how to navigate and manage a toxic workplace culture

Updated: Mar 8

Is everyone in a bad relationship with their workplaces these days? The short answer to that question is probably not. Some employer and employee relationships are on solid footing. They are working through issues and finding ways to balance the business goals and the human needs of its people. At the same time, we have moved into a new era where the workforce is advocating for itself in new and different ways. Folx are evaluating their work cultures and making decisions if it is a conducive place for them to grow and thrive.


I decided to focus on those work environments where less than favorable dynamics and relationships exist. I have done so as many of my coaching clients are bringing work situations to the table that reflect toxic environments and I wanted to dig in.

I will be exploring this topic in a series, breaking it into three sections. This first article will cover what is a toxic work culture and the ingredients that comprise one. The second article will focus on strategies on how to navigate and manage a toxic culture and the third article will be centered around identifying when you know you need to leave and how to do so on your terms.


As mentioned above, I decided to focus on this topic as I found in my coaching practice, that my clients, colleagues, and friends were using the term “toxic work culture” often to describe their work environment. It almost seems as though the number of people that are feeling drained and depleted at work is on the rise. An article by Forbes says that there “has been a general assumption that low compensation is driving The Great Resignation. But according to a recent report from MIT Sloan Management Review, employees are quitting their jobs in droves because of toxic workplace culture, not low pay. In fact, the report says toxic workplace culture is 10.4 times more likely to contribute to an employee quitting.”


As a Career Development Coach, I receive requests daily to assist in navigating dynamics at work, especially the unhealthy ones. Dealing with negative workplace issues is certainly not new. What is different now? Has the pandemic been a tipping point that has lent us to discuss this more openly? Do leaders and organizations need to take more responsibility for the work experience of their employees? Have the number of people who are resigning in this Great Resignation shout a commanding statement to organizations about how they need to make changes to address the human needs of their workforce? Are these relationships that are ending between employee and employer requiring us to look at the current workplace dynamics that exist and figure out how to be and do better? I think so.


The prevalence of toxic workplace culture is widespread. It can come in all shapes, exist in all industries, live in for-profit and nonprofit organizations, and impact employees from all walks of life. So, where do we begin to unpack this plight and how do you as an individual make decisions about your work life that fits and serves you to be and do your best? How do you figure out if you are in a toxic culture and what can you do about it? Although defining a toxic workplace culture may be a bit tricky it may help to start with identifying the ingredients that exist in such a culture and the impact it has on us as whole human beings.


In a BBC article by Katie Bishop, Katie notes “A toxic workplace is a context in which abusive behaviors are almost normalized,” says Thomas Roulet, a professor of organizational theory at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. “It’s both about how people behave poorly, and how others are affected. A toxic workplace is often also riddled with political behaviors – individuals trying to gain influence without thinking about the consequences for their collaborators.”

Others have stated that it is not just having a bad experience or a challenging week, it is the day-to-day, sometimes the moment-to-moment experiences that occur. These situations can be jolting to the mind and body. They may raise anxiety levels and create a myriad of negative feelings that over time play havoc on our psyche. It can strip away our confidence and self-esteem. It can make us second guess ourselves and our decisions. It can flow into how we approach our work creating hesitancy and doubt. It can diminish our productivity, efficiency, and accuracy. It can bleed into our interpersonal relationships both in and outside of work and its tentacles can touch every aspect of our lives.


A coaching client, Mary, who has been working within an organization for about a year as a manager shared with me that they and their colleagues are on edge when their boss is around. They report having personal experiences and have witnessed that when mistakes occur their boss uses a shaming approach and humiliates them publicly. One of their direct reports shared they are in fear of “doing something wrong.” They do not want to be on the receiving end of their boss’s wrath if they fail. This has become a major stressor for Mary as the fear of “messing up” has started to affect their usual good judgment and decision-making. Their high level of confidence has been eroding and they are utilizing coaching to troubleshoot strategies on how to manage the impact.


So, how do you know if you are working within a dysfunctional culture? As stated by Thomas Roulet, toxic cultures normalize abusive behaviors. The people around you may be acting as if the scenarios that you are questioning seem perfectly okay; that these elements are the norms of that community, and the goal is to have you conform to those norms. You may question and wonder if it is you? Are you the only one that thinks things are a bit out of whack? However, when you keep hitting up against situations that scream “red flags” and there are tell-tale signs of things not feeling right you may start to acknowledge the reality of the type of culture that you are within.


The variables in a toxic culture can be subjective based on each of our own personal tolerances and thresholds. Here are some clues that I have heard from coaching clients and have experienced firsthand. Look to see if you can identify with any or several of these listed below.

· Dreading going into and being at work.

· Difficulty managing their managers. Navigating less than stellar bosses, micromanagers, and often narcissistic personalities.

· Living in a “Yes” culture. Fearful of speaking up. Witnessing and/or experiencing repercussions when voicing any variance from the status quo.

· No room for mistakes and fear of making a mistake.

· Lack of a psychologically safe environment to share openly, candidly, and honestly. Fear of being on the “outs” with the “in” group.

· Lack of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.

· Colleagues that are gossipy, cliques, and exclude others. A culture of talking behind others' backs and a lack of being candid and open with others.

· Colleagues that lack motivation and commitment.

· Signs of favoritism.

· Little to no room to grow. Unclear career paths and lack of opportunity to develop and enhance professional skill sets. No sense or indicator of any forward professional movement.

· Feelings of burnout with no sight of letting up.

· Major challenges creating a healthy work-life balance and integration. Lack of respect for your personal time and no boundaries when reaching out to communicate, i.e.., after hours, late nights, weekends, etc. for issues that do not require immediate or urgent attention.

· Poor, inconsistent, and/or conflicting communication.

· Experiences of being singled out, scapegoated, and targeted.

· Visceral gut feelings that something is way off and does not feel good. Feeling depleted and drained rather than energized and rejuvenated.


This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. You may experience one or several of these elements and others that are not identified. And as you can imagine, these elements can and will take a toll; mentally, physically, spiritually, financially, and touch every area of our lives. When your workday ends the residual effects go home with you. It languishes into your home life impacting your loved ones. Many of the important people in your world are negatively affected by the ramifications of working within an unhealthy culture.


Toxic work situations can play out by increasing levels of anxiety that you feel while in and outside of work. It can consume your thoughts by taking up valuable real estate in your head. It can impact your sleep, motivation, energy, and productivity. Your ability to develop and grow as a person and professional can be compromised. Your level of confidence may plunge, and self-doubt may seep in. The negative cumulative effects are plentiful. So how do you deal with, put a stop to and preserve yourself within such a climate?


You can start with using the I AM process; identity, acknowledge, and move to gather and troubleshoot options.


The first step, like most, is to identify what you are feeling and experiencing. Write down the situations, events, and emotions that are elicited and felt by you. It may help to keep a journal and jot down notes that will help you reflect and review for a later time. It is a good practice to keep a record of those situations as you may need to refer to them later. Give your experiences a name.


Second, acknowledge that something is up. Take the situation for what it is. Trust your gut, trust your instincts, and refer to the elements noted above. If you can check off several of the elements, that may be a good sign that you may be working within a toxic culture.


Pay attention to what your body, mind, and soul is telling you. What emotions get triggered at work? What are your stress levels? How has your work been affected? How has your home life been impacted? Identify and check in with those that you consider your wise counsel, whether that is a mentor, colleague, former supervisor, family member, or friend. Access your support systems.


And lastly, move to gather and troubleshoot options. Identify a plan for how you can take care of yourself for the immediate time being and identify your long-term options. You may want to request some needed time off to sort things out, get some distance and clarity. You may want to focus on your health and wellness and reactivate activities that help you recharge and bring you joy. You may seek out a therapist or hire a career coach to help you navigate this situation.


As stated above, many, in the workforce are leaving their jobs due to toxic workplace cultures. We know that people do their best when they are amongst a team that values, respects and provides a sense of belonging. In these environments, we can grow, thrive, and contribute our highest and truest selves.


Taking a step back and evaluating your current situation can be the first step in figuring out how to make sense of what you are experiencing. Use the I AM strategy to stop the madness and get centered. Focusing on your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being is a priority. The poem below is a good reminder.


“I lied and said I was busy. I was busy; but not in a way most people understand. I was busy taking deeper breaths. I was busy silencing irrational thoughts. I was busy calming a racing heart. I was busy telling myself I am okay. Sometimes, this is my busy - and I will not apologize for it.” Brittin Oakman



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