Regardless of who you are and what you do, the odds are that at some point in your career you’ll find yourself in a toxic workplace. As communication has become more rapid, and social media has brought about a self-obsessed revolution, the number instances of toxicity in the workplace has risen dramatically. The funny thing about toxicity is that it, as you’ll see, it can’t be addressed head-on, but must be combated in more of a grassroots manner.
The fancy term for this is organizational health. It speaks to the fabric upon which your company operates. Healthy organizations don’t just get the results they want, they do it in a way that leaves their employees happy, empowered, and most importantly, motivated. Conversely, organizations that lack health may actually still achieve some of their goals, but they’ll do it in short-sighted fashion. They’ll suffer from high turnover, employees will be burnt out, and constant strife among them will lead to turf wars, bickering, and ultimately dissension that will bring down the ship.
If you’re the former, consider yourself lucky. If you haven’t experienced the latter already, don’t feel left out, you most likely will. As with any significant storm, the best preparation is done when waters are calm. So, let’s arm you to handle any amount of toxicity in the workplace.
As we get started, remember that creating a healthy organization is certainly easier to do when you’re in a senior position, but that doesn’t absolve you from responsibility if you’re in a junior role. Notice how I said “senior” and not “leadership”? We all need to be leaders, regardless of what the title on our business card says.
First and foremost, teams overcome toxicity. A big step toward creating teams that are capable of doing this is establishing clarified goals to ensure that everyone is shooting for the same target. It’s certainly a lot easier said than done. In companies of all size, the idea of clarifying goals is surprisingly difficult. While everyone surely wants to make a strong profit, the goals and values that will get them to that point vary dramatically. It’s vital that you examine and agree upon these values and goals in painstaking detail so that work can be performed in the most effective manner. Achieving value-oriented goals serves as a wonderful motivator and strikes a huge blow to toxicity.
Years ago, I was part of a senior team operating in a highly siloed organization that was incentivized with a bit of a warring tribes type model. You’ll be shocked to learn that it was a toxic work environment with very little trust and incredible chaos. When the executives from the various parts of the business would come together I would ask them two questions. 1. What are your organization’s values? 2. Who is on your team? Two things became clear. First, none of the executives had ever given one thought to their values, and thus could not effectively build trust with their team that allowed them to work collectively. Second, each executive described their team as the people that reported to them. In this instance, my goal was to get them to describe their team as the people in the room, as they needed to be cohesive in order for the company to find long-term success and eliminate this toxicity. (Note: these questions were originally shared with me from Patrick Lencioni’s writing and have served me incredibly well during my career). Without shared values and a strong sense of team, work can simply not achieve things at the level necessary to succeed.
Of course, while teams are well and good, that doesn’t negate each individual’s personal ambitions which are frequently the root of toxicity. To deal with that, we must find common ground and use that to build relationships. You must cultivate teams and instill a strong sense of trust in them. Common ground helps us better relate to other team members and paves the way for a trusting relationship to ensure. Some individuals don’t want common ground. They approach each day as a one-person battle that must be won at all costs. If you’re in a position to do so, eliminate these people from your organization immediately. They’re a cancer that will never cure itself.
Perhaps the most important way to combat this toxicity, however, is to be the leader that you would admire. Example is usually the most effective form of leadership, and this is no exception. If you make it a point to establish ownership of not only your own work but also of your team’s and organization’s work, you set the example of success. You also need to show it by avoiding the traps that contribute to toxicity: gossip, backstabbing, complaining, bickering, revenge. Be above it. Your team will surely take note and follow your example. Frankly, if you don’t do this, you’re part of the problem and deserve to be in the toxic environment.
This of course assumes that your work has personal meaning to you. After all, if your work isn’t accomplishing something that matters to you, you should not be doing it. Sure, we all have bills to pay, but to be an effective leader, you don’t worry about money nearly as much as you worry about time. If your work isn’t breathing life into your time and isn’t worthy of your time, all the money in the world isn’t going to bring you true success.
That leads me to my next point. You may not be able to change it. All of the attributes I just laid out may not be enough to overcome the inertia of toxicity in your company. Then what? You leave. You will never get the time you’re spending back. Further, by staying involved, you are in a sense condoning the toxicity within your company. If you’re not on board with the direction of the company, its goals, and how they’re achieving those goals, assuming you’ve discussed and tried at great length to influence this with your superiors, then you leave. Find something that is worthy of your time and pursue it with reckless ambition.
Toxicity can be tricky, and it can’t be fixed overnight. It certainly takes a heavy dose of patience, but it also represents a great opportunity to put your leadership skills to use. It’s the most screwed up environments that typically produce the most rewarding success. Look at is as a challenge and you’ll move mountains.