3 Signs of a Toxic Workplace — and How to Survive
Take a look around your office: are people negative? Frustrated? Anxious? Do they slack off, play the blame game, and constantly make it harder for you to do your job? What about you? How are you feeling? Depressed? Hurt? Are you eating well? Is your workplace affecting your relationships with friends and loved ones?
I may sound like an over-concerned mother, but I simply want to make sure you’re not stuck in a toxic workplace.
“A toxic workplace is a work environment that is poisonous and harmful and potentially damaging to the people that work there and even to the organization,” explains Dr. Paul White, a psychologist and the coauthor of “Rising Above a Toxic Workplace”, along with relationship expert Gary Chapman and writer Harold Myra.
“It’s just a bad place to work,” Dr. White sums up with a laugh. An understatement, but not inaccurate.
So, we know that toxic workplaces are bad — that’s a no-brainer — but what, exactly, makes such a horrid environment? Dr. White and his coauthors identified three core components that work together to create a toxic workplace:
1. A Sick System
When it comes to policies and procedures, toxic workplaces are sorely lacking. Some companies simply don’t have strong, clear policies and procedures in place, which forces people to “wing it,” Dr. White says. This creates inconsistencies in the ways that each person and each department operates.
If a toxic workplace does have policies and procedures in place, it’s likely that no one is following them. Perhaps people simply ignore them, or perhaps there are so many rules and regulations that employees couldn’t follow them if they wanted to.
“There’s just chaos,” Dr. White says.
According to Dr. White, poor communication is the hallmark of the sick system. “There’s either no communication between management and leadership and the rest of the organization, or it’s really late, or it’s incomplete, or it’s indirect, and so there’s just not the foundational structures to function well,” he explains.
2. A Toxic Leader
This isn’t an incompetent leader who simply doesn’t know what they’re doing. Rather, a toxic leader knows exactly what they’re up to.
“A toxic leader is a dangerous person. They are all about them, and they use people,” Dr. White says.
Toxic leaders often look good initially. They’re generally technically skilled and socially talented. They tend to be goal- and task-oriented. After a while, however, the toxic leader’s true colors begin to show. “They manipulate information and systems; they are condescending; they’re pretty narcissistic,” Dr. White says. “They’ll take credit for stuff they didn’t do, and they’ll pass off any blame. They’ll find somebody else to pin it on.”
Toxic leaders don’t have to be the company’s highest execs. In fact, a company with great high-level leadership can still suffer from toxic leaders. Toxic leaders can be department managers, team leaders, or frontline supervisors. When they’re not at the top, toxic leaders act as the wrenches that screw up the company’s operations — and make your life miserable.
3. Dysfunctional Colleagues
If your colleagues seem to have problems functioning in their daily lives, you likely have dysfunctional colleagues. Dysfunctional workers can’t seem to do their jobs: they blame others for their mistakes, they make excuses, and they don’t take responsibility.
“They’re really good at creating conflict between other people,” Dr. White says.
Often, dysfunctional colleagues can pull you in to their dysfunction. “You have to maybe rescue a situation because they’ve screwed up, and you get into this pattern where you’re rescuing them all the time,” Dr. White explains.
I’m in a Toxic Workplace. Now What?
Perhaps you just realized that your workplace meets all of the above criteria — or maybe you’ve known that all along. Whatever the case, you need to figure out your next move.
Dr. White admits it can be tough to choose between staying at a toxic workplace and choosing to leave, often because we need that job to pay our bills. Your creditors aren’t going to care about your dysfunctional colleagues.
Dr. White says the key principle in choosing to leave or stay is to make sure you don’t put yourself in a position of desperation. “By quitting, if you then don’t have any money to pay rent, that’s not good,” he says. “When we’re desperate, we really don’t make good decisions.”
Of course, if the situation is truly awful — if, for example, someone throws hot coffee at you, or threatens your life — it makes sense to get out ASAP. “There’s sometimes an instance where it’s like, ‘That’s baloney, I’m out of here,’” Dr. White says.
For everyone else, Dr. White suggests the development of a survival plan — a way to get along before you can safely jump ship.
Creating Your Survival Plan
According to Dr. White, everyone who is looking to stick it out in a toxic workplace for a little longer should take three important steps:
1. Take Care of Yourself
“If you don’t, nobody will,” Dr. White says. To take care of yourself, draw boundaries about what you’re willing to do and not do, and stick to them. For example, stick to only working certain hours, or make a plan to never compromise your sleep, or refuse to do anything that goes against your ethics.
Make sure that you’re getting everything you need outside of work, too: exercise, a good diet, support, and fulfilling relationships. Don’t let work interfere with any of these things.
2. Protect Yourself from Toxic Leaders
Be sure to document every meeting you have with toxic leaders. If need be, minimize contact with them or ask a third party to accompany you anytime you interact with a toxic leader.
“This people will take you out,” Dr. White says of toxic leaders. Remember that, and be sure to cover yourself.
3. Bring a Positive Influence to the Workplace
You can’t singlehandedly turn a toxic workplace into a wonderful environment, but you can try to lessen the danger by not contributing to the toxicity. “Try to not engage in the negativity. If there are people complaining, just excuse yourself,” Dr. White says. “You don’t even have to say anything. Just leave.”
“You can also have a positive impact by communicating appreciation,” Dr. White says. Granted, it can be hard to compliment dysfunctional colleagues who make your job a nightmare — but even these people will react well to positive communication. Find something that they do that helps you get your job done, and call attention to it.