Toxic Work Environments

Your Ultimate Guide to Navigating a Toxic Workplace

Estimated Reading Time:
34 minutes
Last Update:
May 28, 2022

Are you worried that your workplace might be toxic? 

You deserve to earn a living in an environment where you make a meaningful difference and feel acknowledged and rewarded for your contributions. That’s at the very minimum. You also deserve the chance to feel a sense of belonging with friendly, helpful colleagues and the opportunity to learn and grow. But are you getting those things?

Many people are not.

Over time, the feeling that your efforts are wasted, or you’re not being appreciated, or it’s not safe to speak up, can be not only demoralizing but toxic. If you’re worried that you might be in a toxic work environment, read on.

What Makes a Workplace Toxic?

Toxic is a strong word. It means “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.” It’s not a word to throw around lightly. Even knowing how strong an accusation it is to call something toxic, you might legitimately be in a toxic situation.

According to research conducted in 2021 at MIT, a toxic corporate culture is by far the leading cause of workplace attrition.

Research conducted by Manuela Priesemuth¹ suggests that toxic workplaces have a negative impact on work groups’ confidence, on bonds between team members, and on individuals’ well-being.

You can evaluate your work environment on each of these five dimensions to determine whether there might be a serious problem.

SIGNS YOU’RE IN A TOXIC WORK ENVIRONMENT

If you prefer to watch/listen instead of read, this video covers the same information as below. I’ve included the chapters so you can quickly find the section that’s most relevant to your situation:

Is your work environment toxic? — 00:00
1. Toxic policies & procedures —
00:34
2. Toxic culture —
02:43
3. Toxic bosses/managers —
04:04
4. Toxic coworkers —
05:05
5. Toxic customers — 06:00
So IS your work environment toxic? —
07:42
Toxic inner monologue —
10:23

The Five Dimensions of a Toxic Workplace

Does your workplace have toxic policies & processes?

The most pervasive form of toxicity in an organization comes when the formal, codified rules by which the company operates are harmful. Toxic policies and processes are especially problematic because they exist beyond any single individual. People can come and go, and the poison lacing the organization remains.

Consider these indicators of toxic policies or processes:

  • Working conditions that are unhealthy (unhygienic, scorching hot, frigidly cold, cramped, lacking privacy, back-breaking)
  • Official working hours, break times, or scheduling systems that leave employees with little control or ability to accommodate their needs
  • Discriminatory hiring, performance management, or promotion practices that systematically disadvantage certain groups
  • Compensation and benefits programs that don’t provide a sustainable living

These are only a few examples but anything that is codified into the rules of the organization that could be considered harmful should be on the radar. If you are in an organization with toxic policies, you might be better off getting out. See below for my decision guide on how to know when you quit or click here to go straight there.

Keisha was trying to get established at a mid-sized recruitment agency. She signed a contract to work from 8 am to 6 pm, but then learned that everyone was scheduled to stay until 8 pm at least two nights a week. On weeks where the team wasn’t at quota, the extra hours were added on a third night. The only justification given was “that’s what’s required.” All in, Keisha was earning less than she would have made working on the floor at Costco. Not only was the pay unfair, but employees were discouraged from taking a vacation or a sick day. It was definitely toxic. Eventually the courts agree and the employer paid a settlement for overtime.


Does your workplace have a toxic culture?

Culture can be a nebulous term. In it’s simplest form, culture is the set of norms that dictate how people in your organization behave. These are the unwritten rules by which your people operate. And boy-o-boy, can some cultures be insipid and insidious.

These are a few signs of a toxic culture:

  • Resistance to new people and rejection of ideas that disrupt the status quo
  • Zeros and heroes where some people have clout and others are ignored
  • Passive-aggressive behaviors such as gossip, undermining, or sarcasm
  • Office politics and opaque back-channel influence strategies
  • Relentless positivity and unwillingness to tolerate dissent or disagreement

Again, I could have written a list the length of my arm of examples that suggest a toxic culture. You get the idea. Do the unspoken rules of the organization tolerate, allow, or even condone nasty, exclusionary, unproductive, or demoralizing behavior? If you think that a toxic culture is the problem in your workplace, here’s my advice on what you can do about it.

In 2016, employees at Wells Fargo raised the alarm about their toxic sales culture, describing  profound pressure to achieve quotas. Employees felt they had no way to succeed within the rules, but they were clear that they needed to “do whatever it takes.” To make their numbers, employees started opening fictional bank accounts without customers’ consent. More than 2 million fraudulent accounts were opened. In the end, the responsibility for the toxic culture fell on the front-line employees. The bank fired 5,300 people they called, bad apples.


 

Do you have toxic boss?

Some forms of toxic workplaces are less pervasive than toxic policies or cultures. Some toxicity can be traced back to a single individual. In many instances, these are people with power and control who are making life miserable, either intentionally or unintentionally, maliciously, or innocently.

Signs of a toxic boss:

  • Failure to prioritize and constant pressure to deliver an unachievable workload
  • Harsh, critical, dismissive judgments masquerading under the guise of feedback
  • Double standards and inconsistent treatment between favorites and flops
  • Poor planning that necessitates rework and firefighting
  • Micromanagement and constant questioning and meddling in your work

The vast majority of people who take on management responsibility are decent human beings. Somehow, the combination of pressure and power corrupts. Scary fact, did you know that studies show that empathy declines as power increases? Zoinks! Not good. Consider whether you have a toxic manager. If your organization is healthy but your boss is not, here are your options.

It wasn’t long after Len started working for Sasha when he ran into trouble. Sasha was a young manager with something to prove. As long as things were going well (and Sasha was getting the credit), things were fine, but the moment Len’s work got any attention, she started criticizing him and taking away his responsibilities. At first, Len was furious but after multiple instances, Len started to question whether he really was stupid or not measuring up. That’s when he knew that the relationship with his boss had become truly toxi


Does your workplace have toxic employees?

It’s not only those with power that can make life inhospitable in your organization. You’re experience of work is affected strongly by your teammates and colleagues and sometimes that’s not in a positive direction. Is there evidence of any of these destructive behaviors among the members of your team?

Signs of toxic coworkers:

  • Failure to deliver on commitments that affect your’ ability to meet expectations
  • Social exclusion and shunning from the social interactions of the team
  • Gossiping about you with other colleagues or your manager
  • Harsh, disrespectful interactions full of derision, snide remarks, or personal attacks
  • Overstepping with narcissistic, save-the-day behavior that devalues your contributions

If these kinds of things are happening on your team, they will undermine not only your success but also your health and happiness. If you have toxic coworkers, consider the following options.

The dynamic in Jose’s team seemed fine but below the surface, something was festering. Every time Jose would share a plan or an idea, his colleague Doug would immediately object. One time, Jose saw Doug rolling his eyes at yet another one of his ideas, and decided to raise the issue with Doug privately. Doug refused to acknowledge his behavior and said the presentation was, “fine.” When Doug’s sidekick Martin started to question the plan, Jose knew that Doug had been turning people against him. Doug had made the team toxic.


 

Do you have toxic customers?

Now we’re into the really interesting stuff. It’s possible that you are in a toxic workplace not because your organization has draconian policies, not because the culture has soured, not because your manager’s a jerk, or because your colleagues are. It’s possible that coming to work has become a threat to your physical or psychological safety because your customers are terrible.

Wow. That’s a lot to deal with. How far we’ve come from the heady days of “the customer is always right.” In this day and age, we’ve got flight attendants having to duct tape unruly customers to their seats (seriously, if you didn’t see the video, watch it here).

Do your customers come with a Surgeon General’s warning?

Signs of toxic customers:

  • Abusive behavior, including yelling, unwanted physical contact, aggressiveness
  • Rule-breaking and attempts to contravene organizational policies
  • Unrealistic expectations and constant threats to take their business elsewhere
  • Nickel and diming for every single item with no respect for the value they’re getting
  • Disorganization and changing expectations that lead to endless rework

It’s a terrible prospect but it’s not far-fetched to think that your customers might be jerks. If you’re bearing the brunt of nasty customers, you might consider these options.

Anna Marie was working in a consulting firm, helping clients design new performance management processes. This was usually interesting and rewarding work, but not with one of her clients. Morag, the head of Talent Management was a nightmare to work with. She was constantly changing her mind about what she wanted and causes Anna Marie to have to scrap hours of work. The horrible part was that Morag blamed Anna Marie for the timelines slipping and threatened to take the work to other firm if she didn’t deliver (and make Morag look like the hero). Morag was a toxic client.


 

Get The Team You Deserve

A toxic work environment is just one of the many ways that team dysfunction rears its ugly head. If you want regular tips on how to banish this bothersome beast, subscribe to my monthly newsletter.

The Relationship Between Psychological Safety and Toxicity

To be fair, I believe that the term “toxic” is getting bandied about far too liberally. “Toxic” is no longer reserved for the types of noxious workplaces where you might be screamed at for not being able to keep up with an unreasonable workload or forced to pee in a bottle if you want to make your quotas. It’s easy to say that if your workplace isn’t physically safe, that’s toxic. But what about psychological safety? If you feel unsafe, does that automatically make your workplace toxic? I don’t think so. Let’s dig into the idea of psychological safety a little further.

What is Psychological Safety?

Amy Edmonson, a Harvard professor who has pioneered the concept of psychological safety defines it as the “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risktaking.”

✅ Do you feel safe speaking up in your team?
✅ Can you voice an unpopular opinion without fear of your colleague’s rebuttal?
✅ Will you disagree with your boss knowing that they will value, or at least tolerate your divergent thinking?

If you can say “yes” to those questions, then you know what it feels like to have psychological safety.

If you can’t confidently agree with those questions, then you are among the throngs of people who feel psychologically unsafe at work. Your brain is telling you to be on guard, to protect yourself. It’s good to have a brain that keeps you safe. But your brain isn’t infallible. It can be a little over-the-top sometimes. So, before you buy what your brain is passing off as fear, and decide that your workplace must be toxic, take a minute to interrogate those feelings. Is the fear real? Is it justified? Is it serving you?

Consider which types of work environments are legitimate threats to your psychological safety and which might not be.

Fear of Harmful Outcomes

If you have direct evidence that people who disagree or rock the boat will be punished, that’s psychologically unsafe and it’s toxic. Similarly, if you have examples to show that speaking up might cause you to be yelled at, removed from a project, rated poorly, denied opportunities, or terminated, it makes sense for you to be afraid. This is a situation when your brain is warning you and you should listen. You have legitimate cause to feel unsafe. The answer in this situation is to seek help from Human Resources and to seek support from peers or leaders with whom you feel comfortable. Here’s some advice on how to seek help from your peers or HR.

While these situations are very serious, I don’t believe they’re all that common. It’s possible that your brain’s assessment that your work environment is toxic might not be fair.

Fear of Aversive Outcomes

As yourself, if I respectfully add a contrary point of view or disagree with the prevailing wisdom on the team, am I really going to be rated poorly or fired? Probably not. But what might happen is that you might be met with counterarguments, you might have the veracity and validity of your argument challenged or face a barrage of questions. You might feel unsafe at the thought of your ideas being tested, having to do additional work, or having to shift your long-held beliefs. I encourage you to reframe that as feeling uncomfortable, rather than unsafe. And uncomfortable is not toxic. The solution in this situation is to work on your skills to be able to work with constructive criticism and productive conflict so that over time it becomes less frightening to you. Here are a few tips.

Not Safe from Yourself

There’s one final possibility I’d like to mention. You might feel psychologically unsafe for no objective reason. Your manager might listen actively and respond in ways that demonstrate that they value your thoughts. Your colleagues might be responsive to your diverse ways of thinking. Yet, your fear might persist.

If you feel unsafe because you believe your team will stop liking you if you don’t go along with them, or you won’t make your point perfectly eloquently, or you’re worried about looking less smart than your colleagues, you have a confidence problem, an imposter syndrome problem, not a safety problem. The answer in this situation is not to blame your boss or your colleagues or pin your fear on others. The answer is to seek out reflection, coaching, and perhaps therapy.

Psychological safety is becoming a very popular topic, with good reason. When you don’t feel psychologically safe, you’re unlikely to contribute fully, you won’t throw out creative ideas that spark innovation, you might hesitate to point out issues or concerns that mitigate risk, you won’t sleep well at night.

While psychological safety is critical to all of these important obligations, I’m not convinced that it’s the sole responsibility of the organization or the manager to create it.

If you feel unsafe, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a toxic boss or a toxic work environment.

Reflect on which parts of your feelings of psychological safety you own. How could you parse the parts of your fear that are more generalized anxiety about feeling uncomfortable or unsure help you be happier, healthier, and more productive?

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

If you found this section on the characteristics of toxic work environments valuable, here are some additional resources from the blog:

Should I Quit my Toxic Workplace?

Now that we’ve talked about what is and what isn’t a toxic work environment, you’re in a better positon to decide what your options are. I’ve created this decision tree to help you pick the best path based on your predicament.

Option A: Should I Quit My Job?

One option is to quit your job. And by ‘quit your job,’ I mean quit your organization. Resign. Vamoose. Later, alligator.

When It Makes Sense to Quit Your Job

Quitting your organization makes sense if either:

  • It’s your organization that’s toxic. The poison isn’t just in your cup, it’s in the well. This might be because the policies make you physically or psychologically unsafe. It might be because the organization is discriminatory. You might be expected to do work you’re not compensated for. A toxic organization means toxic policies or processes like we talked about above: OR
  • Your part of the organization is toxic, and you can’t get out. In this case, you might work in a perfectly reasonable organization, but your department is corrupted, and you have no other options. If you’re a tax accountant and the CFO to whom you report is sinister, you likely don’t have an option to switch to another department.

If neither of those is true, quitting your organization might not be the only (or best) option for you. Take a look at options B, C, and D before handing in your notice.

Considerations Before Quitting Your Job

If you’ve concluded that your situation is so toxic that you must get out, the temptation is to leave immediately. It’s worth considering whether staying just a little longer might make things easier in the long run.

Things to think about:

  • Could you wait and save a small nest egg to give you some cushion before leaving?
  • Are you able to find another job before resigning to avoid a resume gap?
  • What could you do to leave on good terms so there’s no animosity? (Remember, when you’re leaving town, the best way to leave is on the high road.)

If you do decide to quit, go here for my advice on how to make sure you don’t end up right back in the same situation with another company.

Option B: Should I Quit My Team?

As I mentioned above, sometimes you work in a good organization, but you pull a lemon of a team. In that case, you don’t necessarily have to quit your organization, you might be able to quit your team. Apply for other positions in the organization. Swing your partner. Do-si-do!

Quitting your team makes sense if:

  • It’s your boss that’s toxic. Toxic bosses come in many forms (here’s a whole catalog of them!). If your boss is a whack job but your organization is a keeper, you might just want to quit your boss. [Note: Don’t change jobs in the same organization if the whole place is polluted…well, unless you just need to change the scenery and it would be a relief to see the dysfunction through a different window for a while.]
  • Your boss is okay but won’t deal with your toxic coworkers. You might like your boss but not be able to abide their willingness to put up with terrible employees. If working in your current team means putting up with incompetent, nasty, exclusionary pieces of work as teammates, you might need to quit your team to escape the toxicity.

If neither of those is true, you’re better with Options C or D.

How to Quit Your Team

  • Monitor the internal job postings and apply to new positions
  • Express your interest in broadening your skills or working in different divisions as part of development planning conversations
  • Nurture relationships with other leaders by participating in cross-functional projects

Option C: Should I Quit My Role?

Another, less drastic, option if you’re unhappy, stressed, or under-motivated is to look for a new role within your team. “Hey coach, can I play shortstop instead of first base this inning?”

If your organization is fine and your boss and teammates are swell (or at least tolerable), then it might just be your job that’s wearing you down. Roles can be toxic for several reasons. Maybe you’ve done the job too long and the monotony is rotting your brain. Or maybe your job is too difficult for you, and you’re exhausted by feeling like you’re running to stand still. Or maybe it’s the customers or other stakeholders you have to deal with that are burning you out.

How to Quit Your Role

  • Speak with your manager about your desire to try something new
  • Find a co-worker who might be interested in a swap and go to your manager together
  • Look for secondment opportunities to projects that might give temporary relief

Option D: Should I Stay and Fight

When I say, “stay and fight,” I mean stay in your organization, in your team, in your role, and change the way you behave or the way you think in hopes of changing your experience of work. There are situations where you don’t have the luxury of quitting. You can’t afford to be out of work. Your company is the only game in town. You haven’t found any opportunities that look better.

How to Survive a Toxic Work Environment

If you decide to stay, don’t just put up with a toxic situation. You probably have more ability to change things for the better than you think.

Surviving a Toxic Team

To be fair, I wrote a whole book about this. You First, subtitled “Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done,” provides a taxonomy of Toxic Teams and a roadmap for the things you can do differently to upend the unhealthy dynamic. If your team is the issue, it’s the first place to look.

Surviving a Toxic Boss

Toxic bosses come in many different shapes and sizes. Each type has its own signature and unique set of challenges. While the optimal strategy depends on the nature of your manager’s dysfunction, there are a few general rules you can follow to help you cope with any bad leader. Consider these universal techniques and then see the catalog of specific advice for each type of toxic boss that I’ve included at the bottom.

To build your toxic boss strategy, think about your sources of support as concentric circles with you at the center and your broad network of contacts and friends on the outside. Let’s start in the center.

Look Inward: The Self Strategies

The place to start in building a strategy to cope with your horrible boss is in your own head. That’s where the most important action is happening. The stories you tell yourself will determine how much of a negative impact your manager can have on you. Work through these questions, either on your own or with a trusted friend, as a starting point.

Am I overreacting?

It’s easy to take offense when your manager criticizes your work, passes you over for a plum assignment, or spends ages talking to your coworkers while avoiding you. If you start to form a story that your boss doesn’t like you, you’ll be looking for all the evidence to convince yourself that it’s true and ignoring any evidence to the contrary. That’s called the confirmation bias and it’s how our brains work—a bit of a bug in the code.

To avoid whipping yourself into a froth over interactions that might be relatively minor, Step 1 is to find someone you trust and share what you’re experiencing. Be as objective as possible. If it’s an email from your manager that got you worried, ask someone to take a look and see how the message strikes them. If it was an interaction in a meeting, describe what you saw and heard. Share how you’re interpreting the situation and ask, “How else could I interpret this?” or “What do you think she means by this?” or “How worried should I be?”

If that trusted ally is on your team, ask if they could pay attention and give you any feedback about your interactions with your manager. They’ll be able to give you a more balanced view and potentially share a few tips about what you’re doing that’s helping and hurting.

If you don’t have someone you can trust, simply keep a record of your interactions by drawing a vertical line down the center of a piece of paper. Record the positive or neutral things on the left and the negative or unpleasant ones on the right. Counteract your confirmation bias by actively looking for evidence for the left side.

If even the most balanced, objective view of your relationship with your boss is that it’s toxic. Move to the next step.

How can I protect my self-esteem?

If your boss doesn’t like you, doesn’t value you, doesn’t think you’re up to the task, you’re going to need to invest effort in protecting your self-esteem. No boss has the right or the power to make you feel bad about yourself.

If your manager says hurtful things about you as a person or about your skills or traits, reframe them into statements about your behavior or the situation. For example, if they say, “you’re so sloppy,” reframe it as “I wrote a 2,000-word report and there were two typos.” Labels are more hurtful than behaviors. It’s distressing to think “I’m sloppy” but manageable to think “I left two typos in a report.”

Another technique to try is for each hurtful comment, ask your boss for a positive comment. “I understand that I left two typos in the report. What parts of the report were good that I should repeat next time?” That way, you’re getting some balance in the equation. Most bosses will answer that question. If not, you could ask the same of a colleague or even of yourself. “I left two typos, but this report had way better graphs than I’ve done before.”

Just as Step 1 was about keeping a balanced view of your boss, it’s important to keep a balanced view of yourself, too!

United Front: Teammate Strategies

Enduring a terrible boss is awful but it’s not something you have to do alone. You have other people who are stuck with that terrible boss too!

[Caveat: if your colleagues don’t view your boss as toxic, this might be a case for some more soul-searching. Go back to Step 1 and consider whether there’s more in your control than you thought.]

How can our team keep functioning with a toxic boss?

Many terrible bosses are bad for business: the disorganized boss, the crisis-junkie; the conflict-avoidant, the can’t-make-a-tough-decision-to-save-their-life; and the flip-flopping boss are just a few examples. If you’ve got a bumbling manager, your team is going to have to step in and manage yourselves.

You can try to do this through official channels. For example, you can use a meeting to force the point when you’re not aligned or when your manager’s priorities aren’t clear. If you’ve all got one another’s backs, it’s easier to say, “We need to know which of these 7 things you want to be finished first.” Similarly, if you know a colleague will back you up, you can be direct in asking, “Last week, we committed to finishing the release of the Alpha project first. Shifting to the Owl project now will stall Alpha. Can we have two weeks to get Alpha done before we move on?”

In some cases, your manager will follow your cue and do a better job. Sadly, it’s possible that broaching these topics will just make matters worse. In that case, establish a line of communication among your teammates that doesn’t include the boss. If you can’t get your manager to prioritize, have a huddle after the meeting to agree on what you’re all going to work on first.

If your manager hasn’t defined the problem you’re solving or hasn’t assigned who is responsible, do it for them. Become a self-managing team. The point is not to be insubordinate or to act against the instructions of your boss. The point is to make up for it when your boss gives you no instructions at all.

How can my teammates support each other?

In addition to stepping in to lead the team together, you and your colleagues can also form a strong community and a safe place for people to vent, ask for help, or just check their sanity. Become a safe person that your colleagues can talk to without fear of judgment (or concern that you’ll spill what they said to the boss). Reach out with the odd meme or puppy video when you can tell someone’s having a rough day. Establish a “safe word” that people can use to indicate that they need support in a meeting, such as, “Edwards, what do you reckon?” where “reckon” is your team’s code for I really need you to take the heat off me for a minute.

Bolster Your Network: Colleague Strategies

In addition to your efforts to stabilize the experience within your team, it’s also valuable to build bridges to people outside your team. If your toxic boss takes the whole team down with them, you want an escape route.

How can I get more support?

Here are a few tactics you can use:

  • Reconnect with former teammates or managers who are now in other parts of the organization. Catch up, share what you’re working on, take interest in their priorities. Make sure you are on their radar.
  • Volunteer for cross-functional projects that will provide exposure and opportunity beyond your current team. These projects will not only improve your visibility, but might also offer a meaningful place to contribute, access to feedback and coaching, and get some respite from your daily tribulations.
  • Participate in activities outside of your role. Join the company softball team. Volunteer for the fundraising campaign. Use any opportunity to be seen as a good corporate citizen.

If no one knows who you are, you’re more vulnerable to the whims of your toxic boss. That might just mean that your boss can toy with you. It could also mean that no one will stand up when your manager tries to fire you. The more ties you have into the organization and the stronger your reputation as a great team player, the safer you are. Just be 100% committed to taking the high road. Never gossip or complain about your boss.

Is it safe to ask HR for help?

One source of recourse for a truly terrible boss is to speak with Human Resources. In my experience, this is usually a safe and worthwhile option if you handle it the right way. HR professionals get more than their fair share of whining, complaining people. Approaching an HR person with a litany of complaints is as likely to get YOU labeled as a toxic employee as it is to raise the alarm bells about your toxic boss.

Instead, approach HR in search of assistance and advice. State objectively what you’re experiencing and keep the conversation focused on you.

“How might I handle this situation appropriately?”

“What are my options in responding to this request?”

“Where have you seen people turn around a relationship before?”

“What advice would you give me?”

If you take this approach, you’ll be almost certain to get something valuable in return. If you go in swinging, your odds of success will depend on how accurate your description of the boss is, how many other people have complained, and how important or powerful your manager is in the organization. As I said before if you take aim at your boss, it’s just as likely it will blow back on you.

 

Invest in Resilience: Social Connection Strategies

The final ring in your self-protective circle is to invest in your own resilience outside of work. The more worn down you let yourself become, the more likely that you’ll interpret ambiguous behavior as a sign that your boss is messing with you, that you’ll react inappropriately, or that you’ll spiral into something truly unhealthy. If you’re dealing with a toxic boss, you need your wits about you.

How can I destress from work?

Resilience comes in short-, medium-, and long-term varieties.

Over the long term, your best source of resilience is in relationships where you feel loved unconditionally. If you’re neglecting your family because of the stress of work, make a deliberate effort to reconnect. If home is no less stressful than work, connect with old friends and people who love you for who you are.

In the mid-term, resilience is about healthy habits. Sleep is first and foremost among them. Work on your sleep hygiene. Sleep is followed closely by putting the right fuel in your body, getting movement in your day (preferably in nature), and giving in to moments of play and joy. If you’re trying to survive a toxic boss, you might be telling yourself, “I can’t afford to take a walk at lunch or go to my fly-tying class” but you’ve got it backward. If you’re trying to survive a toxic boss, you can’t afford NOT to.

In the short-term, if you’re in the midst of a Zoom call with your fire-breathing manager scorching your brow, don’t underestimate the value of micro-resilience strategies such as drinking water, squishing a stress-ball, lighting a scented candle, or looking at a picture of your smiling family. One of those might just be enough to get you through the call without being burned to a crisp.

Surviving a Toxic Coworker

If responsibility for your toxic workplace rests squarely on the shoulders of your colleagues, there are strategies that will help.

If you’re trying to foster trust where it doesn’t exist. Try this. Or this. Or this.

If you’re working with someone who’s too sensitive, a bully, always droning on about the past, relentlessly negative, or easily offended, you can get some ideas by following these links.

How can I manage my bad boss?

Here’s some advice for how to speak truth to power in any situation. Sticking to these rules can make it much harder for your toxic boss to unleash on you.

It’s okay to disagree with your boss — 00:00
You probably won’t get fired for speaking your mind —
00:50
1. Connect your point to the goals of your organization —
01:52
2. Stick to the facts —
02:27
3. Bring in the organization values —
03:13
4. Keep it civil —
03:42
Example: “Pierre’s Produce Problem” —
04:38
Disagreeing with your boss can be a good thing —
10:07
Three questions to ask yourself if you’re concerned —
12:55
How could you disagree and come out MORE respected? —
13:53

Catalog of Toxic Bosses

Creating the circles of protection will be effective with any form of a toxic boss. Learning how to bob and weave and to step around the landmines requires that you understand what’s beneath your boss’ particular dysfunction. Here’s my current catalog of craptacular bosses with specific advice about how to manage each one. Scroll through the catalog. If you don’t see your brand of toxic boss here, send me a note, I’ll create a new entry in the catalog just for you!

Image of a woman looking worried
Woman smiling with two thumbs up
Man wearing a crown and pouting whilst taking a selfie
Man shrugging looking clueless
Man on the phone with feet on the desk
Man looking smug pointing at himself
Woman with one thumb up and the other thumb down
Woman shrugging looking indecisive
Man wearing large sunglasses holding a microphone
Man making a childish face
Woman shouting at another woman

How to Avoid Joining Another Toxic Company

If you have to leave your job because it’s toxic, the last thing you want is to get out of the frying pan an into the fire. It’s important to actively look for signs that an organization or team might be toxic BEFORE you join. Here’s where you can look for clues of a toxic workplace during the hiring process:

  • Scour online customer reviews for signs of issues.
  • Check LinkedIn to see what employees are saying.
  • Ask for examples of how the team handles conflict. (Be wary of answers that suggest too much comfort with combative conflict or too little.)
  • Notice what the interview process is like. Are people prepared or winging it? Relaxed and enthusiastic or anxious? What do the questions reveal about what matters to them?
  • Reach out to former employees for their perspectives.
  • Inquire about company “heroes” to see what good looks like.
  • Scan online for evidence of discrimination against women or BIPOC.
  • Ask about the standing meetings that would be on your calendar.
  • Pay attention to who interviews you. And who doesn’t.
  • If you’re in person, go early. Sit in reception. Watch like a hawk. How does the interviewer interact with the receptionist or the assistant?

EPILOGUE

Like I said before, no one deserves to work in a toxic environment. If you suspect that your workplace might be physically or psychologically unhealthy, you owe it to yourself to do something. Remember quitting isn’t the only option and it’s not necessarily the best option. Spend some time reflecting on what’s at the heart of the issue and you might find that you’ve got more options than you thought.

I hope you find the company, the team, the boss, and the role that you deserve!

 

MORE TOXIC WORKPLACE RESOURCES

Amy Edmondson Tedx talk on building a psychologically safe workplace
'Time's up for toxic wokrplaces' HBR article
Person carrying their work belongings out after resigning

REFERENCES

 Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383. https://doi.org/10.2307/2666999