Surviving A Toxic Work Environment

A toxic work environment isn’t unfixable, though; good managers can detox the workplace and turn things around. I have seen it happen and share my perspective on the most effective techniques. Whether you are a manager who oversees operations or someone who has to cope with work toxicity, read this. 

An organisation is more than the sum of its parts. Even with the most skilled team members, an excellent plan, and adequate funding, an organisation can still falter if company culture is not conducive to success. 

Kudos to the insightful person who first applied the word ‘toxic’ beyond its original biological context. In nature, a toxin is a substance that is harmless outside an organism but wreaks havoc – and possibly even causes death – if it enters the body. This description bears uncanny parallels to the signs of a toxic workplace. 

If you have had the displeasure of experiencing a toxic work environment, you can understand how it resembles a slow-motion car wreck. Here are three instances to learn from and improve your chances of surviving a toxic workplace. 

Weaponized Communication

The toxic behaviour of even a junior employee can trigger a chain of events that leads to the collapse of a company.  That is not hyperbole; I saw it play out in the precipitous decline of a law firm at which a close friend of mine worked almost exactly 20 years ago. 

The firm had been started by a relatively new barrister whose star had risen after he won several high profile cases in quick succession. One of the company’s junior associates was tasked with filtering reams of evidence into workable briefs for the two partners. However, they had no fixed SOPs, which led to a series of misunderstandings between the partners.  

The associate, in an attempt to solidify her own position, pitted the two busy lawyers against each other (here’s how to stay ahead of office politics). Within a year, their relationship had become too acrimonious to be tenable and the firm was dissolved. Both barristers moved out of the country to practice individually. 

In essence, the problem was a lack of communication. That pitfall was exploited by the associate who role was as a go-between for the two partners. With her as the sole conduit for reliable communications (it was the era before WhatsApp and similar platforms), they left themselves open to miscommunication and manipulation. Two successful barristers and a burgeoning business were thwarted by a toxic person in just her twenties. 

One of the most common traits of toxic employees is their ability to identify fledgling relationships and minor issues between others and use them as a crutch to their own ends. As managers, we have to actively look out for such vulnerabilities between our team members (and ourselves).  

After you identify them, call the parties involved together and spur engagement. That is the only defence against this aspect of toxicity. 

Targeted Exclusion

When I was younger, I was guilty of engaging in clique-ish behaviour. When I say ‘younger’, I mean high school. Cliques and the targeted exclusion they typify have no place in a professional environment. Unfortunately, some people have a hard time unlearning bad habits from their youth. 

That became painfully obvious at a company that I worked with some years ago. I was parachuted in to fill a managerial post and was tasked with overseeing a team of about 10 people. The company was in the process of expansion and making new hires regularly, so my team consisted of both new and old staff. 

Over the course of the first 3 months, I noticed that seemingly ideal candidates on paper and during interviews were underperforming by a wide margin after we onboarded them. On closer observation, it became obvious that a core group of older team members was gatekeeping access to information (how to deal with workplace bullying), plum projects, and even to me. 

I was infuriated. There I was trying my utmost to establish myself as a capable manager in a new company and this infantile behaviour was hobbling my efforts, as well as those of the business. I approached a mentor and she advised me to immediately bring the issue to the attention of senior management through official channels. 

That set the ball rolling. An investigation uncovered a ‘secret’ chat group and a chain of incriminating messages that alluded to reprehensible bullying tactics and the deliberate alienation of new employees. Two people who were revealed as the ring leaders were asked to resign while another three were given warnings. 

Quick, decisive action showed the entire company how seriously we viewed such egregious conduct. My advice is to steer clear of colleagues who gossip and play games. If management condones this toxicity through inaction, leave the company before you inevitably become a target of the ostracism. 

Mis-empowered Individuals

Toxicity is especially hard to combat when it is displayed by people in prominent roles or leadership positions at the company. Even the world’s largest corporations are not impervious to this debilitating form of toxicity. 

Just this year, evidence of chronic, disturbing behaviour – including sexual impropriety – rocked news organisation CNN. The resulting investigations and aftermath have eviscerated the leadership team, including President Jeff Zucker, and led to the sacking of the channel’s top-rated primetime anchor, Chris Cuomo. 

With its stranglehold on the narrative due to legacy brand recognition, CNN has emerged largely unscathed from these crises. Many journalists who would have otherwise pounced at the opportunity to do a bit of investigative journalism seem to have tiptoed around the shocking incidents. Your company probably does not have that level of protective clout. 

The very basic thing that CNN did right, albeit very belatedly, was to expel the toxic boss and employee. It was a move heavy with desperation. Once accurately described as ‘The Most Trusted Name in News’, the CNN of today is a shadow of its former self; it had to go the expulsion route in an attempt to salvage its credibility. 

As a manager, you may have to make the decision a lot earlier when problematic behaviour is brought to your attention. 

Sure, it will be difficult to let a senior team member go. However, prolonging their employment as senior staff can be viewed as tacit approval of their toxic conduct. This interpretation can have legal repercussions for both the company and managers whose inaction may be determined to have contributed to a harmful environment. 

Good managers would not let a situation such as the one at CNN fester in the first place. It may be uncomfortable to scrutinise your colleagues but awareness is the best defence against toxic behaviour. If you do see it, approach the offending party and nip the problem in the bud. 

Check out our career guidance page for more useful lifestyle and career tips!   

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