How To Survive A Toxic Workplace

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
There are few things more soul-crushing than hating your job. Every night you feel that twinge of anxiety before going to bed. Every morning you spend your commute steeped in negativity dreading the day ahead.
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However, in this economy, leaving your job because you work in a toxic environment isn't an option for many people. So, it's up to you to make the best of things — and try to improve them — until it's possible for you to move to another company. Here are some of the most common issues within a toxic workplace and expert advice on how to survive them one day at a time.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Your Boss Is Unpredictably Moody
One minute, your supervisor is praising your work on a project. The next, she's having (yet another) outburst over a seemingly insignificant detail. Of course, whenever there is outright shouting in the workplace you're bound to feel a bit tense (understatement). But, when the person yelling is your boss — and her loud rants are completely erratic — this makes you and everyone around you feel like you're walking on eggshells. Not exactly an environment that makes you want to whistle while you work.
"Understand that you are working with someone with a mood disorder," says Katherine Crowley, co-author of Working for You Isn't Working for Me. "Take actions to protect yourself mentally and emotionally from the barbs. In the moment, when he or she begins to rant, take a few deep breaths and try to see this person from a distance. Imagine him or her as a possessed creature from a horror movie. Know that the attack will pass and not to take in the venom." After work, she suggests going for a long run or an intense workout to purge the toxicity.
Your Manager Is Not A Good Leader
Not everyone is cut out to be the boss but, for whatever reasons, people who cannot lead effectively are put into positions of power. If you work for someone who is hypocritical, lacks empathy or is immature, you're likely dealing with a boss or manager who doesn't possess strong leadership skills, to say the least.
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In this case, you have to recognize that you can't change this person's behavior — only your own, says Margaret Greenberg, positive work columnist for Live Happy. "Rather than trying to coach your boss to be less hypocritical, more empathic, or more mature, focus instead on how you respond to him or her," she explains. "Recently a young woman told me that her boss was very immature and was 'oversharing' about his personal life. I suggested she first try to shift the conversation away from the personal topic and if that didn’t work to say in a positive tone, 'I’m a private person and like to keep my working relationship professional."
Your Manager Plays Favorites
"Playing favorites is in the eye of the beholder," Greenberg says. "To the boss, playing favorites may simply mean that he prefers being around people who are committed and enjoy their work. Who wouldn’t?" However, being the apple of the boss' eye can foster animosity among your coworkers. If you're the favorite, look for opportunities to promote your teammates, Greenberg advises, by suggesting they be brought into projects and discussions that fit their expertise. If you're not the boss' favorite, but you like your job and want to improve, initiate a conversation with your boss about what else you can do to help achieve results.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
There's Low Morale Throughout The Company
It's very hard to stay motivated when the conversation around the office coffee pot centers on how much everyone hates working at your company. "The number one cause of unhappiness at work is a negative work culture," Crowley says. "If you are in this kind of environment, it will be very hard to feel good about what you are doing.
Try to be the outlier in this situation, she advises, modeling "the positive attitude and professional pride that you’d like to see in others." If that doesn’t work, psychologist and career development expert Dr. Thomas Tavantzis suggests taking this issue to the leadership level and speaking with your boss about how to encourage your team. "Poor morale and a toxic environment can be masked by employees banding together. See if there is any awareness of what might be going on," he says. "This also serves to put you in the role of not being part of the problem but part of the solution."
No One Accepts Accountability
It’s frustrating to lose an account or have a major deadline derailed, but it’s worse to have everyone on your team pointing fingers instead of troubleshooting how to do better next time. A workplace with zero accountability creates a toxic situation that's not only negative internally but for clients as well.
"When there is no accountability, order is lost, and productivity is stifled," says career expert Stacia Pierce. It's up to employers to solve this issue and create a checks and balances systems to hold your team accountable. "Scheduled employee reviews and written expectations [along with] documenting issues as they arise makes it easier to address shortcomings and help employees improve," Pierce says.
Outdated Policies Don't Allow For A Healthy Work-Life Balance
The old clock-in, clock-out model can seem very archaic these days, especially for the many jobs that require only a laptop and an Internet connection. Still, a number of companies prioritize face time (and don't allow working from home) and are stingy with vacation and sick leave, making life more difficult for employees with and without kids.
Unfortunately, rules are rules, Crowley says, which is why it's important to find out the company culture before accepting a job. But, that doesn't mean there's no opportunity for change. "If your company insists on face time and confuses being at your desk with productivity, that will be a difficult belief system to challenge," she explains. "But, you may try joining forces with other employees and proposing a plan where everyone is still responsible for their workload, but where there are specific times and situations when you can work virtually. If you present a convincing case, upper management may go for it."
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Your Colleagues Have Formed Cliques
The same group of women go to lunch every day, reference activities they did together on the weekends and text each other constantly, making it clear that they are the A Group. Chances are, their behavior makes you feel deflated and more than a little left out. "Cliques can be extremely alienating and very hard to break into," Crowley says. "Getting to know each person individually is your best bet for feeling less excluded. Think, 'divide and conquer.'"
Tavantzis agrees. He suggests targeting one of the women in the group to connect with — try inviting her out for coffee or offering to work on a project with her. "Model your openness and interest in your colleagues," he says. Chances are, your friendliness will rub off.
There's A Major Lack Of Feedback And Direction
Sometimes the issue with your job is…well, you aren't too sure what your job is. Feeling directionless or confused about your role can be debilitating, Crowley says, because you don't know what's expected from you. "To change the tides of this situation, manage up. That means, take charge of the relationship with your supervisor by meeting with him or her, presenting a list of the goals you think you’re supposed to be working on and getting constructive feedback," she says. "Find a way to meet every week, and keep pressing to make sure you are on the right track.
And, if the only feedback you are getting is negative (a very common issue, Tavantzis notes), try changing your reaction to it in order to stay motivated. "Instead of getting down or angry, stay neutral and inquisitive about what you are hearing," he advises.
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There's No Clear Way To Offer Feedback
Whether you're having an issue with a coworker or a higher-up, it can be frustrating when there is no clear neutral party with whom to discuss it. Greenberg suggests an inward approach to evaluate your perspective from various angles: future, past, and from a distance.
"Ask yourself questions such as, 'What would you say about this issue 20 years from now?' Chances are, 20 years from now you won’t even remember this bump in the road," she explains. "'Looking back, when have you conquered a similar situation?' Chances are, you have faced similar situations in your personal or professional life, and you survived; maybe even flourished. Finally, ask, 'How would this look from 30,000 feet in the air?' Are you making this issue bigger than it really is?" Determining these three perspectives should give you some clarity to the issue at hand.