Over the past few weeks through conversations with clients, friends, and colleagues I have been struck by the increasing presence of toxic workplaces. Some shared stories of feeling undervalued and unappreciated at work, others described how they have been undermined, or “thrown under the bus” by colleagues desperate to prove their value during corporate restructuring. Still more told of the stress of repeatedly being ‘voluntold’ to produce work which focuses only on quantity to please the CEO when quality is the purpose of their job.
All of these coaching conversations started out as: ‘how can I possibly do all of this work - I’m being set up to fail”, or, “what is he/she thinking!”, and, “I can’t do quantity giving up quality” to finally, “this is not who I am!”. The level of anxiety, stress, and emotional pain that I heard in their voices was gut-wrenching! The violation of personal values/ethics echoed throughout their stories.
As I listened to hear and to get to the heart of the matter, it was the comment: “this is not who I am”, that became the springboard for the creation of strategies which helped them re-gain control of the situation through being true to themselves.
So how did they begin to do this?
By asking themselves these key questions and taking the time to reflect deeply on their answers:
Once they had accessed the answers to these they were able to create concrete strategies to deal with their workplace situation that felt right and doable for them.
You have a choice to be who you are…Who do you choose to be?
Unfortunately, toxic workplaces are commonplace in today's day and age. Toxic workplaces are generally characterized by a culture of dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics. These dynamics can play out in a number of ways: inequity, unaddressed conflict, harassment, or even just general lack of communication. Generally, organizational or corporate culture is driven from the top-down, and if the leadership imposes toxic tactics, it can be very difficult for those not in charge to shift the culture. Luckily there are communications tools and techniques to deal with and even change the toxic culture of a workplace.Women react to difficult situations differently than men do. Particularly in the workplace, many women are more sensitive to hostile or stressful interpersonal situations than are men. Let's look at three characteristics that women commonly display which can make dealing with the toxic workplace much more difficult:
Sadly, many people work in offices or with organizations that have established toxic work cultures and practices. It’s easy to assume that things are just the way they are and there’s nothing you can do. But nobody should be forced to work in a toxic workplace. Here are the signs to look out for so you can avoid the long-term problems that come with a bad work environment.
Even if your workplace is a toxic one all hope is not lost. The first step is identifying the problem, and then you’ve got the option to work to make it better. Working with an Executive Coach will help you build your confidence and develop the skills that you need to thrive and survive in your workplace!
Endless Possibilities Executive Coaching is located in Vancouver, B.C. and works with client throughout North America.
There can be life in toxic workplace!
Recent statistics tell us that most people spend more of their waking hours in their place of work than at home with their families. Spending 8+ hours a day in an environment where you feel undervalued, under appreciated, undermined, or are perhaps even being bullied can make work life even more challenging. However, take heart, it is possible to thrive and survive in a toxic Workplace!
There are 7 steps that you can follow to take action to improve your situation:
Step 1. Look up and out, ask yourself: what can I do want to change about my current situation?
Step 2. Look at your limiting beliefs. What’s stopping you from making a change?
Step 3.Consider the possibilities. What options are open to you?
Step 4.Decide what you will stand for, and what you won’t stand for.
Step 5.Examine your values, beliefs, strengths and skills.
Step 6.Think about what positive steps you can take to improve your current workplace, or, begin to think about alternate places to work.
Step 7.Hire an Executive Coach to support you as you take action.
Endless Possibilities is an Executive Coaching company in Vancouver that serves individuals and businesses throughout North America. Please contact us today for a complimentary consultation.
What Role Does a Leader Play in the Creation of a Toxic Work Environment?
Max De Pree, strong and long time proponent of Servant Leadership defines leadership as art: “liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.” He goes on to say: “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor”, he goes on to add “leaders don’t inflict pain; they bear pain.”
Wow, that’s a pretty tall order in the complex, turbulent, and often chaotic workplace of today! Especially when some of the actions required of a leader have the inherent potential to cause toxicity for employees. For example, the implementation of policies such as absenteeism programs, those governing the use of social media in the workplace, and others which may be perceived as “thou shall not edicts” by the staff.
As leaders we are accountable and responsible for dealing with controversial issues as they arise but are often torn between the need to do what is expected of you by a number of sources such as the organization, constraints of Collective Agreements, and the people who you are charged to lead. An acceptable solution to one person may be considered an unpalatable option to another. One leader’s story is that of receiving a complaint lodged by an employee via the Human Resources (HR) Department. The complainant was working within an area where there was a large group of people from an ethnic community who spoke to each other in their own language at all times; using English only when addressed in it by an English speaking person. The complainant who did not speak their language felt excluded and isolated and discriminated against. The leader was informed by the HR Department that they must instruct all staff to speak only English while they were working (they were free to use whatever language they wished on their breaks). An extremely delicate situation for the leader to deal with; and while the actions taken were hailed with appreciation and thanked by some, other employees decried and denounced them – creating a stressful and temporarily toxic situation for the leader and the affected staff!
What are some specific skills that a leader can cultivate and use on a daily basis in their interactions with others to ensure that they are creating and maintaining a positive, supportive environment for others:
Meet your leadership responsibilities by staying the course, being accountable, while dealing with the issue at hand and interacting with everyone in the most humane way possible.
Do I stay or do I go – what are my choices?
By now you have decided for a variety of reasons that the workplace you are in is a toxic one. You may be working with bullies, being ostracized by colleagues, working in a negative environment, or finding yourself in constant conflict with your co-workers or supervisor(s). You may be suffering from stress related health problems as a result of the constant tension. Your confidence is eroding, you know you want and need to make a change. Thoughts similar to these are running through your head with the regularity of clockwork: “What should I do next?” “How do I go about making a decision?” “Do I stay with what I know and continue to be unhappy/ miserable, or do I leave? “ What are my choices?”
You need to work; your gut instinct is telling you that you don’t want to leap from the frying pan into the fire. It is a wise voice that you need to pay attention to while honoring the need to make a positive change in a thoughtful way.
A great starting place to help you decide what’s next for you is to focus on what is most important to you, to center and to ground yourself. A helpful way to do this is by defining your personal values and then taking the time to understand and appreciate how they instinctively guide all that you do.
According to Robert Townsend:
“Values are critical guides for making decisions. When in doubt, they cut through the fog like a beacon in the night.”
Values are deeply held beliefs of what is important to us; they act as guiding principles in our personal and work life. They are inherent in all that we do; we absorb them from our family as we grow-up, from society, life experiences, and the organization(s) in which we work. Our values may change as we grow, experience life, and ultimately as we become our authentic self. We use them as a yardstick to measure our success consciously or unconsciously in our work with teams, in partnerships, and in our workplace.
When we live and work according to our values we feel in balance,at peace with what we do and who we are, we are in integrity. When are forced to compromise our values either by individuals or situations we struggle to maintain our balance, we feel uncomfortable, and experience negative feelings.
Here is a simple exercise to help you define your values:
1. Using an Internet search engine of your choice search for the term values. Any number of sites will appear with lists of values on them, pick one that appeals to you.
2. Review the list of choices picking out the top 5 -7 values that resonate for you. Feel free to add any that are not be on the list but are important to you.
3. If you find that you have selected more than 5-7 values you can narrow the field by asking yourself the question:if I had to choose between these, which one(s) could I not do without?
4. Reflect on what your values mean to you. Then ask yourself the following questions:
Supports and resources can take many forms including:honing your communication skills, becoming more comfortable having crucial conversations (see my blog: Conflict: an opportunity for a conversation about possibilities), talking with a Human Resources representative in your organization, or taking advantage of confidential employee counseling services if they are available to you.
Consider engaging the services of a Coach who specializes in partnering with individuals who are working within toxic environments and enabling them to thrive and survive as they work to shift the existing culture or choose to transition to a different environment.
Remember, you have choices and are in charge of your destiny! What actions will you commit to take to improve your workplace situation NOW?
Please Note: This blog is not intended to encourage you to quit your job, rather, to give you the information/tools to explore opportunities and support yourself as you decide upon your next steps.
None of us go to work expecting to be subjected to a toxic or poisoned work atmosphere; it is something that may creep up slowly, taking time to be noticed (like the boiling frog analogy) or it may be readily apparent. Reactions and responses to it can vary, for many the initial ones are disbelief, bewilderment, self-doubt, followed by a wide array of coping mechanisms, as we’ll see in Jennifer’s story.
(The names in the story have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals).
Jennifer was an experienced nurse recently hired to work in a highly specialized intensive care area. The hospital provided each nurse with an extensive education and orientation period, which included being supported by a preceptor (mentor) upon completion of the classroom education and during their clinical orientation period. Jennifer’s was assigned a preceptor (Mary) and everything went well at first; Mary (who was a very experienced preceptor) was attentive to Jennifer’s learning needs, and to the work that needed to be completed in order for the orientation standards to be met. Towards the end of the preceptor period Jennifer started to notice a change in Mary. There was a significant difference in the way that Mary was showing her how to do things from the way they had been taught and her previous attention to detail was missing. When she politely questioned this, Mary laughed and blew off her concerns. Jennifer put it down to her own learning curve and said nothing for a few days. She began to notice that Mary was becoming less attentive to her preceptor duties and spent more time socializing with her friends instead of attending to her responsibilities. When she approached Mary several times over the course of the following weeks with questions or concerns she was told she should already know how to do that, or to look it up for herself in an abrupt or belittling tone of voice, sometimes in front of other nurses.
Jennifer did not know what to do or who to turn to; self-doubt began to creep in. She began to ask herself: Is this really happening to me, am I imagining things? Do I really know what I’m doing? She loved the work but she felt isolated, and alone. Frustrated, she was determined to make the best of the situation, prove she could do the work and fit in so she put her head down and plodded on. But as the weeks passed the bullying behavior escalated with Mary gossiping behind her back or openly making fun of her in front of other nurses in an attempt to create factions amongst the team.
By now, Jennifer was feeling totally stressed out and a complete failure. She decided that she had to get away from the situation and applied for a part-time position on a different team so she could avoid working with Mary. When she was told by a supervisor that she didn’t get the job she broke down and cried, saying that she was going to have to quit, eventually pouring out the whole story. The supervisor listened to Jennifer empathetically; reassured her that Mary’s bullying behavior was unacceptable, that it would be investigated, and dealt with in an appropriate manner. She arranged to have Jennifer transferred to another team immediately to minimize her interactions with Mary and requested that Jennifer contact her right away if there were any further episodes. Reassured by the positive response and actions taken by the supervisor, Jennifer was able to re-commit to her work and her employer.
Let’s examine how Jennifer’s actions helped or hindered her in dealing with Mary’s bullying:
Jennifer’s initial responses were appropriate, she was polite and respectful in her approach to Mary, and she persisted with this approach until the responses became abusive. It was at this point when her coping mechanisms of self-blame, self-doubt, and making the best of the situation by putting her head down, and trying to ignore the situation failed her miserably. By engaging in these actions she disempowered herself, reinforced Mary’s unacceptable behavior and gave her permission to continue the bullying, which culminated in Jennifer breakdown and almost resignation.
What additional actions would have helped Jennifer resolve the situation at an early stage?
- Taking a step back to reflect on the issue. Asking herself from a neutral observer perspective: what is actually going on? What part if any, am I playing in this? Then using the knowledge she gained to move from self-judgment into self-awareness.
- Talking to someone she felt she could trust about the situation: a friend, or a colleague. Explaining it to them from a neutral observer stance and asking them for their objective point of view.
- Deciding how she will take action to resolve the situation. What are her options? What actions will she take? Building on her strengths, what opportunities can she leverage to move forward?
- Developing some supportive strategies while she is working on resolving the issue; i.e. what will help her survive, and thrive in the interim? (Many organizations have confidential counseling services available for their employees at no charge. If you belong to a union or professional association they may have resources that you can access.)
-Once she is clear on the situation and how she wants it resolved, meet with her direct supervisor to let them know what is happening and ask them for help to resolve the issue.
- Turn this negative experience into an opportunity for personal learning and growth.
- Consider working with a Coach to help her identify her strengths, and develop crucial conversations skills to assist her in the future.
What techniques have you found to be useful when you have encountered situations similar to this? Please feel free to share them with us!
As I have ventured into conversations with a variety of people over the past weeks on the topic of toxic workplaces it quickly became apparent to me by the frequently puzzled faces that gazed back at me, most are not familiar with the word “toxic” in relation to the climate of a workplace. In fact, it became obvious that the image which comes to mind for many when they hear the phrase “toxic work place” is one of open vats of chemicals with poisonous vapours rising above them and employees laboring over or around them. Although that image is also very reflective of the atmosphere of a toxic workplace, linking that mental picture to the atmosphere that occurs in your place of work may not be a natural connection. Sadly, however, it has become a harsh reality for increasing numbers of people over the past few years.
Toxicity in the workplace is much more common than is realized, it can exist on an isolated basis between individuals, within a team in a department, vary from team to team in places where there are large numbers of employees within that kind of hierarchical structure, or it can be widespread throughout an organization. There are toxic leaders, toxic managers, and toxic organizations (the later so labeled due to a pervasive toxic culture).
Moving back to those initial conversations, once we started to talk about what kinds of behaviors are seen in these types of environments, invariably everyone I spoke to knew someone who had been impacted or touched by a toxic workplace: a friend, a colleague, a spouse, a partner, a sister, mother, brother or father.
The purpose of this blog is to provide you the reader with some concrete, helpful information through a simple question and answer format that will inform, and assist you in identifying a toxic workplace.
What types of behaviours create a toxic workplace?
The most common one seen is that of bullying between employees. We’ve all heard of the unfortunate stories of this happening in schools and seen and heard of the negative impact it has had on our children. Unfortunately it can and does also happen in the workplace: in the form of gossiping, the deliberate exclusion of people from their team, the office, and /or departmental network by peers or colleagues. It may include the use of various kinds of intimidation by those with higher levels of expertise, seniority, and/or include the use of aggressive behaviour verbally or physically.
What are the behaviors displayed by a toxic leader/manager?
A toxic leader is one who typically thrives on controlling their surroundings, inclusive of the people that work for and with them. They tend to micro-manage all aspects of work within their locus of control, display a lack of trust and confidence in the abilities of others, fail to recognize the work of their subordinates, take credit for the work of their subordinates, and use disrespectful communication styles. In some instances there can be an abuse of power as evidenced by the story shared with me by one individual whose supervisor ruled through fear, constantly set them up to fail by refusing to supply them with the resources they needed to do their work, attempting to discredit them at meetings by making snide comments covered up as jokes, the use of obviously disrespectful body language, making flippant comments about them to other leaders behind their back, and recruiting another person within their own department to replace them while they were still in their position. When confronted with their actions, these types of leaders tend to display emotionally insensitive attitudes accompanied by a lack of insight into their behaviour ranging from denial and/or attempts to cover them up.
What is a Toxic Organization?
This is an organization in which toxic leaders and toxic managers are commonplace, they exist from the CEO level down to the frontline supervisors. In this type of organization rather than being terminated from their position the leader’s behaviour is ignored and may even be rewarded. The work environment experienced by the employees is one of intense pressure, unrealistic demands, and ruthlessness.Consequences to the organization are significant as these high levels of employee stress lead to increased sick time, increased numbers of stress leave, and decreased employee engagement as people’s commitment to their work falters under the pressure. Ultimately there in an increase in employee turnover as the negative emotions displayed by the leaders infiltrate at all levels.
Peter J. Frost, a leading authority on toxic work emotions in the workplace said it so eloquently: “Emotions tend to be contagious, toxic ones leak out into the workplace affecting more than just the person afflicted. It can poison a team, a workplace, an organization.”
Please return to our blog site next week when we will explore the impact of the toxic workplace on the individual.
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