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Surviving a toxic work environment

Here's what you can and cannot control when faced with a toxic work environment.

5 min read


There are a lot of things that can contribute to a toxic work environment – poor leadership, bullies and gossip, a high stress culture or even excessive bureaucracy. If any of these situations sound familiar, do read on:




Lack of vision
Unrealistic expectations
Poor communication
Yelling, shaming
Lack of empathy
No feedback
Only negative feedback
Long hours
Excessive overtime
Constant rushing
Constant criticism

Toxic work impacts

Increased employee absenteeism or illness
Low morale
High turnover/loss of talented staff
Decreased teamwork/team spirit

Whatever the reasons your workplace is leaving you drained, there are steps you can take to keep yourself going, at least until you have made your game plan or found your next opportunity. Take the situation as a learning opportunity and set yourself up for success, despite the circumstances.

DO own your own integrity

Model good behavior. Even when all seems lost, there is value in demonstrating the behavior you would wish to see, even if you are not in a position of direct influence. Communicate clearly and frequently, share ideas, congratulate others on good ideas and meet your deadlines. You will feel better for owning your own actions, and may even see your good behavior reflected back from others.

Build and maintain your own reputation. What you do and say and how your actions are perceived will follow you in your career, so take care to safeguard your own reputation, regardless of the behaviors you see around you. Avoid situations of infighting, decline to participate in gossip and maintain a positive attitude whenever possible.

Do great work, no matter what. When the situation seems so impossible that there hardly seems a point, it may be tempting to slack off, give up or adopt the behaviors of the naysayers around you. Keep going and stay motivated! Do work you’d be proud to talk about at your next job interview, despite the challenges.

DON’T own others’ behavior

Don’t take negativity to heart or as a reflection on you. It can be hard not to get tangled up in the situation and take it personally. However, you are not your bad workplace and no one ever deserves to be mistreated. Remind yourself daily of your worth.

Don’t accept circumstances as a reason for bad workplace behaviors. There are never good reasons to treat others poorly — to yell, or to bully or to exclude. Whether the excuse has to do with factors at work or at home, no one has the right to behave badly and/or make it hard for others to do their job.

Don’t accept that a toxic work environment is normal/inevitable. Poisonous actions are not normal, even if they are common. There are plenty of ways to operate in even the most high-stress of environments while maintaining positivity and respect for others.

DO Make it a Learning Experience

Take note of leadership behaviors you do and don’t want to model. Can’t stand the lack of communication? Want more frequent, positive feedback? Love your cube mate’s sense of humor? Remember actions and the way they made you feel so you can behave accordingly when you lead in future.

Observe the impacts of a toxic environment on others. Notice how the situation affects other workers, and the quality of work. It’s very unlikely you’re the only one feeling the strain — make note of absenteeism, low morale, lack of teamwork. The more you see, the better you’ll be able to take the pulse of any work environment in the future, preferably before it reaches such a critical state.

Plan your own leadership future with more positive goals. Consider the positive type of work environment you’d like to foster and build, and imagine the steps you’d need to take to make that happen. Even as you work your way through the negative situation you’re in now, remember that all you’ve learned will be the foundation on which you build your own leadership goals.

What sort of toxic behaviors have you witnessed? How did you stay positive? How did you cope?

Joel Garfinkle is available for speaking and training. His most popular training program for corporations is “Executive Presence: Learn the 4 Ways to Convey Confidence as a Business Leader,” which has been delivered to Oracle, Genentech, The Ritz-Carlton and Gap. He is the author of 300 articles on leadership and nine books, including “Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level.” Garfinkle is acknowledged as one of the top 50 executive coaches in the U.S and Global Gurus listed him 14th on the list of top 30 global coaching experts. More than 10,000 people subscribe to his Fulfillment@Work newsletter. Subscribe and you’ll receive the free e-book “41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!”

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