Dealing With Toxic Work Culture
January 26, 2020
I am in India attending a family event and this morning I was in conversation with a niece of mine about dealing with toxic people and toxic cultures, in an organisational setting.
My niece was sharing her personal ordeal of being associated with an established Digital Technology firm, where for over 4 years, she had to put up with a toxic work culture of supervisors and colleagues who were extremely political, intolerant and judgmental of personal space. Staff were expected to work 12 hours to 16 hours as a matter of commitment. It was seen as a sign of managerial effectiveness if staff could be made to work 7 days a week.
The culture started right at the top. The founders set the tone for what people had to do and how they had to operate. They would keep an eye on the working hours staff put in. If they felt that someone was not putting in 12-14 hours they would create moral and other kind of pressures to keep the staff on leash. There was an abject lack of empathy. Unfortunately, Pay was good, so most staff would tow the line, making it an acceptable working practice, to expect everyone to be on call for the organisation.
It was obvious that my niece hated every moment of the 4 years she spent there. She finally called it quits 6 months back to be immediately picked up by a bigger more renowned technology company.
The moot point was this- Why was she willing to mortgage her soul for close to 4 years, to work in a place that was so toxic. In her case it was fear – Loss of growth opportunities, loss of face, being seen incompetent or not committed to the cause , compounded by the peer pressure of everyone else in the organisation towing the line.
With the benefit of hindsight, if she were to encounter such a situation again, what could she do differently?
We concluded on 4 important points.
- The most important thing to do when deciding to join a new place it to evaluate the working culture. Speak to different sources and get a view of the culture the place. How are people treated, does the place value openness, transparency, are people political etc. Figure out if the value system of the organisation you are joining is aligned to your own values. This is more important than factors like Role, Title, Compensation etc. Unfortunately, my niece had not done this basic due diligence. She got introduced to the founders through some connection and she joined with blind trust without validating the culture of the place.
- If after joining, you find that the work culture is completely out of tune with your own value system and you are feeling miserable, there is no way you will deliver any work that is meaningful and creates value. Even if you manage to do good work, it will have a very short shelf life. In a very short time you will start getting impacted by the culture. It will start undermining your personal effectiveness. You will experience an acute loss of self esteem and personal peace. You will be operating with very little trust and a deep fear of being victimized, if you do not fall in line with the operating culture. In such a situation, it is better to quit.
- In case you are unable to quit for reasons of expediency- Because you need the income or the experience- Focus on 3 key objectives.
- One, develop protocols to protect your mindset. No one can make you feel bad if you don’t give them the permission to do so. Re-frame your personal situation to accept that the place is toxic and that you are going through a character defining experience for you to figure out the optimal way to conduct yourself in such situation. This experience will be valuable when you take on bigger leadership roles. When you re-frame it to be a learning experience, you will feel less threatened and less miserable.
- Two, work on creating leverage for yourself. Your work creates the leverage. Go beyond your Job Objectives to drive confidence and trust in the quality of work you deliver, both within and outside the company. If what you do is valuable and something no one else can deliver- you become a linchpin. When you become a linchpin, the leaders have something tangible to lose, if you quit. At the very least, this creates leverage for you to negotiate operating terms that are acceptable to you Or even better it creates leverage for you force a change where people will listen to you.
- Lastly, operate from a position of generosity. It is very difficult for a bad behavior to have an upper hand if you are kind, helpful, generous. You can be the source of the change that you want to see in others. Acts of generosity are contagious. More people in the organisation will try to pass it on. Generosity could be the catalyst that helps you operate to a higher standard
Toxic cultures get created when there is a chain reaction of certain behaviors starting from the top that percolates through the organisation. Whether you become a part of that that chain reaction or whether you choose to insulate yourself from the chain reaction, is a choice you always have. You just have to believe that you have the choice and you have the power to exercise that choice.