Imagine walking into an office where the air is thick with tension, where every conversation feels like a battlefield, and where trust is as scarce as a calm day in a storm. This is the reality of a toxic workplace. Defined by an undercurrent of negativity, unhealthy competition, and communication breakdowns, these environments are not just unpleasant - they're detrimental to our well-being and performance.
Run, baby, run.
That is my first reaction whenever anyone tells me of their toxic workplace. Reality isn’t always that simple.
Jean is the Head of Business Development for a niche pharma enterprise. While her team is busy chasing new accounts for the company, the manufacturing end of the business is in disarray. Senior executives are leaving the company, in significant numbers. Executive meetings are tense. Anyone who brings up the daunting challenges the company faces is labeled a troublemaker.
So why do you stay? I ask Jean.
My entire industry is toxic right now, she replies. It isn’t better elsewhere.
A bad system will beat a good person every time.”W. Edward Demings, American business thinker
In a 2023 survey from the American Psychological Association, conducted by The Harris Poll among 2515 employed adults nationwide, 19% of workers stated that their workplace is very or somewhat toxic. Moreover, those who reported a toxic workplace were more than three times as likely to have said they have experienced harm to their mental health at work (52% vs. 15%) than those who report a healthy workplace (APA, “Toxic workplaces leave employees sick, scared, and looking for an exit,” 7/13/20230)
If you find yourself unable to exit from your current toxic workplace, are there ways of actually thriving in the midst of negativity? While there are no easy answers, I’m afraid, there most definitely are strategies that will set you up for greater success. Here are my Top 4.
In a sea of negativity, our personal boundaries are our lifeboat. They are crucial for maintaining our integrity and well-being. Start by clearly defining for yourself what is, and what isn’t, acceptable to you in terms of interactions and demands. If a deadline isn’t realistic, say so. If you find another person’s tone of voice demeaning, say so. If you are unable or unwilling to work on weekends, say so.
Learn to say 'no' when necessary. Learn to say it calmly, with clarity and a smile on your face. In a toxic workplace, being the calm in the center of the storm may be your most powerful weapon. And if necessary, don't be afraid to seek help when boundaries have been crossed.
No one should navigate toxic waters alone. Chances are, others around you are experiencing the same frustrations, the same doubts, the same reactions to challenging circumstances that you are. Build a network of allies and mentors within the workplace. This network will provide you with the support and guidance needed to stay afloat.
Seek out those who share your values and can offer a listening ear or a word of advice when times get tough. If you’re someone who is used to going it alone, get in the habit of reaching out to your allies instead of waiting for them to reach out to you. When you speak with an ally, venting alone can help. Better yet, consider brainstorming simple actions you could take that may impact the situation that frustrates you. Chances are, both you and your ally will feel empowered after your conversation.
Amidst adversity lies opportunity. Yeah, yeah, yeah - you may say. That looks easy on the page. That’s one of those feel-good statements – but how do we actually put that into practice?
Start with the universal truth that every situation, every person is our teacher. That is separate from whether we like the person or the situation. A toxic workplace, while challenging, is usually chock full of teachers. Some of the most powerful learning occurs when we engage with folks we don’t ever wish to emulate. By knowing how NOT to show up in the world, we affirm and fortify our better qualities. In addition, all challenging personality force us to learn new approaches and fresh tactics for how to respond effectively. They help us to broaden our relational range, and they challenge us to strengthen our resilience and adaptability. These are qualities that will serve us well in any future situation.
The power of positivity cannot be overstated. Maintaining a positive mindset in a negative environment is actually an act of defiance. I challenge you to be a rebel. Be defiant. Our mindset is something no one else will ever be able to control. Practice mindfulness and positive affirmations. Remember that your attitude will not only change your day but can also powerfully influence those around you.
When I arrived in the United States as a 16-year-old teenager from Germany, one of the very first American-isms I heard was an old Southern saying: Kill them with kindness. I smile, right now, as I jot this saying down. I firmly believe this statement to be true, provided our kindness is genuine. Kindness does not mean being a pushover. Kindness goes hand-in-hand with having clear boundaries. But go ahead, kill ‘em. Even the most hard-boiled person sooner or later will not be able to resist.
The lines between a challenging work environment, a demanding one, and a toxic one are fine, indeed. Often, these dimensions overlap. You and I get to decide how much we’re willing to put up with, and when we are better served elsewhere.
This is another universal saying I believe to be true, however: If we don’t learn a lesson in this situation, it will present itself in the next one. So we might as well get to applying these tips, right? Toxic people, whether we like it or not, will continue to show up. They will demand that we put the tools mentioned in this article into action: Set clear boundaries; build our support network; focus on our personal growth; and yes, strengthen our positive mindsets.
At their finest, these strategies lift us from surviving in a toxic workplace to thriving. There and anywhere. How very cool is that!