be happy to sing their own praises and they'll be pleased you're interested. If you're being interviewed by a toxic workplace, they won't offer you the job because you won't fit in. And that's fine!
I wish you well — Jonathan Phelan
About Jonathan Phelan
Jonathan is the author of “The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation” which tells the story of how Jonathan learned how to manage the challenge of a mental health condition following a child bereavement. The book helps the reader discover how to have mentally healthy conversations, which are more likely to result in support, rather than stigma. It also promotes the benefits of workplaces, universities and schools nurturing a culture in which it is normal for people to talk about their mental health and to offer mutual support for wellbeing and resilience.
Jonathan has held a senior leadership position in a large financial services organisation since 2004, with a long-term career in law, law enforcement and consumer protection. When he went through the trauma of a child bereavement he gained an insight into the obstacles people face when they have mental wellbeing challenges. More importantly he learned how to overcome those obstacles by improving the way we talk about our wellbeing and resilience.
Through his talks, workshops and book Jonathan shares his personal story. Using the drama of how mental health has been portrayed in film, and his own particular take on how our brains process information, Jonathan guides the listener to discover more effective ways to talk about mental wellbeing.
Jonathan also promotes the concept of mutual support for wellbeing; based on the belief that we should all aim to make it normal for people to talk about their mental wellbeing, just as we are already willing to talk about physical wellbeing.