In an ideal world, individuals lacking the emotional intelligence to foster a welcoming and positive work culture would be prevented from reaching positions of power.
The detrimental consequences of a toxic leader are manifold and surveys appear to illustrate a widespread desire for a kind of ‘reckoning’ in boardrooms across America, especially as talent is becoming increasingly impatient with companies that continue to overlook or even privilege poor leadership.
A Gallup poll of over a million workers in the US found that the number one reason workers quit is to escape a bad manager. 75% of those who leave their position voluntarily do so because of their boss, not their job. And the economic damage from high turnover rates is colossal. In 2019, a report released by SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, claimed that losses in turnover due to workplace culture in the preceding five years exceeded $223 billion.
In addition to the financial impact, the same study also showed how negative work culture impacts relationships outside work: 3 in 10 participants felt that the culture at work made them irritable at home.
While we wait for more fundamental change, here are three supporting strategies to help you cope with and reduce the adverse effects of these unwanted office relationships.
1. Work on improving your self-management skills
If you can’t change the situation, reframe how you experience it. According to Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestseller Emotional Intelligence, self-management is the first line of defense against a toxic workplace. It involves controlling impulsive feelings and behaviors, regulating emotions in healthy ways, taking initiative, and adapting more readily to changing circumstances:
- Focus on what you can control. List the things you can control and those you can’t. Identify proactive steps you can take within the scope of your position to improve the work environment. This could take the shape of a formal coaching initiative or more relaxed, friendly meetups.
- Take a mindful pause. Develop the habit of identifying your default response to emotional triggers at work. Each time you notice that trigger, take a moment to label exactly how you are feeling and, importantly, where and how you experience them in your body. This practice will shift your attention away from the original stimulus and start to allow you some space between trigger and response.
- Be your own leader. Keep a mental inventory of what you bring to the table and leverage those strengths to navigate challenging situations. Assign yourself work that plays to your strengths. The Via Institute on Character offers a comprehensive ‘strength finder’ survey.
2. Choose a mentor – and a mentee
Building the right relationships can be powerful to mitigate the damaging effects of a toxic work environment. You can create your own wellbeing support team to deal with difficult exchanges in real-time. The key is to be careful not to fall into the trap of playing the victim: your network is not just a deposit box for complaints. ‘Sharing’ out loud about a difficult boss can offer a degree of immediate catharsis but it’s unlikely to solve any problems in the long run. Here is what you can do instead:
- Find yourself a mentor. Build a connection with someone whose work you admire and whose judgment you trust. It’s an effective way to keep your sanity in check and broaden your perspective on your current situation and beyond. It could be someone you work with or they could work at another company in the same industry. Regular check-ins with a mentor will allow you to look at your situation more objectively, gain different insights from someone who has your best interests at heart, and even brainstorm possible exit strategies.
- Choose a mentee. To mentor someone is a fantastic opportunity to inject your role with new energy, a sense of purpose, and hope for the future. Research says that focusing on benefiting others will improve your ability to negotiate workplace obstacles, even in the face of toxic or discouraging supervisors. A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that “prosocial motivation” – pursuing the wellbeing of others – helps employees bring about positive change, regardless of any lack of support from higher management. Mentoring is a straightforward way of doing that.
3. Take breaks
From scientific research on flow (peak performance) to the exhortations of countless productivity gurus, it’s clear that taking breaks is a crucial element in maintaining high performance and general wellbeing, yet our workaholic culture too often sees the need for breaks as a flaw found in only the ‘weak links’ in the office. Workplaces can be infused with fear-based pressure for every greater output at any cost. If you regularly find yourself fizzing with stress and anxiety, do your best to include regular breaks throughout the day. Even if you can’t go for a long walk around the block, you can still discreetly fit ‘sanity breaks’ into your day:
- Extend your bathroom break. Add just a couple of minutes to stretch when you need to go to the bathroom. Stretch – and massage – tense areas such as your lower back, shoulders, neck, or legs.
- Shut your eyes. Allocate short ‘interventions’ after a chunk of productive time throughout the day. If you can stand up, even better. Either way, simply close your eyes for two or three minutes, try a little breathwork, or perform a silent mind and body scan by checking on all the physical and emotional sensations you can sense, from head to toe.
Of course, these strategies won’t stop bad leaders from being hired or – worse still – promoted but, until we move the needle and replace the rotten apples, consciously taking control of the situation can help us not only survive current difficult situations but equip us with the ability to thrive into the future.