Many of us have had the misfortune of working in a toxic work environment, where the atmosphere in the workplace is filled will negativity and politics. It’s unpleasant and can lead to stress, anxiety, and gloom.
Many years ago, I found myself working in a small country house hotel and restaurant with a team of great front-of-house people who worked well together, but with a newly installed kitchen team that saw front-of-house employees as the enemy. They wanted to create conflict where there previously was none.
The kitchen team was led by a highly respected head chef who was a minor celebrity TV chef, and when he joined our hotel, he insisted on bringing in his own team. This meant the existing kitchen team was fired, almost without notice, and overnight we were dealing with a team of strangers.
At first managing this negative work culture was easy; we just stayed out of the kitchen as much as possible. But then one day, the general manager of the hotel left, and he was replaced by the head chef. From then on it felt like open warfare.
In less than a week, a workplace that was a pleasure to go to turned into a nightmare. I remember driving to work with a feeling of dread, bordering on fear. I wasn’t sleeping well, I smoked a lot more, and I had this constant, horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, even on days when I was not working.
I remember one evening after we had finished a shift, and all the customers and kitchen team had gone home, sitting down with a colleague to talk about the situation. I was fortunate as my colleague was a little older and wiser than I, and he had a forward-looking, philosophical attitude to life. He taught me that no matter the environment you were working in, if you focus on doing your best work every day, and avoided getting caught up in the politics, you would rise above it.
Looking back now, I am glad I experienced this culture. I learned a lot about how to deal with negativity in a toxic work environment, and the lessons I learned then still help me today.
Here are seven lessons I learned from experiencing two years of working in a highly toxic workplace environment.
1. Don’t Get Sucked in
We are faced with a choice in a toxic work environment. You can react to the negativity and become part of the problem, or you can rise above it. Rising above it involves not being provoked. Allow the negativity to pass over you.
Instead, focus on doing the best work you can. When you arrive at work, start your day. If you are in sales, focus on being the best sales person. If you are in administration, focus on making sure you do your work accurately and in a timely way. If you are a bars’ manager (as I was), make sure your bar is clean, stocked, and open for business when the first customer comes in.
Don’t give the negative influences an excuse to attack you.
2. Become a Beacon of Positivity
Often a toxic work environment is caused by attacks on your colleagues or a specific individual. When you see this happening, become a rock of support for the person or people experiencing these attacks. Be nice, attentive, and understanding. If you see your colleague make a mistake, quietly fix the mistake or gently point it out.
Never attack or be negative. Saying things like “Don’t let it get you down” never helps. Instead, be a good listener, offer support, and take your attacked colleague out for lunch and give them the space to talk things through.
In toxic work environments, having a non-judgmental colleague who offers support, an ear to listen, and kindness applies an antidote to the stress, upset, and fear.
3. Have a Plan
The best way to stay away from the negativity is to have a plan for the day. How will you start the day? What tasks will you accomplish by the end of the day?
Having a plan for the day takes your focus away from the toxicity around you and puts your focus on doing your work.
For me, I made sure the first task I did when I arrived at work was to clean my bar and make sure my fridges were stocked. I did not want to give an excuse to the unpleasant members of the team to attack me. My purpose every morning was to set an example, to be ready for when the diners came in. And when the diners did come in, I gave them my full, undivided attention.
This focus on my plan for the day kept me away from the politics. It gave me a positive purpose and enabled me to stay above what was going on around me.
4. Stay Away From the Toxic People
This is often easier said than done. Sometimes, the toxic people in your organization are your bosses and are unavoidable. However, in most workplaces today, there are quiet corners where you can get on with your work. Go there.
Working in an open-plan office can leave us at the mercy of disruptive colleagues and bosses. But if you can find yourself a quiet corner from where you can get your head down and do you work, you will, for the most part, stay away from the negative forces working around you.
When you “hang out” with the toxic people, they will drag you into their toxicity. Quietly and calmly explaining you have a lot of work to get on with and moving to a different place leaves you less vulnerable to their negative influence.
5. Talk to Your HR Department
This is one where you need to be careful. You do not want to make accusations or get involved in a blame game when you’re in a toxic work environment. Instead, you want to explain to your HR department that you find it difficult working with a particular person or team.
Where possible, make it out that this is your fault, not theirs—you do not want to make things worse for yourself. Explain that for you to do your work, you need to be moved somewhere else so you can concentrate and be more focused.
In a toxic environment, you will find your HR team are likely fully aware of the problem and will understand your request and do whatever they can to accommodate you.
The worst thing you can do is ignore the problem. If the situation is preventing you from doing your work, you need to have that conversation with HR, or if you do not have an HR department, your boss.
You can learn more about when to go to HR or your boss here.
6. Listen to Music
Buy yourself some headphone, not earphones. This is a trick I use on airplanes. Sometimes I want to be left alone to think, read, or just be left with my thoughts. Having my headphones on stops my fellow passengers from interrupting me with questions about what I do, where I’m from, and where I’m going.
In a toxic workplace, wearing headphones achieves the same result. When we see someone with a pair pf headphones on, we automatically leave them alone unless we urgently need to ask them something.
Whether you actually listen to music or not is less important. The wearing of headphones prevents interruptions and allows you to quietly get on with your work.
7. Work From Home
With the current global pandemic, the ability to work from home is more accessible than ever before. Being able to stay outside your toxic work environment will allow you to focus on your work and not on what is going on around you.
If you do have the option to work from home, then do so. One thing I learned is that the people causing the toxic environment do not last long in a company. They either move on by their accord or are fired or moved to another position where they can cause less harm.
I have intentionally not suggested that you leave your job, but if you do find yourself feeling stressed and fearful, then the best advice would be to find another company. Nobody should work in a toxic work environment, and if you have taken all the necessary steps to resolve the issue with your company and nothing changes, then you should take steps to leave.
I understand this can be very difficult, particularly with a difficult job environment, but the harm to your health and wellbeing is not worth it. If you need the income, then start looking for a new job. The good news is most companies do not have toxic work cultures, and with a little effort, you should be able to find a new job.
More on Dealing With a Negative Workplace
- 5 Signs You Work in a Toxic Environment (And What To Do)
- This Is How Successful People Deal With Toxic People
- How To Handle Personality Conflicts At Work
Featured photo credit: Siavash Ghanbari via unsplash.com
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