How to Cope With a Toxic Workplace Culture

Working in a toxic environment feels stressful, confusing and insurmountable. Toxicity takes root when ineffective leaders perpetuate dysfunction and elevate levels of anxiety, tension and fear. For toxicity to flourish, there has to be a failure in leadership.

Achieving success in a toxic environment is not intuitive because the fixed points on the cultural compass are site-specific rather than universal. To thrive in the environment, one often has to do things that wouldn’t yield success in a normal, healthy culture such as cater to the whims of an emotionally chaotic leader, lie, throw a colleague under the bus, etc.

A pervasive sense of distrust coupled with inconsistent performance measures and a perpetual stream of turnover also characterize toxicity. Fear, disrespect or belittling are used as motivational tools. There is often a general feeling of chaos and despair as well as a sense that some employees are insiders while others are outsiders.

How to cope     

If you find yourself in a toxic culture, step one is to try and garner emotional clarity. Examine the situation and recognize it for what it is–– a climate where no one can be healthy or successful. This is not your fault.  

If you are in a management role, and you have the clout to clean house, you may be able to disinfect the culture. But if you are not management-level, and the toxicity interferes with your role, it may be in your best interest to cut your losses and look for a new job.

Do a mental shift   

In a toxic culture, no one really gets to “nail it” with their professional efforts because the leadership is eroded. In this environment you have to simply figure out how to survive, keeping yourself intact as much as possible until you can escape.

This is a test of your emotional endurance, and you get the opportunity to learn and demonstrate who you are under these chaotic circumstances. Keep in mind that your colleagues are also feeling the toxicity and they will notice and remember the character you demonstrate. Exhibiting poise in a toxic situation is particularly impressive both to those perpetuating the toxicity and to others, like you, who are simply the victims of it.    

Don’t let the toxicity infect you by making you view yourself negatively.  Different jobs teach you different things about your professional self and yourself as a person. Working in a toxic culture teaches you how to hold tightly to your sense of who you are despite working in a climate that may try to make you feel badly about yourself. Don’t fall for it.   

Keep your cool

Do your best to stay in control of your emotions. Toxicity feeds on negativity, so don’t play that game. When your colleagues see you projecting a more positive attitude, they will be drawn to that. Your positivity will be a breath of fresh air, and it will win you support. That will help you more than any expression of negative emotion would, so try to make positivity your aim.

Walk away

Come up with a good exit plan and prepare walk into your next gig as a cool survivor—like the one who gets away at the end of a horror movie.  

You may not leave with the experience you had hoped for, but you will move on with knowing that you have an unshakable sense of self and an uncompromising commitment to standing your ground. That has a value all its own.