Wednesday, 15 June 2016

6 tactics to stay sane despite working in a toxic workplace: Safety@Work

How to remain an ethical, high performer in toxic work environments - 6 tactics: Safety@Work

Talking to “Jim” today, an engineer now running his own business, I was interested to hear why he decided to leave the public service (I hadn't realised he'd been a public servant). Jim described being very happy in his initial roles as an engineer in a small agency that expanded rapidly as a consequence of an amazing CEO, and had decided to expand his career through a Masters in Marketing & Sales. 

He won a promotion in that field and relocated to the new agency.  Jim shook his head, looked at the ground and said, “In hindsight I realise accepting that promotion in sales was a dumb decision.”

Jim described marketing and sales as a different tribe to engineers, and quickly found he wasn't a good fit. He struggled to manage the complex people issues in his Branch, as his previous managerial roles had been as a specialist. “f really struggled with the communication,” Jim said, “if you’re managing people you have to be able to communicate across a number of levels, and be aware of the impact of what you say and do.”  He also described his surprise at the intense combativeness exhibited by his colleagues at the executive level, and said he found it was too toxic for him.

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Staying sane despite working in a toxic environment.

So, let’s cut to the chase. We all accidentally fall into situations that looked pretty good at the time (a promotion, or a job that we thought would look great on our CV) that quickly became toxic. In these situations, it's hard not to feel stuck and a bit panicked. So, how do you remain professional, effective and maintain your personal brand of authenticity so you can leave and find a better job? 

1.     Consciously choose to accept this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how you handle difficult situations.  

Despite feeling stuck in this toxic workplace, you do have choices. You now have a choice about how you decide to deal with the toxic environment, and what you learn from the situation, and how you use these "learnings." In the short to medium-term, highly challenging or difficult situations are great opportunities to be more self-reflective and get to know ourselves better - what really makes you tick, and how do your personal values influence your attitudes. This additional clarity is invaluable when seeking your next job. If you take this as an opportunity to enhance your own self-awareness and self-reflection then you are more likely to analyse your colleagues’ behaviours and control your responses. This change in perception is empowering, especially once you realise your colleagues’ behaviours are not about you at all. Just be cautious about hanging around in the toxic environment too long as research has found that long-term negative work environments can erode your authenticity, well-being and work performance.

 2.   Remain true to your personal values in your service to others

While there’s no need to actively rub people’s noses in their childish workplace behaviours, you can choose to demonstrate your values by retaining your professionalism and treating others with respect (irrespective of their role or position), and in doing so, display your resilience and true grit. What I’m talking about is consciously and actively “stepping up” and deciding to be the best that you can be DESPITE the current situation. Research has found that people who consciously decide to retain their values in stressful situations increase their likelihood of retaining their personal power - this requires a high level of conscious mindfulness. This choice gives you a greater capacity to maintain your ability to deliver at work, and retain your professional reputation as an ethical high performer. This is important for future job prospects.

3.     It’s not about you, and it doesn’t have to make sense. 

Organisational social science researchers found that individuals who exceed accepted organisational performance norms are punished by their peers or colleagues, usually through “subtle or covert aggression, such as sabotage, ostracism, or “back-stabbing.” A recent Forbes article suggested that in these situations, you may unexpectedly find colleagues attempting to grab your high performing project or staff for themselves to piggy-back off your efforts or undermine your ability to deliver. You may also find yourself isolated as colleagues talk over you in meetings or mob you, stop sharing information unless they want something. You may discover your boss is blackballing you from important meetings. The Harvard Business Review recently reported threatened bosses are likely to bully you with “non-physical aggression, such as ridiculing [you], putting [you] down in front of others, accusing [you] of incompetence, blaming [you], lying to [you], or not giving [you] credit for [your] work.”  Research confirms these counter-productive behaviors erodes organisational  productivity and employee trust, and simply doesn’t make rational sense. However, it’s is not about you, and in a weird way, this unconscionable behaviour can be viewed as affirmation that you’re performing at a higher standard. After all, no-one bothers to try to knock down under-performers (why bother).

4.     Take time out to detox

Experiencing, and observing, toxic workplace behaviour takes an emotional and physical toll.  Be self-compassionate and take time to detox the build-up of negative emotions and feelings by walking or running in the park before work (or at lunch-time or after work). Take a long-weekend or take the family to the beach or head to the bush for a week. Go to the gym, read a favourite novel, watch a funny movie. Detox mentally and physically. Your body will quickly tell you that the stress levels are creeping up - you will struggle to sleep through the night without waking-up at 3am worrying, lose your appetite, feel nauseous on the way to work, suffer headaches, increased heart rate and/or blood pressure. Before the stress levels become severe, talk to someone who can help you organise regular physical and mental-health breaks, and definitely seek advice from a health professional such as your local GP. Recognise the stress, and detox.

5.     Team up with other ethical high performers and experts. 

I've always found ethical, high performers and experts are incredibly easy to spot. Go to a conference or workshop and they’re usually the relaxed person in the middle of a group of relentless net-workers. They may also be the quiet ones looking thoughtful, and listening to others and nodding their head. People generally gravitate to ethical high performers as their work ethos and reputation means they are actively sought after as a sounding board for advice or guidance. So, use your time to team up with other ethical, high performers and experts in your organisation, or in other organisations and develop a rich support base.

6.     Leave for a better job. 

Before the toxic workplace erodes your self-confidence, organise a better job and leave. You may want to stay and fix the organisation - try to avoid this altruistic impulse and look after yourself first.  Find a better job by listing your work values and ethics, and researching advertised positions that align to them.  Unadvertised positions can be found through your professional network. Talk to other ethical high performers and see if they know about temporary or full-time positions in their agencies. Without going into the details, flag your interest with your former boss(s), colleagues, clients, stakeholders, as these contacts may know of the perfect role for you. Even if this job might take a few weeks or months to manifest, you now know the current situation is temporary.
 Dr Flis has a BA SSc and a PhD in organisational social psychology and works with individuals and organisations as a consultant, speaker and trainer. She uses her social science expertise to enhance interactions between organisations and the people who lead and work in them by fostering new insights for diagnosing organisational problems, and build new capabilities and culture.

Contact Dr Flis at, LinkedIn  or follow Dr Flis on her blog, Twitter or Facebook


  1. thanks for these ideas to stay sane despite working! will submit you 20 tips that help to feel hapier at work!

  2. It helps me a lot at this moment..