Dealing with a Toxic Workplace

By Guest Blogger: Ken Byler, Principal/Owner, Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC

Imagine this potentially toxic workplace scenario. The lunchroom is filled with the usual conversational topics. Without warning someone mentions the boss, who isn’t present, and within minutes their reputation is thrown under the bus. Perhaps it’s done in a lighthearted way but the damage is done.

During the discussion, what have you been doing? Did you sit in silence or pile on? In either case, you’ve made a contribution and it wasn’t good. When we sit quietly while the boss gets thrown under the bus, we are enabling the bad behavior, even if we disagree with the conclusions. Joining in gossip, is a form of passive-aggressive behavior that strengthens our perceived weaker position by assailing the other person through a third-party.

The causes of toxic workplaces take many forms.

Creating a toxic situation requires a villain, or at least a villain story. When an otherwise harmless conversation turns sour it’s often because the perpetrator has invented a motive for the other person’s actions. Using the boss in our scenario, one can imagine that few employees know her well enough to understand what might be influencing her decisions. When we interpret someone else’s behaviors, it is often through a lens of judgment.

If she is portrayed as a villain, and no one questions the veracity of the claims, the farther we move away from the facts. This makes it easier to accept our judgments as truth. If we have a motivation to fuel our assumptions, like fear or jealousy, our judgments move from observable behaviors to character flaws. She becomes something she is not.

Here are some ways to address toxic workplace behaviors.

Address the Content

To be effective you must focus on the facts. Challenge the person’s assumptions. Offer a different conclusion. By focusing on the manager’s statement, your colleagues must now use facts to support their conclusions.

Address the Pattern of Behavior or Thinking

Suppose the lunchroom crowd has a habit of using passive-aggressive comments to paint the boss in a bad light. When her decisions are continually questioned, and she isn’t present to defend herself, then addressing the pattern of behavior makes sense. Say something like, “I don’t mind when we have some fun with each other, but lately the boss has been getting thrown under the bus pretty often. It doesn’t seem fair for a person to be maligned when they can’t speak for themselves.”

Address the Relationship

Perhaps your colleagues don’t seem to respect the boss or trust her judgment. In that case, focus on repairing the relationship. Say, “It seems like you don’t trust what the boss has been doing. Is that true? If it is, then why don’t you meet with her to share your concerns and hear her out?” This conversation should be held privately with any of the persons most concerned about the boss’s actions.

We all have more control over our toxic workplace environments than we think. Don’t make excuses for your colleagues or yourself; make changes instead.

Filed in: Client News