Working in a negative or toxic work culture can really drag you down, and if that’s the case for you, then we have identified some advice to help you manage the current situation while you work out a longer term solution.
Toxic Work Culture
If you can get through your entire working life without encountering at least one poisonous snake within the workforce, or without having to endure some form of toxic working environment, you’ll be doing better than most. When you apply for a job, these are the things that are not immediately apparent, and it’s often too late by the time you discover the negative undercurrents which quite possibly led to the vacancy arising in the first place.
Our lives – and indeed, to a large extent, our wellbeing – are shaped immensely by the relationships that form around the different strands of our existence, be that work relationships, family life, love life and friendships. Even in our personal lives, it can be a struggle sometimes to reach the conclusion that a relationship or friendship isn’t working for you, and act upon it. Most of us inherently want to like and to be liked, and the decision to end a relationship, walk away, or pull the shutters down on a friendship doesn’t come easily, nor without awkward repercussions.
Even tougher, then, when that decision is intertwined with your career and financial security. However, according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development), in the UK the average working adult spends 1676 hours a year in the workplace (equivalent to 32 hours a week). That’s roughly a third of your waking hours, and a sizeable chunk of your time, especially if that environment is soured by a toxic colleague with a personal agenda of their own. If one or more of the characters listed below sound a bit more familiar than you’d like, then stick with us and read on, because we have your back.
- The ‘mood hoover’ – a real ray of sunshine, this co-worker positively thrives on misery (their own and other people’s) and is literally never happy. His or her mood pervades through the entire office culture, sucking the enthusiasm and joie de vivre out of even the most lively of team members. In fact, the office culture is entirely defined by whether this person is present or absent – and sadly their misery fuelled inertia means that they are depressingly ever-present!
- Negative Nora – if there are ten compelling reasons to implement a new strategy, make a change or do something positive, Negative Nora will fixate on the one trivial reason not to do so. Whether you need their approval or input, this is the person who succeeds in making the simplest of tasks feel like pushing water uphill. Where you see opportunities and solutions, Neggy Nora resolutely refuses to see beyond barriers, instead trotting out phrases such as ‘We’ve tried that before’ and ‘That’ll never work’.
- The green-eyed monster – jealous of, or threatened by, the success of others, this individual does not take kindly to being overtaken in the career stakes. It matters not how deserving the other party was of their success, nor how fair and transparent the process of selection, this individual is consumed with unhealthy resentment which they are unable or unwilling to disguise.
- Poison Ivy – sharing, in this case, is most definitely not caring. Some individuals like to build a pack around them, and Poison Ivy is no exception. Whether it’s rumour spreading, gossip or just plain old bitching, this type of co-worker will make a mission out of turning colleagues against each other and has the capacity to really isolate and wear down whoever is on the receiving end of their acid remarks and devious behaviour.
- The snake in the grass – annual leave should be restful and relaxing, but when you work in a snake infested environment, the chances are you’ll spend more of your time off stressing about who will have stabbed you in the back or sabotaged your work while you are away. Sly and deceitful, this type of colleague will declare utmost loyalty to your face yet won’t hesitate to turn against you as soon as it serves their own needs better.
- The glory hunter – otherwise known as a freeloader, the glory hunter contributes as little as possible and shows minimal initiative, but swoops in at the last moment just in time to take undue credit for everyone else’s effort and achievements.
Tackling The Problem
Being in the firing line of the negative energy radiating from any one of these charming characters (or even just getting caught in the crossfire) can really grind you down, and before you know it, you’re standing on the station platform every morning with dread in the pit of your stomach. Whatever you ultimately decide to do about it (stay, and tackle the problem from within, or leave for pastures new), the solution won’t come overnight. That’s why we hope that the following coping strategies and tips will help you make the present-day situation more palatable while you work out your longer-term solution.
Try to engage with the person/problem.
This is an obvious, although admittedly awkward, first step. Addressing the individual in question can feel a little confrontational and exposing, but if you approach it in the right way it need not be. Pick an informal but relatively private opportunity and adopt a friendly and supportive tone. However much you may feel that the problem is one sided, try to take a ‘joint solution’ approach to the discussion focussing on how ‘we’ can work more effectively together, and what, if anything, you can both do to support one another. At best, it is possible that your co-worker’s behaviour is unintentional and that they had no idea of the impact on you. At worst, their behaviour won’t change, but in any event, should you decide to escalate the issue to management or HR, you will be able to say that you have done all you can to address it without intervention.
Limit the personal and emotional impact.
You’re still reading, so we’ll take that to mean that a lot of this resonates with you, and that what you are experiencing at work is weighing heavily on you personally, possibly even impacting your mood and well-being at home. If you can’t change the behaviour of the person getting you down, then it’s time to focus on what you can change, and that’s your mindset towards the situation. It can be hard to take that much needed step back and rationally assess the situation, so here are a few questions to set you on the right track towards fortifying your mental body armour and realigning your perspective.
- Is your co-worker behaving in a similar way towards others in the team? If so, it’s not personal, and although there is no satisfaction in knowing others share your pain, there is some comfort in solidarity.
- If you sense that they are targeting you specifically, look into their track record. The chances are you are not the first and nor will you be the last on their hit list, which also means it’s not personal. Again, that doesn’t change the status quo, but knowing that this is a repeat behaviour pattern can certainly shake off that sense of being a ‘victim’.
- Presumably this doesn’t happen everywhere you work, or with everyone you work with. Remember that this is just one co-worker in your entire career history. The only thing you are the common denominator of is working happily and harmoniously with others around you, making this individual the exception to that tried and tested rule.
- Try to maintain some perspective on whose opinion really counts. If you are continuing to get positive feedback from line managers and key stakeholders, then just keep doing what you are doing. Stay on task, remain professional and rise above it.
The chances are that the people who know you best and who have your best interests at heart have noticed something is a little off, and they may even have reached out and asked you. Talking things out constructively and in confidence is a powerful thing – it can share the burden and possibly even give rise to solutions or different ways of coping. Stewing on your troubles, or worse still, taking your mood out on those closest to you, won’t achieve anything. Don’t make the mistake of assuming others won’t understand – even if they don’t know the intricacies of the situation, they can help you to see things from a fresh perspective, and at the very least they will be more understanding when you’ve had a particularly tough day.
Set your own boundaries
It simply isn’t worth fighting every battle, but that doesn’t mean you have to roll over and accept everything that comes your way. Work out what behaviours, attitudes and actions you are absolutely not prepared to accept and, when the occasion demands it, put your foot down. Many of these toxic characters in the workplace get away with their behaviour simply because nobody stands up to them and tells them otherwise.
In the event that you need to escalate the issue to management or HR, then it pays to have a documented record of any key occurrences or exchanges that provide clear examples of the problem at hand. This needn’t turn into a witch hunt. Make sure that if you document things, you keep the records secure (use password protection) and do not share them with anyone other than the relevant line management or HR for the purposes of resolving the issue via your company’s grievance procedure. Keep it factual, relevant and rational.
Be the consummate professional
Little more needs to be said on this final point, but when someone pushes your buttons one too many times, you’ll need to exercise caution in how you respond. Maintain the moral and professional high ground, and if you need to let off steam, step away from the situation (if you can) and find the right outlet for your frustration. That may mean taking a trusted friend or colleague into your confidence, engaging in some form of displacement activity (such as exercise, or a very focused work project), or stepping away briefly for a short break.
If a toxic work environment is bogging you down, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Ultimately, your happiness and fulfillment are at stake – not just professionally, but personally too – and you deserve more than that. The above advice provides, at the very least, some strategies for coping with the day to day stress that comes with managing a tricky colleague or a sour office dynamic. It may even prove the turning point that leads to longer term improvement. But if it doesn’t, then you’ll need to plan for a better future, and we are here to help you get things back on the right track.
Plan A Better Future – FindMyWhy
At FindMyWhy, we recognise that the biggest problem for many who feel stuck is not the actual work on their desks but the politics and relationships that come as part of the workplace package. Over time this can really weigh heavy, and it is easy to feel stuck. Stuck because you like the work, just not the culture. Stuck because the pay and benefits are too good to walk away from. Stuck because you too emotionally drained to put your energy towards a big change. Or, quite possibly stuck because all this negativity has eroded your self-confidence.
FindMyWhy is a personal purpose project that will help you to reconnect with yourself and make a positive change. It’s completely free – no hidden costs or caveats. It identifies your key drivers and motivators, helping you to assess what’s really important to you as an individual and guiding you on the path to professional fulfilment. FindMyWhy will help you to unwrap your unique inner strengths so that you can plan your career around your natural aptitudes and interests, as well as being able to confidently articulate what these are to prospective employers. Not only that, it will provide you will crucial insight into your preferred working styles and how you interact with others at work, so that you can start to identify the best workplace culture and team dynamic to suit your profile. One in which you can flourish rather than wallow.
Created by our expert team of psychologists, FindMyWhy starts with a free of charge online test that drills down to the core ‘you’ and produces bespoke reports to help you to channel your focus and purpose accordingly. FindMyWhy will provide you with meaningful insight into who you are, producing informed and relevant reporting and extensive guidance that is tailored to you in a way that’s informative, accessible and completely free. It will give you the confidence to figure out your next step and make it happen.
Take control of your circumstances and change your reality with FindMyWhy. You won’t look back.