Navigating a toxic workplace is for sure one of the most challenging things you can do, especially when your livelihood depends on it and you can’t just walk out without having something else lined up. For most of us, there will be a tough period where we have to navigate a toxic work environment temporarily, and this guide offers to give you some useful tips for doing so.
Here are some things to avoid doing in toxic workplaces in quick summary form.
- Taking Sides
- Being too open, naive and gullible (poor boundaries)
- Letting yourself be provoked and goaded.
- Gossiping about toxic colleagues
- Trying to speak out and change the culture.
- Falling into toxic passivity (giving up).
Most of these have been learned through painful personal experience – we sometimes have to play the longer game here and see the bigger picture when navigating toxic work environments.
Let’s run through each point in much more detail to explain why.
1. Taking Sides
This is a very common trap we can fall into if we are inexperienced in dealing with toxic environments. It can be tempting to believe one person’s version of events just because that’s who we heard first, or just take one person’s side in their smear campaign and gossiping about someone else, in the process overlooking their inappropriate behavior.
Here is the blunt bottom line on a truly toxic workplace (where you’ve got lots of bad people, not just one or two):
Pretty much everyone is as bad as each other in a truly toxic workplace, so don’t look to take anyone’s side. Notice and document all instances of inappropriate behavior, whoever it is coming from, and keep your guard up accordingly
For example, there might be a line manager that no one really likes, including you, and it gives you an ego satisfaction to hear an abrasive middle manager berating him down the phone. But if this middle manager is talking to that person in this disrespectful way (even if you don’t like them), then how long will it be before you’re being spoken like that in this toxic environment?
Similarly, in toxic workplaces, you’ll often have one obvious troublemaker and toxic presence, but you’ll also have a politicking, hanger on “sidekick” person, who likes to paint themselves as the political player, bridging gaps and smoothing things over between this troublemaker and other people he constantly provokes. But if you look closer, this sidekick also has toxic personality traits, just more cleverly concealed, and has created a nice little pigeon hole for himself as the “politicker” as a way of concealing this and sending all the attention back to the more obvious troublemaker.
This is why it’s best to call things down the middle, see unprofessional behavior for what it is and no matter who it’s coming from, don’t take sides or remain in denial about the toxic culture, and look to get out as soon as possible.
A clear exception to this general rule is when you see obvious instances of bullying and ostracizing of a genuinely empathic, overly sensitive person who hasn’t got their boundaries properly up given the toxic environment.
You’ll often see that these types of people (empaths) get scapegoated and targeted in toxic work environments – see our article on the sociopath-empath-apath dynamic for more on this.
Offer whatever support and advice you can when you see obvious instances of this bullying of genuine and good people, without getting caught up too much in their problems.
But in general, don’t look to take sides in toxic workplaces, and instead develop an ability to objectively see when two people sniping about each other is really just two sides of the same coin – both as bad as each other – and minimize contact with these types of people.
2. Being Too Open, Gullible & Naive
This relates to the issue of boundaries – a weak boundaried, co-dependent personality type in a toxic work environment is a recipe for disaster, so you must address this if it applies to you.
Here are some pitfalls to avoid if you have boundary and gullibility/naivete issues and you’re in a toxic workplace:
- Being too open and trusting with people you’ve only just met, giving away information about your personal life etc. right away without trust being earned over time.
- Letting toxic, boundary disrespecting colleagues continue to pry and prod away at your boundaries, asking invasive and intrusive questions and constantly chipping away at your boundaries. Put a stop to this straight away and don’t let it continue, otherwise your standards and self esteem will be gradually eroded.
- Developing a reputation as “that guy/girl” that never says no, will always put others first, will always answer the phone and come in on his day off, putting his own plans aside, etc. This will be endlessly exploited in a toxic workplace once this is known about you.
- Giving away too many weaknesses to toxic managers especially. In toxic workplaces, anything you say will be used against you at a later date. Remember this rule and keep your guard up. Feed toxic managers and colleagues nothing; be boring, plain and dull (grey rock).
- Getting caught up in dishonest schemes and plots, when you know you are a terrible liar and will likely be left carrying the can and unable to wriggle your way out as other scamper away and let you take the blame. Just know yourself and don’t get involved in this nonsense in the first place.
In general, if you see yourself as being vulnerable in this area, look to do work in your own time on boundaries and co-dependence. Work with a therapist if you can, or else Richard Grannon’s course on co-dependence (summoning the self) is a fantastic resource to get started with this kind of work.
3. Being Provoked
This is a huge one, possibly the most important of the lot, especially for people who again have boundary issues and are overly sensitive.
It’s also vital to understand this one if the people you’re working with (and especially under) cross over into not just being somewhat toxic people, but having full blown personality disorders (sociopathy/psychopathy/narcissism – the Cluster B disorders).
You must practice remaining calm in the face of provocation from others. You will encounter this regularly in toxic workplaces, and you must avoid over-reacting to keep the upper hand.
The key reason for this is that provocation is often the first step of a broader smear campaign that disordered people engage in which follows a similar pattern (adapted from Jackson Mackenzie’s latest book):
- A disordered individual (psychopath/sociopath/narcissist) provokes you.
- You deal with the issue calmly, thinking the conflict is resolved.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2, many, many times.
- Eventually, you react less calmly, sick of the provocations.
- The disordered individual victimizes themselves from your reaction: “Oh wow, you’re so crazy/sensitive/impatient/cranky/moody/difficult/awkward)!”
- They also go sneaking around to others in the workplace gossiping about your provoked reaction, trying to paint out to others (including middle and senior management) that you are “going crazy” or some other smear. They try to gradually erode your reputation among colleagues and management in the workplace.
Here’s a good summary quote on this:
“It’s called the smear campaign and it started even before your breakup or the blowup in a work situation…What they’re doing is provoking reactions from you and then sneaking around the sharing those reactions with people to slowly show this person is going “crazy”….
That smear campaign is about turning people against you, even your own friends, so you have no support after it’s done”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
And another so you understand what you’re often dealing with here:
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright’”.
This is why you must a) remain calm in the face of attempts to provoke you, and b) look to get out of these environments as soon as possible if you’re seeing it happen more and more.
See our detailed article for more information on the different types of workplace smear campaigns, plus how to avoid them.
4. Gossiping About Toxic Colleagues
This is another huge trap that we can fall into when first exposed to a toxic work environment, and sadly it’s a lesson we must often learn the hard way.
Whilst it is very tempting to fight fire with fire and respond to colleagues smearing or gossiping about you by doing the same in kind and gossiping about them, this is actually a very bad idea.
Why? Because you’re going against people skilled in manipulation, politics and influencing others. People ensconced in a toxic workplace have likely been at it for years. Many will have mid/upper level management wrapped around their little finger. You’re not going to win going up against them.
The best summary quote on this is given by Dr Ramani Durvasula, a great source on navigating toxic relationships and workplaces:
“What you don’t want to do is gossip about the psychopath (or toxic person) because they’re better at that than you are. They’re already stabbing you in the back…way ahead of you. They’re going to play this game way better than you so you’re best off trying to play a clean game rather than trying to beat them at their own game”.
Dr Ramani Durvasula – see here
In other words, notice what you notice, fully document it, keep your guard up accordingly around toxic people, but don’t stoop down to their level. If you stay dignified and detached from all the malicious gossip and smear campaigns, you keep the upper hand, especially if you choose to drop your concerns and documentation of behaviors onto management or HR on the way out.
5. Trying To Change The Culture
This is another mistake overly sincere and open people (empaths) will often make – they will (correctly) notice and point out the toxic cultural traits within the company, and speak out about it to others, in the hope of trying to change it.
They will often grow frustrated and exacerbated that other people don’t seem to notice or care about the same things they do. “Did you hear what he just said? That was totally unprofessional!”
Those kind of conversations will be common, but you’ll often be greeted with a shrugged shoulders apathy in toxic workplaces. An implicit or explicit “so what?” in response, which increases your frustration.
Do not waste any of your energy getting caught in this cycle. Do not try to change toxic work cultures; just use this energy look to get out as soon as possible.
Of course you need to make the assessment of whether the company is actually a mostly good company with a few “bad eggs” who’ve spoiled it, or is an outright toxic company with a high concentration of toxic people that’s beyond saving.
However, once you’ve determined that it’s pretty clearly the latter, just give up hope of trying to change it (just like you must give up hope of changing a toxic person in a relationship), and just look to move onto better work environments.
6. Falling Into Toxic Passivity
This is another mental trap we can fall into and relates to having an overly externalized locus of control – where you are perceiving situations you are in as out of your control, as happening “to” you, and that you have no agency or influence to change them and take more control yourself.
If you’re in a toxic workplace, and you let this mentality really take hold inside you, then you’ll find yourself slowly giving up mentally and falling into a state sometimes referred to as toxic passivity. It’s often applied more to being stuck in toxic relationships but also definitely applies to being stuck in toxic workplaces as well.
Taken to an extreme, an overly empathic and un-boundaried person will just start “soaking up” the negativity and toxicity around them. They’ll stop looking for new jobs and just hang around, suffering in silence, somehow hoping and waiting for external circumstances to change, when all the evidence is quite clear they won’t.
In the worst cases, you’ll often find yourself falling into depression, and your entire mood and energy will start to drop, which you’ll then often be pathologized for, adding to the injustice (“oh boy, isn’t he miserable, he hates coming to work!”). And so the smear campaign often escalates from there.
Your reaction is a perfectly normal and understandable one to being in a toxic environment, but because you’ve become passive and given up, it will just escalate and you’re more likely to be scapegoated and gossiped about.
To conquer this, it’s important to get back into an internalized locus of control, where you take charge again of your own life and start believing you can have a positive influence and impact again.
Here are some things you can do to regain a sense of control:
- Make sure you keep up good self care and state management – whatever you need to do to keep feeling good – exercise, meditation, massage, yoga, diet, proper sleep, supplements and so on.
- Start the process (however gradually) of looking for a new job. Do it in small steps if you have to, as it’s true that toxic jobs can drain you of energy to extent you just want to collapse onto the sofa as soon as you get home. Get your CV sorted one day, then apply to one job the next, then another job the next day, and so on if needed.
- In extremely toxic workplaces that are really draining your energy and you can’t just quit without having something else, you need to drop all distractions (Netflix, gaming, social media etc) and just temporarily put all your free time and resources into finding something else. Get help from family and friends if needed.
- Thoroughly document all instances of inappropriate and unprofessional conduct and gas-lighting (invalidation of perception). HR can only deal with documentation, not hearsay.
- If you can afford it, see a therapist to help you navigate the difficult period where you’re still stuck in a toxic job, and also to deal with any boundary issues that are coming up.
- Anything else where you can make a difference by taking some action (however small), instead of falling into the mindset that life is happening “to” you and you can’t control anything.
- Jocko Willink’s book Extreme Ownership (see our Books Section for a link) is good for getting into an internalized locus of control mindset.
Here are some related articles published on this blog that can help you dealing with toxic managers and workplaces: