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surviving a toxic work environment

A sketch by Julie Zhuo in Average Manager vs. Great Manager

We’ve all been there before. Tension is high, your team is unhappy and there are too many problems to solve. People are bonding with each other by venting their frustration.

You are in the middle of a toxic work environment.

I’ve seen toxic work environments most often in big projects with many different people all trying (unsuccessfully) to work together. Communication is poor and everyone is trying to get their own work done at any cost, without thinking of others.

I don’t have time to worry about the other teams, dammit! I’ve got to get my work done!

Surviving the toxic work environment

When you’re trying to survive a toxic work environment, if you aren’t careful, it becomes an echo-chamber of negativity which just makes things worse.

The echo-chamber effect happens when everyone you talk to bonds with everyone else by telling their bad stories about the toxic work environment. You hear an echo because for every retelling of a bad experience, you hear a similar story right back from somebody else.

When everybody starts bonding over these bad stories, it becomes the most common topic of conversation. Any successes that people are having are quickly forgotten. People who are struggling don’t want to hear about successes that others are having, because it makes them feel as if they are doing a bad job.

However, often there are successes happening, it’s just that they aren’t as fun to talk about, especially if you’re not part of them.

After a while of living in the toxic work environment, it begins to feel like you are all doomed.

How do leaders survive the toxic work environment?

It’s difficult not to become unhappy when you are working in a toxic work environment for a long time. I’ve struggled with this a few times. It’s tough, because bitching can be a good way to bond. When you don’t seem to be getting anywhere for long periods, failure and frustration are normal.

Here are three ways leaders can help their teams survive a toxic work environment.

1. Look hard to find successes, even outside of your team

It is easy to find failure and to complain about difficult people. But in any workplace, there are successes happening, somewhere. Find them, and tell your team. Balance the good news with the bad. Don’t ignore the bad news, but always spread the good news.

2. Vent your own frustration, but don’t gossip about what has happened to other people

Sometimes you need to vent. That’s OK. Tell your struggle stories to the people you can trust.

However, during the course of your day, you will come across other people who talk about their own troubles. Don’t pass these on, because you will find you have a never-ending supply of negative stories to tell.

Did you hear about what happened to Jack? OMG, he was like, sooooo angry. Let me tell you all about it!

If something happened to you directly, go-on, let off some steam. But don’t wallow in the failures  others have experienced as if they were your own, because it simply makes a toxic work environment worse.

You can read more about how to vent your frustration at work here.

3. Stay close to your team and support them

In a toxic work environment, there will be blame flying around. “She did this”, “They said that”, “I can’t believe they are so stupid”. You’ve probably heard it.

Your team will probably get some criticism at some point. Nobody is perfect after all. All I can advise is that you publicly stick up for your team.

Behind the scenes, you might give your team some advice on what to do better, but if you have a good team who is trying hard to get the job done, back them up. Take the blame for them when you need to. Defend them from attackers so they can focus on the work.

The closer you are to your team, the more you know what’s happening. When somebody is accusing your team of something, you need to know the truth. That will give you the umbrella you need to shelter your team, so they can get things done.

Living through a toxic work environment isn’t easy, and thriving within it is even harder. It’s never going to be an enjoyable time, but you will learn a lot. Remember that you will be a better and stronger leader after you eventually leave that toxic work environment.

But while you’re there, stay positive and make the best of it for your team.

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