An ideal workplace offers psychological safety and great benefits, but also boasts a culture that encourages employees to learn and succeed through collaboration and creativity. Toxic cultures, on the other hand, can cause employees massive stress that manifests itself in the form of burnout or even sickness. It can be difficult to distinguish what’s okay at work, especially if you’re employed by a popular company or totally caught up in your responsibilities. We spoke with Andee Harris, chief engagement officer at HighGround, to get some insight into what a truly toxic workplace culture can feel like. She also gave us a handful of suggestions you can use to thrive if you find yourself trapped in one.
What a toxic culture can feel like
Your company might show promising signs of growth and offer sweet perks like catered meals, cool offsites, or pet-friendly policies, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of toxicity. Chances are, if you don’t feel good, something’s off — and it might not be your fault. Harris gave us a few red flags to look out for.
You aren’t recognized or rewarded for your work. “While a pat on the back for performing a standard task that fits squarely in your job description isn’t necessary, every employee deserves recognition for doing great work,” Harris reminds us. “If recognition is absent at your company, you could be caught in an unhealthy culture.” She tells us that recognizing and rewarding employees not only results in higher retention rates, but also boosts morale — factors that keep culture on track and staff happy.
Your manager is hindering your growth. Poor manager-employee relationships can lead to negative company culture, and managers who hold employees back are one of the biggest factors driving toxic work environments. “A manager’s tendency to block growth opportunities permeates throughout the organization, leading to some not-so-positive perceptions of the company as a whole,” Harris explains.
You don’t enjoy your work anymore. When it comes to a big meeting or rough morning commute, all jobs have aspects of drudgery; after all, no gig is 100 percent perfect. “If the dread becomes recurring or overwhelming, however, it could be a red flag that the company culture is causing you to lose meaning in your work,” Harris notes. “Similarly, if you’ve stopped believing in the organization’s mission and core values, it’s likely a warning sign that there’s a systemic problem with the work environment.”
Four ways to rise up in a toxic culture
1. Trust your instincts. Harris tells us that if you think you’re working in a toxic environment, then you probably are. “Often, we ignore our instincts… and it can be difficult to acknowledge them, particularly if you are working in less-than-ideal conditions.” However, she says, you should never ignore your gut feelings, because you know yourself (and your work preferences) better than anyone else. “Pay attention to what your instincts are telling you, and how they’re telling you to fix the situation. For example, you might consider setting up more regular, informal check-ins with your manager. By doing this, you can share your concerns and determine what changes would make the work environment more welcoming for you.”
2. Transform it into a learning experience. Harris says that whether a toxic work environment stems from an awful boss or gossipy coworkers, you can think of your negative experiences as a chance to learn. “The best growth opportunities often come from the most difficult experiences, so view your workplace’s unhealthy culture as an excuse for personal development.” To do it, Harris suggests observing what leadership qualities are ineffective, or what aspects of your company’s culture are dragging its employees down. “Take note for the future,” she wisely says.
3. Don’t give in. Though it’s easy to give up and do nothing about distancing yourself from your company’s toxic culture, this is actually the *worst* thing you can do to cope. “By giving in and ignoring the issues at hand, you’re contributing to your office’s toxic environment, selling yourself short of what you can accomplish, and risking your own integrity,” Harris shares. “While leaders do play a large role in shaping and improving culture, employees share the responsibility. Deal with your company’s negative environment by continuing to work toward your goals, remaining positive, and staying true to yourself and your values.” Document your concerns and share them with your boss or HR manager as you see fit. In an instance where your concerns are ignored or the culture fails to improve, start looking for a new job elsewhere.
4. Voice your concerns. “To avoid feeling like just another number, provide feedback to your manager and peers in real time,” Harris suggests. She explains that true cultural change can only come when employees are open and honest about how they feel so improvements can take place. “When you deliver feedback in a way that shows how the culture is negatively impacting the company’s bottom line, leaders will hear your concerns loud and clear.”
Have you dealt with a toxic workplace? Tell us what made it unhealthy and what you did about it on Twitter @BritandCo.
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