How to survive in a toxic work culture: 4 ideas to keep you afloat

Who said altruism is overrated? About 200 people gave me some meat for this article by answering a simple question: How do you deal with a toxic company culture?

And boy, did that meat come in all shapes and sizes. The most wicked one had me glued to my laptop, gaping in awe, and forgetting to breathe all at once. It could have been straight out of Hollywood: employee has a love/hate relationship with his boss, a.k.a Mr. Moodswing, helps turn the business around, finds out the company has been importing cocaine, confronts Fickle McMoody and gets a mug tossed at his head upon telling him he’s outta here. True story.

And so, this chronicle could easily have been turned into a riveting book or Netflix series. It’s also safe to say that the consensus is to leave said toxic environment. But for now, we’ll assume you can’t leave your job just yet.

If you think about it, company culture is like dating: at first everything looks great. As you get to know each other, you begin noticing the true depth of the iceberg. Some discoveries will lift you up to cloud nine. And sometimes, ugly things will start to rear out their heads.

Just like finding the one is no easy feat, finding a workplace where you can thrive can be a real bear. But you can’t always quit right when things turn sour. So, how do you survive (and maybe even thrive) when your values don’t align with your company culture?

1. YOU COME FIRST

This may sound radically selfish, but your sanity and mental well-being come first. Not your ability to “suck it up”. Not your bosses’ happiness. And not even your coworkers’ appreciation. Everything builds on your well-being, so put yourself first.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard about a thousand, nay a million times about the power of meditation, mindfulness, yoga and the likes. And then you’ve thought to yourself, “Sounds nice. I’ll do it when I have time.” Well friend, it’s time to make time.

Not too long ago, I finally gave meditation a solid try. Okay, you got me I used an app. And so, I meditated about 8 minutes a day for a month. The first week, my mind felt like a bunch of monkeys were running around a Gymboree, each with an attention span of three seconds. The second week, I managed to relax my mind and snore myself to sleep within two minutes.

But during the third week, I began to feel my mind untangle and pipe down a bit.

Many negative things didn’t affect me with the same horsepower they did before. Angry drivers showing me their most precious finger while giving their car horn the solo of a lifetime didn’t bother me. Lazy coworkers putting a spoke in my wheel made me look for creative workarounds.

Sounds a bit too abracadabra, right? Yup, that’s what I used to say. But now you’ll find me meditating in a conference room every now and then.

Here’s a big BUT: if your health is already failing because of your work environment, I recommend you get your creative juices flowing right now to extract yourself from that situation asap.

2. FOCUS ON THE THINGS YOU CAN INFLUENCE

We like to think that the way we see the world is the truth. But it’s not. If you sat in a psychology class back in the day, your lecturer may have shown you the following picture.

This isn’t just an optical illusion, it also demonstrates the power of perception. In fact, if you were given the picture and told this was an old lady, that’s the way you would see the picture from now on. We could sit down and effectively argue about it for some time, but ultimately we’d both ferociously cling to our own truths.

At work, you see things you don’t like (your own truth, remember) that you can’t change. If leadership is terrible or another department won’t collaborate, there probably isn’t much you can do about it.

So instead, look at the things that bug you and that you actually can influence. Do you find yourself spending the bigger part of the day going through emails? Try a few different time management techniques (and be patient with yourself). Can’t get anything done because people always push abstruse tasks onto you at the last-minute? Begin creating clear, step-by-step processes for them to fall back on. Surrounded by gossip and ugly office politics? Elegantly bow out of it or steer the discussion to a positive topic.

Out of every experience, good or bad, there is an opportunity to learn. So chisel your skills and develop new, transferable ones.

3. FIND YOUR PACK

While your mental being should come first, a like-minded tribe is a nice complement. In a culture where there is no “we” but lots of “them,” lots of employees have grown bitter, unproductive, and uncollaborative.

Yet, collaboration is in our bones. We can sing a song all day long about how great it is to be independent. But great things happen when people put their heads together. In fact, the simpatico factor can help you thrive in a toxic environment.

Rest assured, you’re rarely the only misfit. And this is coming from one seriously outlandish, can’t-be-labeled oddball.

It might take some time, but you’ll naturally flock toward those with values similar to yours. Nurture these relationships, support each other, and kick around some ideas for improvement. Yes, you can even go on a rant once in a while. Dose these carefully though, or you may get sucked into a downward spiral and end up with all the other negative lemmings.

Here’s a great perk and a hidden truth for you: Leadership isn’t reflected in your title or salary, but in your mindset and collaborative spirit.

4. THINK LIKE A COACH

I’m a little biased here since I’ve had the privilege to have gone through training and certification. But let me give you the rundown. Systemic coaching strives to acknowledge the “system” in which a person lives, and help this person identify strategies to cope or thrive within that system. Makes sense, right?

I noticed how valuable coaching skills can be at the office while working with pessimistic departments that wouldn’t budge, thus creating roadblocks for a series of projects that needed to move forward.

I was once in an endless meeting where no matter how many excellent arguments I brought forth highlighting the profitability of a project, the manager slammed them down, one by one. And so we ran in circles. Two hours later, everyone was out of breath: by now we had clocked about 85 circles. I changed strategies and attentively listened for any indication of fear. Within 30 minutes, we had found a strategy that pleased both departments and the project was back on track.

At times, you may need to tuck away the business negotiator. In fact, the entrepreneur within me was shaking her head (how can we lose 2 hours in a meeting and barely make progress). But the human coach within me was celebrating this minor breakthrough.

As a coach, you have to fully understand that a person’s truths (or view) of the world don’t have to align with your own reality. These 4 steps can get you started:

  1. Listen attentively to uncover a person’s views, motives, fears and expectations — without judging.
  2. Restrain yourself from handing out solutions. They’re your solutions, not theirs, remember?
  3. Ask that person what the worst case scenario would be. This should help you understand their biggest fear and add a fresh perspective.
  4. Together, find different ways to quench the fear.

WRAP UP: DON’T TAKE THE BLUE PILL!

It takes a lot of optimism, patience, self-development, and drive to succeed in a toxic work culture that is ingrained to the deepest level. The toughest challenge is not to succumb to the dark side.

Because, aside from missing a wonderful opportunity to grow, you’d make irreversible damages to your own personality.

So, take the blue pill and take the easy way out. Or go for red, roll up your sleeves and take back control of your life.

If you enjoyed this article, I’d SO appreciate it if you clicked the thumbs up and shared it. Comments? Yes please — I want to hear from you!


Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on June 29, 2017.

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