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What is workplace toxicity & what to do about it ?

Work can be stressful and experiencing work stress is inevitable. While good stress or eustress can help you perform better, improve resilience and be creative; a toxic work environment or workplace dysfunction can erode a company’s culture and lead you to feel physically, emotionally and psychologically in distress. Workplace toxicity can have a negative impact on your wellbeing, stop you from preforming your very best and hinder your ability to enjoy life.

How do you know the stress you are feeling at work is due to workplace toxicity?

All work has its challenges; particularly when Monday comes around. You may have a bad week or a bad month and think; why am I still here? However, stressful days where you may lack motivation does not translate to a toxic work environment. Workplace dysfunction arises when employees find it difficult to do their job because of co-workers' and supervisors' negativity and negative behaviors. When you are in a toxic workplace you can feel the hostility, anger and resentment in the atmosphere. Morale is low and there is an overall negative outlook, bitter attitude and dissatisfaction. There is a loss of trust and confidence in others as well as those in leadership roles. While there are many characteristics related to workplace toxicity; these 5 key features can help you identify if you are in a dysfunctional workplace.

1. Workplace gossip and bullying- Watercooler talk is common in every workplace. It is a time when employees can casually have a conversation about their personal and professional life. However, watercooler talk can evolve to gossip and bullying. When casual talk among employees focusses on your personal life and sensitive affairs or that of others; informal conversation has turned to gossip. Whether from an employee or a supervisor, gossip can have harmful effects. It can damage the company culture and cause divisiveness, distrust, conflict, anxiety and an overall feeling of hurt and pain. Gossip can be a form of bullying if the rumors are intended to offend, demean and destroy your reputation. Like gossip, bullying is serious and can also include feeling socially isolated, others making offensive and unwanted jokes, belittling comments, yelling and overly criticizing you or your work. Once gossip and bullying permeates your company’s culture; it will be challenging to mitigate and control it.

2. Poor communication or lack of feedback from supervisor- Communication is essential in any relationship; including workplace relationships. Positive communication in all directions; including between you and your boss, is important to foster a healthy work culture. In a hostile work environment, communication lacks empathy and tends to be aggressive. You may feel afraid to speak up and provide your opinion on matters related to work. Your supervisor will not address you face-to-face and prefer to communicate via email. There is little to no feedback and when feedback is provided it will focus on blame and insults; instead of constructive criticism. You may also receive mixed messages causing you to feel confused and nervous which will trigger self-doubt and lack of confidence. As a result, you will become uncertain about your future in the organization which may generalize to your personal life.

3. Unclear roles, responsibilities and expectations- Workplace dysfunction will often be plagued with misperception and chaos caused by unclear roles, responsibilities and expectations. To be able to perform your very best, you need to understand your role as an employee, what you are responsible for and what is expected of you. When these are poorly defined, it will cause tension and conflict between you and other employees. Because there are no clear set roles, employee accountability is either non-existent or misguided. Backstabbing and a sense “you against them” will predominate the workplace culture. You will feel stifled and frustrated with the inability for personal and professional growth. Collaboration and team synergy and cohesion will also suffer resulting in a lack of productivity and an erosion of company profits.

4. Supervisor has a narcissistic leadership style- Narcissism is a term used when an individual is extremely self-involved and thinks very highly of one-self while believing others are inferior. Narcissistic leadership style is detrimental to the workplace because leaders will place themselves above the company’s mission and goals. Narcissistic leaders prioritize themselves above other and find it difficult to show empathy or place themselves in other people’s shoes. You will struggle in establishing and sustaining a healthy relationship with a boss who has a narcissistic leadership style. They do not take criticism well and crave a significant amount of admiration. They believe “subordinates” do not have anything positive to contribute. Narcissistic leaders make poor mentors and take no responsibility for their actions. They are fiercely competitive and will do anything to win; even at the expense of others and the company.

5. Lack of positive reinforcement for work well done- We all need praise and positive reinforcement. Aside from motivating you to do better, positive reinforcement can guide your behavior and help you perform your very best. When your workplace culture lacks employee recognition, you will be disengaged and detached from work. This will affect productivity and your mental wellness. You will feel uncertain, nervous and unhappy. Lack of reinforcement will lead to burnout and you may start to contemplate the need to leave your job because you feel your work is not valued or appreciated. Companies with little to no employee recognition tend to have a high turnover rate. With high turnover, the organization must redirect their resources to replacing and training new hires; thus, impacting productivity and the company’s bottom line.

What can you do about workplace toxicity?

Both employees and supervisors can address workplace toxicity. As an employee, it is important that you evaluate your work environment and how the company’s dysfunction is affecting your work and life. Below are five suggestions that can help alleviate the stress related to workplace toxicity.

1. Focus on what you can control- There is truth in the saying, “We can only control our behavior and not the behavior of others.” When you are dealing with workplace dysfunction, it is best to focus on you and what you can do versus the behavior of others around you. Do not engage in dysfunctional behaviors; such as gossip or rumors. Concentrate on your goals and the steps you need to take to accomplish them. Create your own “mantra” that will help you re-focus when the day is challenging. Lastly, shift your energy towards positive thinking and view situations as a growth challenge and opportunity.

2. Find a support group of peers and engage in work-life balance- We are social animals who need to feel understood and experience a sense of belonging. Connecting with others who are like minded; either at work or outside work, will help you feel less stress, anxious and insecure. When it is time to go home; make a conscious effort to leave the stress at work and make sure to find activities you enjoy. Engaging in hobbies and interests will take your mind off troubles and provide the break you need.

3. Evaluate your ability to openly discuss concerns with your supervisor- Approaching your boss about workplace concerns can be daunting; especially if your supervisor has a narcissistic leadership style. However, do not wait to be ridden with anxiety and self-doubt to address your concerns. When thinking about approaching your boss, make sure you do not overwhelm her with grievances; it is important you have a plan and strategy in place. Find the right time to approach your supervisor to request a formal or informal meeting. Be assertive in communicating your concerns and be solution focused. Keep your statements positive and objective without blaming or pointing fingers at others. Remember, your meeting will not guarantee that changes will be made; but you can feel good about yourself and your ability to speak up.

4. Hire a coach; through a work program or for yourself- Coaching can be a strategy that helps you deal with stress and workplace dysfunction. In the past, coaching was only available to executives; today many companies offer coaching assistance to employees. If your workplace does not have this resource, you may seek coaching outside of work. When hiring a coach; look for someone who is a good fit with what you need. Coaches bring a unique set of skills and assessments that can promote personal and professional growth. They will partner with you to create and execute a plan that focuses on the goals and objectives you have for yourself and your future.

5. Think about a possible exit strategy- Your wellbeing is your first priority. Leaving a job is a very personal decision. After evaluating and addressing workplace toxicity, you may decide you need to change your work environment. Before you quit; create an exit strategy. An exit strategy may include looking for other employment previous to resigning. Researching the possibility of transferring to a different department or location. Appealing to your supervisor to make the changes needed. Negotiating your company’s compensation plan and participating in an exit interview. Regardless what the exit plan includes; a good rule of thumb is to be transparent and professional in your decision to leave.

For managers and supervisors, it is vital that you tackle workplace dysfunction head on and correct any existing harmful behavior. Toxic behaviors can spread quickly and have irreparable harm. Make sure the company has policies against behaviors that promote toxicity. Work with your human resource department to establish job descriptions that have clear roles and responsibility. Hire employees that are well suited for the position and train existing employees if needed. Provide an avenue for personal and professional growth and be consistent and fair with employee recognition and reinforcement. Engage in effective communication as well as transparency. This will help with employee engagement and productivity. Always lead by example focusing on the company’s values, vision and mission. Do not forget the human side of business. Employees are part of your human capital and one of your most important assets.

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Dr. Maria is an entrepreneur, certified Core Energy Coach and founder of MD Consulting Company (Previously Aim Consulting Company). She is a neuroscientist who holds a doctorate degree in Psychology, Masters in Pharmacology and an MBA.


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