Is Your Workplace Toxic? How to Know and What to Do About It

You may feel something isn’t right at work, but if there’s no obvious abuse or discrimination, it can be difficult to evaluate. The more subtle the actions (or microaggressions), the harder to pinpoint if you do indeed work in a toxic environment.

Emojis of frustrated and angry faces

You may question the reality of your discomfort, even disregard it as “not that bad”, but dysfunctional dynamics can slowly erode people’s mental state and lead to burnout.

Think of it as death by a thousand cuts. What seems small now, can build up over time and cause serious damage. So it’s important to know what you’re dealing with and how to deal with it.

Four Impossible Signs to Ignore

A great book on marriage called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver cites the “four horsemen”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These can happen in personal relationships, and in workplaces, and are good clues that a union is beyond salvageable.

These behaviors may be more subtle or passive aggressive in the workplace than in a romantic relationship, and that’s why they’re sometimes hard to pinpoint and address. But the fallout is serious — it can ruin relationships, reputations, morale, and careers. Here’s how these four horsemen can create a toxic work environment:

  1. Criticism. Perhaps it’s the boss who is never happy. Or it’s the colleague who is constantly complaining about how something is done. Criticism at work can take on many shapes but the outcome is the same — people question their value to the team or organization, and begin to shut down (see also stonewalling). This is the first sign that can snowball if boundaries are not put into place.
  2. Contempt. Cues like verbal sniping, eye-rolling, or public condescension take criticism to a whole new level. Contempt is an expression of disgust and is generally a sure-fire sign that a relationship is over. If your boss exhibits these behaviors toward you, watch out. If coworkers are exhibiting contempt on a regular basis, it’s clearly not a good environment.
  3. Defensiveness. Being on the other end of criticism can make a person defensive. This prevents proper communication and blocks learning from mistakes or misunderstandings. If you are becoming defensive, or you have simply stopped caring, you’re certainly in an unhealthy situation (and may even be part of the problem).
  4. Stonewalling. This is when there is a shutdown of information or communication. Regardless of the cause or form stonewalling takes, it’s extremely destructive, especially for teams who should be collaborating. Stonewalling can make employees feel excluded and ostracized, which is highly damaging to a person’s psyche and confidence.

Aside from these negative dynamics, some other signs of a toxic workplace include: stealing credit, bullying, gaslighting, excessive expectations, hyper-competitiveness, or preferential treatment.

Okay, My Workplace IS Toxic — What Do I Do?

The good news is you have options. You have to decide if the energy and risk of taking on the battle is worth it, however. The first step is to determine how you contribute to the toxicity — be honest with yourself — and correct your own behavior. You’re the only person you can control in these situations.

If it’s a coworker who is creating bad vibes, you can always distance yourself and stay out of negative gossip or spiraling. Remain professional, collaborative and communicative, but don’t get caught up in their drama. You also have the option of reporting their behavior to your leader, HR or Compliance.

If your manager is the issue, that’s a bit more complicated as it’s tougher to ignore and can have serious consequences to your career, especially if they are a bully. If it is too much of an emotional or mental strain, and you’re starting to have a physical reaction, you’re facing burnout or worse. Protect your health and take steps to reduce your stress and anxiety. Sometimes that means taking a leave of absence, changing departments or even quitting. Reporting it to HR or Compliance is always an option, but it may backfire if they do nothing corrective, so tread carefully if you have a retaliatory manager.

Depending on the severity and the source of the toxic behavior, there are other ways of managing as well. If you’d like help weighing your options or learning coping tactics, reach out to me. I’ve coached many professionals and teams on building boundaries, envisioning next steps, and finding their voice and purpose.

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