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When Work Isn’t Working – When You Work in a Toxic Environment

Posted Nov 16 2009 10:01pm

kristen_b We’ve all experienced toxic work environments (not in the sexy pre-shaved head Britney Spears kind of way) and if you’re currently experiencing this, you have my condolences. Ordinarily I’d say your best bet when dealing with a truly dysfunctional work situation is to look for greener pastures. With the current state of the economy though, that option is looking increasingly bleak. So you may find yourself having to hunker down and make the best of your dismal situation. Here are some things you can do to bring some order to your unruly plight.

What’s Your M.O.?

When you’re immersed in a dysfunctional environment it’s easy to lose perspective and find yourself engaging in the very same behaviors and dynamics that make your workplace, well, dysfunctional. Therefore, it’s important to take a step back and decide on some guiding principles that will help steer your behavior toward your long-term goals, while avoiding the temptation to go to the short-term dark side. Ask yourself: where do I want my current role to take me? To a better, less whacked organization (that’s a technical term)? A new role in a different department? A completely different career? Your answers to these questions will help you arrive at your personal guiding principles. But, if I could interject my bias, I would recommend tacking on the following:

  1. Securing a good reference for the future when you’ve dug your way out of this place. Even if you’re thinking “I would never want/need the endorsement of any of these crazies,” mark my words, the whole burning bridges adage has a way of biting you in the rear at the most inopportune times.
  2. Be true to who you are by behaving in a way that you can be proud of. At the end of the day, you have to live with yourself so remind yourself of your values be sure to stick to them.

Step Away from the Water Cooler…

Anytime employees are unhappy and morale is low because of layoffs, pitiful raises, unpopular management decisions – you name it – work often turns into 6th period lunch in high school. This dynamic is so easy to get sucked into because it feels harmless (and even delightful) at first but it easily poisons your work environment making it difficult to balance your professional relationships with the disdain you feel for your situation. It often results in you feeling worse about your plight. So when the sounds of whispers begin to swell and everyone is spending more time sharing dirt on their boss than doing work, you need to take a step back and decide between sitting at the cool kids table – where catharsis has taken an ugly turn – or you can do like your mama told you and take the high road. I recognize that the high road is no fun at all. It’s natural to want to get in on the action especially when you’re among the disgruntled but this is where your guiding principles play your conscience. You are doing yourself no favors by tarnishing the strong reputation you’ve built in your organization by becoming known as someone who talks smack. It could hurt your chances of a good reference, and you’ll likely feel childish looking back on your behavior. The high road won’t satiate your need for instant gratification, but you can sleep soundly knowing that you did what was best for you and your conscience.

Be the Voice of Clarity

When decisions are unpredictable, praise is misplaced and priorities conflict more often than the judges on American Idol – getting clarity on expectations is a must. This is important for your own sanity but also protecting yourself. Make sure you ask questions and get definitive answers about deadlines, who’s responsible for what, and the scope of deliverables. If you can document this information – even better! A simple spreadsheet will do. This will help keep you on track with your work, make it easier to communicate progress, have conversations about adjusting expectations and gather the praise when you complete major milestones on time. Just because you work in the crazy factory doesn’t mean you have to be one of the inmates. Taking conscious steps toward your individual career goals will leave you feeling empowered amidst the chaos. You may want to slap me for my idealism, but I personally feel that these challenging situations build our professional character and can even expedite the process of finding a role/organization/career in which we can really flourish. Having a sense of humor about it all doesn’t hurt either. You may feel imprisoned by your circumstances but I bet you have a truck load of outstanding stories – that’s worth something! So the next time you’re sharing work war stories over cocktails and you one-up your pals with the one about the time your boss asked you to photocopy your face so she’d have a scale model of a human head (sadly, this is true) – you’ll be secretly glad that a little splash of crazy has graced your work history.

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