Strategies to survive a toxic workplace
Don’t be bogged down by negativity, don’t shy away from reporting a bully, and don’t be the person who yells back
A 27-year-old healthcare professional dreaded going into office everyday. “The politics was too much. Managers cultivated sycophants, flirted with employees and attempted to destroy a person’s self-confidence with mockery and emotional attacks,” she says, “People were too scared to complain to the HR.” She quit the organization two years ago, but the bitterness remains. “I gained 15kg and developed severe back pain, all because of stress,” she says. She started seeing a therapist to regain her self-confidence.
Her experience isn’t an isolated one. According to a study of around 400 “leaders” published in the 2009 book Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities And Their Systems Of Power by professors Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, a whopping 94% of the respondents said they had worked with a toxic person while 51% of those being targeted with incivility at work indicated that they were likely quit the organization because of this toxicity.
A toxic work culture is defined as a place which encourages bullying, snitching, excessive competition, backbiting and arm-twisting, according to Ernesto Noronha, professor, organizational behaviour, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. “Companies which deprive people of minimum wages, don’t pay overtime, offer no work-life balance, have long working hours, don’t adhere to labour laws, have autocratic bosses, encourage favouritism and lack of communication are a bad environment to work in,” says Prof. Noronha, who has extensively researched corporate bullying cultures in India.
Any of this sounds familiar? Watch out for these seven tell-tale signs of a toxic workplace. And if you’re trapped in such an environment at work, but don’t want to quit because the work profile and money are good, or for lack of better options, here’s what you can do about it.
You are being bullied
It could be a manager, a colleague or even your whole team emotionally abusing you, being aggressive, or intimidating you through direct or virtual communication. “This behaviour can cause you grave harm as it makes you feel powerless,” says Premilla D’Cruz, professor of organizational behaviour at IIM, Ahmedabad.
Fix it: Prof. D’Cruz recommends confronting your oppressor, telling him/her that this needs to stop now. If the bully is your manager, take your colleagues into confidence and confront the manager together. Sometimes, giving an ultimatum is enough. “Informally, speak to your superior, the bully’s superior or the HR department and ask for help,” she says. Being assertive is good for your confidence. If that doesn’t work, do it in writing, and copy the human resources manager. “If you are still unsuccessful and get further victimized, leave,” says Prof. D’Cruz.
Everyone is negative
Are your colleagues always whining about the workload, company ethics and policies? Constant exposure to such negativity can make you feel miserable at work.
Fix it: Ask yourself whether you can make it better in any way, says Sourav Mukherji, professor, organizational behaviour and dean, academic programmes, IIM, Bangalore. “Smile, appreciate others and don’t be bogged down by negativity and doubts.” Avoid negative co-workers, and if forced to work with one, don’t allow yourself to get drawn into negative discussions.
You have got a horrible boss
We have all had to work with this kind of boss—a manager who shouts, nitpicks, micromanages and criticizes.
Fix it: Don’t cower or respond in anger. Instead quietly confront your manager. “Be concrete, non-emotional and engage your boss in resolving the issue you have with them,” says Prof. Kusy on email. If that doesn’t work, collect evidence that your work is suffering because of the manager and take it to HR or his/her boss. Asking to be reassigned to another team is also a solution.
Your colleagues are abusive
Many of us have had to work with or report to someone who humiliates us, by screaming or being abusive, is passive-aggressive or tends to undermine the work of the team.
Fix it: Find out if others in the company have problems with this individual’s abusive behaviour. If yes, note down examples of bad behaviour and confront the person. Be polite but firm; don’t be that person who yells back. “Keep your conversations to the point and matter-of-fact. Prolonging conversations with abusive people just worsens the problem,” says Kinjal Choudhary, senior vice-president and chief human resources officer, VE Commercial Vehicles Ltd, a joint venture between the Volvo Group and Eicher Motors.
a cut-throat environment
Your team is so competitive that co-workers are dragging one another down, creating an environment of distrust. Apprehensive about people gunning for or sabotaging you has left you feeling isolated and exhausted.
Fix it: Don’t lose sight of who you are and join the bandwagon of bringing others down. Instead of looking at your colleagues as competitors, try to build trust and make allies. “They are facing similar issues and you all need to do something about it collectively,” says Prof. Noronha. Also, having a confidant outside of work with whom you can vent your problems helps a lot too.
There’s no work-life balance
The deadlines are wearing you down, especially since the organization doesn’t respect boundaries like weekends, early mornings, late nights or promote any kind of work/life balance within the company.
Fix it: It’s okay if you choose to embrace the extra work for a few months as a challenge and a way to grow your skill set but let your manager know this is temporary, says Choudhary. Talk to your workaholic boss and force him to think by asking open-ended questions on work-life balance and exhaustion caused by overwork. Finally, draw your boundaries. Say no to socializing after work, late nights and unreasonable deadlines.
You’re not being appreciated enough
Every day you feel you’re doing more than your share of work but no one—your team or your manager—appreciates it.
Fix it: The best motivation comes from inside you. Keep a daily log of your accomplishments and keep reading it to build your self-esteem. Also, appreciate other people’s work. “When you offer gratitude or appreciation for others, you develop a positive mindset and attract appreciations and compliments,” says Choudhary. Request a meeting with your boss to ask for feedback. Try to understand his motivation and don’t take his lack of appreciation personally.