A toxic workplace has a negative impact on employees and their performance. It may be ruled by a boss or employees that use fear to motivate others to act. Toxic workplaces exist because of the behavior of people within the company. It can be an isolated case or a widespread fever within a company.
How does it start?
There are many articles about detecting a toxic workplace and the reasons to leave it but few articles seek to analyze its origins. There are a few facts that I want to share with you before you decide to leave your workplace.
- A toxic person will always create a toxic workplace
It is important to note that even with the best intention, if you are facing a toxic person you will not be able to change them. They need to be willing to change. It feels like some people will never come to this level of awareness and desire to improve themselves. Wherever they go, their toxicity leaks. The environment in which they evolve may reinforce or lessen their toxicity but it will be there.
A toxic person brought into a solid team may weaken the bounding by causing stress. You just need one bad apple to spoil the bunch. The stress caused by a toxic person creates tension where there were previously none. It is important to acknowledge such a situation as soon as possible. Sometimes, coaching will help toxic people to learn a new way of thinking or be aware of his/her toxic behavior.
- A non-toxic person may misbehave in a toxic environment
You do not need to be a toxic person to misbehave. In certain conditions, employees start to misbehave as a reaction to a toxic environment or person. One may have tried to deal with the situation or person professionally. The efforts made to improve the situation may have failed because the toxic person is not following the business rules (arriving on time, doing your work…) since they have their own. In front of some insane behavior, one may just lose his/her temper or start to draw stronger limits/a bigger boundary. A non-toxic person facing a toxic one for the first time may lose his/her orientation and wonder if he / she is responsible for the toxic person’s behavior or of the toxic workplace. It takes some time for them to recognize that the problem comes from others.
- Ego game
Toxic workplaces may also exist when the Ego is leading people. If you are familiar with psychology or have a spiritual practice, you may already know what the ego is. Let me explain it for those who are not used to this term. The Ego is an identity we constructed over time to navigate through life to avoid pain. It is a set of beliefs and behavior that we learned from our acquaintances and society. It tells us what is right or wrong based on a matrix. It is like a mask that covers your face. It is not “you”, it is a poker face that you use to get what you want minus the pain. The Ego will do anything to hide your “true self” and keep the beliefs and behavior valid over time. Your Ego is not “you”–You are. When you close your eyes and focus on your breath you are the one observing the breathing, the ego is the one commenting on what is happening. The observer, the “true self” is never judging.
Let us come back to the “toxic workplace” now. The notion of Ego and true self illuminates the situation with a new light. When two Egos with different matrixes meet and try to avoid getting hurt they engage in a defensive behavior that empowers the toxic workplace. The two Egos will take any action necessary to keep their beliefs and behavior alive. This explains why there is an escalation of toxicity over time.
- Where there are two people a toxic environment can be created
A toxic workplace only needs two people. They can both be toxic or only one of them is. A toxic person engages in behavior to protect his ego. For example, they may humiliate others to feel better, say they did the job when they did not, give unwanted advice, be passive aggressive…
Even non-toxic people can be led by their Ego but they learned non-toxic behavior to obtain what they wanted and avoid pain. It is then possible for a non-toxic person to buy into the toxic person’s game. Even if there are only two people involved in the toxic game it impacts other employees. The employees that are indirectly involved in the toxic events take parts because they will support one or the other person. The creation of clans reinforces the toxicity of the workplace.
- Incapacity to communicate
Most of the time, toxic environment exists because people fail to communicate. They feel unsafe and threatened to open up about their worries publicly. They may think that openly speaking about their needs and expectations put them at the mercy of potential manipulation from other toxic people, which may be a real threat.
If open communication in a toxic workplace was easy there would be less toxic workplace because people are openly discussing issues and quickly come up with solution. The existence of a silent workplace usually starts subtly. One may not allow him-/herself to mention an issue thinking he/she is exaggerating or that he/she does not know the dos and don’ts of the company or other culture. The person silence him-/herself more and more until speaking up is not possible anymore
A neutral person, looking from outside, would probably see the division and silence. A mediator could, for example, support the dialogue by creating a safe place for all implied employees.
- No clear responsibilities & expectations
Another contribution to a toxic workplace is denying of one’s responsibilities. We know for a fact that each role in a company is linked to specific responsibilities. The manager, for example, has to coordinate efforts and the employee has to do his job.
In an emerging toxic workplace, the expectations and responsibilities becomes blurred. It is not possible to tell whose responsibility it is to do A and B and the expectations related to the tasks are never clearly stated. Leaving the non-toxic person walking on eggshells. The responsibilities and expectations may also vary over time and depend on the person. Maria may be allowed to be late everyday when Martin is always scolded when coming 5 minutes late.
What should I do until I leave the toxic workplace?
You may have decided to leave the workplace or stay on. There are a few things I encourage you to do to face this situation and not be affected by it.
Non-toxic employees have different options when dealing with a toxic person/workplace:
- Disengage, don’t let it in
You basically take nothing personally, which means not letting what the toxic person does or say influence your thoughts or force you into action or retort. It may be hard at times. That’s when you go for the next tip.
- Discharge the emotional burden
Use different methods to discharge the negative impact of the toxic workplace or person. You can write on a journal to describe the situation that created stress. You can talk to a friend. Sometimes the support of a therapist may help you deal with the situation and understand what it is that is triggering you.
- Ask clarifying questions
If something is not clear ask open-ended questions to give the person a possibility to clarify his/her expectations.
- Use the advice from Marisa Peer’s video on 5 Tips to Help You Deal with Rejection.
Marisa Peer is a behavioral expert who encourages us to:
- say “thank you for sharing that” when someone attacks you.
- Allowing ourselves to not let others’ behavior affect us.
- say “could you repeat that slowly I did not hear you” when someone says something hurtful
- say “Are you trying to make me feel bad about myself?” when the person is still being aggressive. They may then explain what their intention was.
- “you can say what you want, I am not going to let that in” when the person expressed the desire to hurt you
- “Did you know that critical people have the most criticism reserved for themselves?”
- It is going to be all over, so relax
You took the decision to leave. It is just a question of time until you could talk about this experience in the past tense. Relax.
We spend most of our time at work. Do you know if your workplace is toxic? ‘Are there some red flags that you could identify if you needed to change workplace?