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10 Power Moves in Navigating a Toxic Work Environment

Career Coaches, Thought Influencers say if the job you are in doesn't serve you, then Leave! It's advice that oversimplifies a very serious issue and I often wonder if they are living in virtual reality while I am stuck in the real world.

Most of us have been there, working in an environment that threatens our emotional well-being and balance. Maybe the culture left you feeling drained? Silenced? Angry? How about those situations where in order to maintain ‘peace’ you have had to repeatedly accept behavior or attitudes that were in violation of your own codes of respect and professionalism? Coaches, thought leaders and influencers have suggested that if an environment is toxic or not serving you that the solution is simple; Leave! It seems that if the solution was that simple, most employees would not continue to suffer when there was a clear exit available.

I don’t have statistics for the Caribbean, however according to the United States Gallup Survey of 2015, the number one contributor to Employee Job Satisfaction was; ‘Respectful treatment of all employees at all levels.’ This is not surprising, or rather it should not be for managers or leaders with any real understanding of human behavior. Organizational Culture including authentic connection between management and staff continues to be of vital importance to employee satisfaction and ultimately well-being. Virtual reality and real life are similar but quite different, why then is it that we treat these issues as if we are playing a game of virtual reality, where we simply hit the ‘x’ and it’s over? Typically, employees have responsibilities including families, and financial obligations that rely on their salaries and in actuality, there is a significant percentage of the workforce that lives paycheck to paycheck for a variety of reasons not entirely to be blamed on lack of fiscal prudence. How can we handle a toxic environment when another job offer is not quite yet on the table?

1.      Accept your truth. Conduct an honest inventory of your personal skills, attitudes strengths, weaknesses and the situation at hand. What has been happening and how has it made you feel? Is there another lens to view this situation through? Could it be that strengthening your interpersonal skills would enable you to effectively handle this situation? Is it that you are projecting past experiences or issues into the present? Or is it that this is an unhealthy environment? Only you will be able to answer these questions. Consider discussing it with a close friend or associate who can give you honest feedback and offer another perspective.

2.      If after you have done some introspection, you conclude that the environment is indeed unhealthy, I invite you to look a bit deeper. Is it the culture of the organization or is it a specific individual or department? It will be challenging to come up with a reasonable solution if you label the entire organization as unhealthy if the issue lies with a specific individual since the approach in resolving it may be different.

3.      What can you do about the situation? If the challenge rests with your manager or a colleague, is there an opportunity to discuss it? What resources are available through HR or through higher leadership? A word of caution here: be prepared to deal with the possible repercussions of filing a complaint, only you can decide if the possible fallout will be worth going this route. If you are prepared to battle, then stand your ground. If there are no real options for ventilating the situation in a helpful healthy manner, then your only option may be to determine not to be destroyed by it and plan an exit strategy.

4.       Make a list of the top three scenarios that happen frequently and think through some positive, empowering ways that you can respond to them. What are the stressful, negative situations that you experience daily and what are some alternate ways of responding? One of the most empowering strategies in difficult environments, is determining beforehand how you will handle situations. Reclaiming your power and ability to choose how you will respond to certain experiences allows you to do so from a place of reason and clarity.

5.      In a toxic environment, we often end up self-loathing or losing self-respect as a result of behavior that we feel we have to accept. An empowering self-respecting choice may mean stepping outside of your comfort zone and expressing your disagreement or perspective even if it makes others uncomfortable. The key will be to choose a response that restores your ability to be in charge of self. Critical to regaining your self-respect and self-esteem is to speak your truth-even if your voice shakes. Other solutions may include maintaining strict professionalism, and not subjecting yourself to social activities that leave you anxious or uncomfortable. This is similar to that first gasp of air after holding your breath for far too long. It changes everything, the moment you decide to stand up for yourself and speak your truth.

6.      Determine what the long term solution is, if after much thought you decide to leave the organization, then you must begin that process with a clean slate. Recognize that there is no perfect organization with perfect people. In the panic of trying to escape a negative situation, we often run to the nearest harbor, now this may work if you are in an absolute desperate situation where you are suffering immensely and are at risk of either losing your job or having a breakdown. On the contrary, jumping into the next available job without adequate research, introspection and thought can land you in a similar situation if you have not taken the time to determine the type of culture and organization that will support your purpose, growth and long term goals. Consider working with a Career Coach while you conduct an honest self-assessment.

7.      Strengthen your support system externally. Discuss what’s happening with your partner, close friend or family member. Ask for help and advice. This may include a weekly lunch date that takes you outside of the office or more structured time together with the people that enrich and strengthen you. The value of a strong support system cannot be overstated. If the situation is affecting your health, then seek the advice of a therapist or medical doctor. This isn’t about weaknesses, this is about loving and respecting yourself to get help when you need it. Remember, you are inherently more valuable than any position you will ever hold.

8.      Network. Network. Network. This could be a whole other article, and in fact I encourage you to read some books and articles on networking. The reality is that your network helps to determine your net worth. If you are looking to make a change professionally, then the key to that change may just lie in your network. Volunteer with organizations whose mission resonates with your purpose, find mentors who can help you to grow personally and professionally.

9.      Explore healthy outlets while you navigate your next move. The job search is usually not simple and may take some time. Include exercise and a healthy diet as part of your regime, all a part of the word many of us are tired of hearing but is vital- ‘Self Care’. In stressful situations, our bodies need nourishment and an outlet for stress release. Diet and exercise will help to strengthen your ability to manage stress and improve your mood.

10.  Develop your Transition Plan. What do you bring to the table? What are your real skills, talents and abilities? Why should an organization hire you? What is your purpose? What roles support that purpose? What culture will help you to thrive while you add value? Write them down. Begin your search with a clear goal in mind, and with the lessons you’ve learned from this experience.

Life is a series of experiences, all with valuable lessons. A difficult environment that leaves you dis-empowered and threatens your well-being is not healthy and should not be tolerated. In the same vein, it is often in these experiences that we discover additional strengths and talents; challenges force us to transform and step outside of comfort zones. Toxic environments, difficult people, challenging situations can be powerful agents to move us into the spotlight of who we really are, of unearthing our true power and potential, the challenge is in our choice of response.

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