We Need to Talk: Detoxing a Toxic Work Relationship

Julianna Richter
Jun 24, 2019 · 14 min read

I’ve always loved the beginning of relationships. That magical time when we are just getting to know each other, learning how we think about the world and what matters most. We listen intently, compromise easily and love passionately. In these early days we are the best version of ourselves — thoughtful, respectful, communicative, interesting…and interested. This honeymoon phase is filled with a delicious mix of excitement, insecurity and possibility (and if you are like me, all three within minutes of each other).

As things progress, we start to become more comfortable with one another without the need to always be “on” (what I call the cuddle phase). Tentative advances turn into welcomed patterns and formal conversations into natural exchanges — signaling a deeper level of understanding and commitment. Before we know it, we are in a full-fledged Re-la-tion-ship (noun: the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected). For most of us this is a welcome milestone and means we are healthy, well-adjusted humans able to make meaningful connections (ok, maybe not always well adjusted but just go with it).

But sometimes — despite our best intentions — the budding relationship gives way to a bursting reality. The openness and communication offered so freely at the start is replaced with criticism or silence. We start to feel taken for granted, ignored or maybe even irrelevant. What initially brought us so much pleasure and satisfaction now breeds insecurity and unhappiness. This is heartbreaking when it happens in a romantic relationship but can be equally devastating when it happens in a promising work relationship.

As I have written about before, I’ve always believed that work relationships are indeed relationships, especially when we invest considerable time, energy and emotion. Healthy work relationships are based on mutual attraction and go through different phases before they eventually settle into predictable, rewarding patterns. Each party gives and gets something from the other that they value and need. All good. Except that sometimes its not…and often without warning they can become unhealthy or even toxic. This can be situational (a harmful dynamic with a particular boss or co-worker, for example) or organizational (a full-on GTFO working environment). And like romantic relationships, what is normal or pleasurable in one relationship may be unthinkable in another (this is a no judgement zone so you. do. you).

Toxic work relationships are more than having a few “bad days” at work or not getting along with a work frenemy. These are harmful situations that can cause you to feel mentally distraught, physically depleted or psychologically damaged.

We’ve all heard about toxic relationships (been there) and the more recent catch phrase toxic workplaces (done that). Toxic work relationships occur when negative interactions at work vastly outweigh positive ones; where you have a deep and ongoing feeling of fear or dread; and where you never feel secure. I am not talking about “normal” job insecurity like when someone else has a killer idea in a brainstorm or a new coworker is asked to attend an important meeting instead of you. I am talking about the kind of work relationship where you are on employee eggshells all the time — afraid to propose new ideas, to push back on bad ones or to share a counter point of view because of the negative reaction you might get, and the repercussions you’ve come to expect.

Thankfully, most of my adult working life has been in the “healthy” category but like many, I have endured a toxic work relationship and have witnessed others experience them over the course of my career. For those who haven’t had this pleasure or have any idea what I am talking about, here are a few signs of a toxic work relationship:

You rarely hear those three precious words. No, I’m not talking about I love you (since that would be weird at work) but things like Good job today. Thanks for this. Does that work? Really great idea. As humans, we all need to feel respected and appreciated by those around us — including at work where we increasingly spend most of our waking hours. This is especially true when we’ve done a really good job on something, come up with a winning solution or just completed a very difficult assignment. In a toxic work relationship, words and phrases to show appreciation are either consciously withheld as a reflection of the overall culture, or you frequently feel like you are being selectively left on read and ignored while your boss recognizes other less impactful efforts.

The best leaders I’ve ever worked with understood the power of praise for performance when it came to motivating and inspiring teams. A well timed “thank you” or heart-felt “great job” from the right person can sometimes mean more than a raise or bonus. The same goes for recognizing someone’s ongoing efforts when they are going above and beyond over an extended period of time — particularly if its a slog of a project, an inter-office political mine-field or an assignment that no-one else wants to take on. So, if you are killing it at work and rarely (if ever) hear words of appreciation, this is not only disregarding your contributions but may be a sign you are in a toxic work relationship.

Constant criticism is how they show they “care”. Unlike its cousin constructive criticism, constant criticism is consistently giving someone overly negative, unhelpful and sometimes hurtful feedback in the name of wanting to make something better or to help you improve (that’s the “care” part). This can be artfully subtle or flat-out aggressive but it’s relentless and dominates the majority of your interactions with a boss, manager or colleague. Once established, this pattern can cause tremendous self-doubt and a general feeling that you can’t do anything right and won’t be able to live up to expectations (causing the other kind of performance anxiety). Constant criticism is mostly used as a way to control and is an effective way to keep people in check. Not unlike the frog that is unaware the heat is rising as the water boils, you are likely to stay where you are and not jump. If you are on the receiving end of constant criticism, or that is the main currency for “care” in your organization, it can be as dangerous and toxic as the boiling pot of water.

Your work relationship dominates your entire life. You used to go out with friends for dinner or meet at yoga but your OOO commitments have all but fallen by the wayside. To show your dedication to your business boyfriend, you always make yourself “available” — either physically being in the workplace at all hours, or virtually via text, email and even social media. You may also start to become emotionally available by making clear to your boss and co-workers that they can reach out to you at all times and they do — even if you are on leave, out sick or on a long planned vacation (that’s assuming you take it). While we all have extremely busy periods at work or need to manage an unforeseen work issue from time to time, this is different. It’s become a toxic work relationship when the expectation is that you will always be available regardless of the situation or actual need, and work becomes your primary relationship — literally taking over your entire life.

Communication is one-sided, robotic or inconsistent. Healthy relationships require open, ongoing and two-way communication — including healthy work relationships. If you only receive feedback from a manager when pressed (the work equivalent of “was that good for you”?) or only seem to communicate about how things are going when its required — such as a mandated performance review — that is an unhealthy pattern that can intensify over time. If you do receive feedback but it’s not specific or consistent, that can make it challenging to address any issues and even harder to have anything you can measure progress against. And if the feedback is always one-sided without offering any workable solutions or shared accountability, you are likely in a toxic work relationship.

You constantly need to prove your love. Most of us are employed to do a specific set of tasks and when we do them effectively, we are financially compensated and rewarded with more work or responsibility. That is called realistic expectations. But if your boss or employer has unrealistic expectations and essentially makes you “prove your love” again and again, that can become toxic. Maybe it’s always giving assignments at the end of the day requiring you to work through the night to meet a deadline; giving you double the workload than anyone else with no additional resources or direction; or expecting you to drop everything at anytime to accommodate constantly changing schedules (frequently theirs). While there will always be moments in our career where this is justifiable or unavoidable, it’s different when it’s continually unplanned, unquestioned and uncompensated. If this way of working is the “norm” in your workplace and you find that you are continually and unnecessarily being tested to prove your love and loyalty, you are likely in a toxic work relationship.

You don’t feel (or look) as good as you used to. Ok, stay with me here. When we are in a positive, healthy and secure relationship, most of us tend to take good care of ourselves, including our health and well-being. We make time for a quick coffee run with our work wife and we wouldn’t dream of missing our regular work out or wax appointment. I have found that the opposite is true when we are in a toxic relationship that has become all-consuming. We no longer have regular catch up sessions with coworkers or find time to walk outside for lunch on a beautiful spring day. We don’t make time for the gym and more often than not, will just grab what’s easiest or closest for lunch…if we eat it at all. And sometimes we may also stop caring about our appearance. Several years ago I worked with someone who was known for her successful track record, as well as her stylish wardrobe and envy-inducing shoe collection. When her job and managers changed, things started to become difficult and dysfunctional at work. It wasn’t long before she stopped performing at the same level, stopped dressing up for work and stopped resembling her former self. While we’ve all had those weeks, this was a reflection of how she felt about work. She was literally wearing her emotions on her sleeve trying to navigate a toxic work relationship.

Experimentation and trying “new” things is actively discouraged. Whether you work in banking, advertising or manufacturing, work is constantly being disrupted. To stay competitive in today’s world means organizations need to continually innovate, incubate and look for ways to do things better, easier, faster or cheaper — ideally all of the above. If your employer isn’t open to new positions (the POV kind) or experimenting with new methods that can give you a competitive advantage, save money or time, then you are not in a healthy work environment. And if they actively discourage, mock, ignore or undermine you or others who propose new ideas and beneficial changes, it’s likely a toxic work relationship.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list but rather a few common signs of toxic relationships at work. If you have been in the working world for any length of time, the chances are you can probably relate to some of them. These situations can be challenging and depleting but there are sometimes ways to ‘cleanse’ these types of toxic work behaviors from the system and restore much needed balance in the relationship.

Detoxing a Toxic Work Relationship

The first step to detoxing a toxic work relationship is to acknowledge that you are in one. You may have put up with certain behaviors (or lack thereof) for so long that they are now the new normal so its important to see the situation for what it is…or isn’t. The next step is to determine whether it’s a work relationship and situation worth fighting for because it will take real work (on top of your actual work) to do so. If you do decide it is worth it and there is a willingness to adjust and make changes, here are a few things you can do:

Reset boundaries. No matter how much you try (and trust me, I’ve tried), you can’t control the behavior of others — you can only control how you react to them. So, if you find yourself in a toxic work relationship and you want to change it, you will need to reset boundaries. Starting with yours. This might include how and when you work (or how and when you don’t work). It can also include how you engage with your manager or co-workers, and how you ask for (and give) feedback so its mutual and meaningful. Sounds easy, right? Not so much. Like anything else this requires a plan — specifying what needs to change; figuring out how and when that will happen; and then committing to making the changes so they are real and reinforced.

This can start with a few small but deliberate actions. I worked with a colleague who openly shared access to his Outlook calendar so his entire team could see when he was OOO (including kids’ school events and doctor appointments) and they didn’t schedule meetings during those windows. Another friend who previously struggled with getting regular, actionable feedback from her boss now proactively schedules weekly “check-ins” so she can get input in real-time instead of once a year at her review …or when they were both in the bathroom at the same time (I wish I was making that up. I’m not).

Whether you want more actionable feedback, more respect or more established ‘ground rules’ for work interactions, it’s possible by resetting boundaries. Establishing new patterns and making concerted changes in how/when/where you engage can help detox a negative situation and create a healthier work relationship.

Be more vocal (and if it’s not hitting the spot, say so). For relationships to thrive, they need clear, continuous and candid communication. But here’s the thing…communication styles vary tremendously, and not everyone communicates as clearly as they think they do, especially at work. Some people also avoid communicating with coworkers because it can be time-consuming, and, depending on the subject, uncomfortable. For those reasons and more, it’s become all too easy to communicate virtually instead of in person — either through haiku-like texts, lengthy email chains or “responding” by not responding at all and completely ghosting someone (btw, what IS that? We still have to see each other in the elevator). Admittedly it’s sometimes easier to communicate with colleagues electronically but so much gets lost in translation including the chance to share different views, ask clarifying questions or to have a meaningful dialogue. To change this pattern, you might ‘call an audible’ and make clear this type of interaction as a primary means of communication isn’t doing it for you (the reality is that others will be relieved since they are likely faking it too).

Instead, propose regularly communicating in-person even if it’s on the phone or video. Have regular “live” updates with your team instead of sending around google docs; book standing (non-bathroom) check-ins with your boss; and actively ask colleagues for input on projects or challenges you have (and then…wait for it…listen to their feedback). A former coworker hated holding back-to-back meetings in the office due to constant interruptions, so would ask people to meet for breakfast to ensure a focused discussion before the day started. If the weather permits, I always prefer “walk and talk” meetings to change the scenery (and sometimes the mood and outcome). When you can, spend a few extra minutes asking colleagues about the kids/marathon training/maybe-serious-but-probably-too-early-to-tell romance/house renovation problems so you are forming a connection instead of just conducting a transaction. It’s less important how you do it, but more that you find ways to make communicating openly and in person a priority if you want to have a healthy work relationship.

Play a little show and tell. Like love, healthy work relationships must be based on a foundation of trust which is built through respect, consistency, transparency, fairness, dependability and follow through (the work equivalent of calling when you say you will). If you are in a workplace that doesn’t practice or prioritize these, you can change the dynamic by identifying the scenarios where these are lacking and showing examples of new ways to address it. For instance, if the way in which work projects are assigned and staffed is inconsistent or imbalanced, propose instituting a morning meeting to help standardize them and to give all team members the opportunity to opt-in, or to ask for help. If your boss doesn’t readily communicate important company-wide updates or doesn’t share the work your team is doing with others, you might create a regular monthly/quarterly update — with relevant links and attachments — that can be shared with different audiences depending on the need. There are many approaches you can use to “show and tell” that can help address how workflow is managed or how information is shared to create more balance, transparency and communication at work.

Establish a safe word. Every workplace has norms and values that guide the behaviors within the organization. Your employer expects you will perform in a professional and respectful manner, and you should expect that in return — whether it means respecting your time off on vacations or PTO, appreciating your need for work/life balance and personal space (e.g. bathroom meetings) or fulfilling your professional needs.

If you are working in an environment that isn’t respectful of this, or where you don’t feel safe to speak your mind then you can change the dynamic by identifying the situations where its lacking and calling it out it when it happens (the corporate safe word). For instance, if bullying emails are flying at all hours, suggest it’s time to “take it offline” and request that everyone hold their thoughts until you can discuss together during work hours. Or if open, two-way dialogue is lacking in meetings, try setting aside time for a “feedback session” where each person has a chance to share their thoughts or ask for input in a fair, balanced way. There are many work relationship hacks that you can easily implement but the key is to identify the specific situations that are making you professionally uncomfortable, flag it in the moment using consistent terminology and then devise alternative ways to address them.

All relationships take work, including work relationships. And in any mutually rewarding and successful partnership both parties must be willing to communicate, compromise and, yes, sometimes change. If you are in a dysfunctional work relationship but determine it’s worth fighting for, try creating a step-by-step plan to purge the toxic behaviors from the system, replacing them with healthier options over time. A detox can be an effective way to isolate and eliminate a specific underlying problem at work in order to improve overall health and wellbeing. But if left unchecked and unchanged, toxic work relationships can cause real damage— sometimes with long-lasting effects. So if you find you’re the only one willing to put in the work or that there is no real desire to compromise and change, then it’s time to let go and find a work relationship that will give you what you crave and deserve.

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Julianna Richter

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Musings and metaphors about life, love and work.

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