Last Sunday, I met up with a friend I hadn't seen for a few months. Mark is the type of person who internalizes many of his worries, so it takes a great cup of coffee and a few hours of detailed discussion to encourage him to get irritating issues he's been wrestling with off his chest. The last time we met, he looked tired, anxious and had difficulty concentrating -- not enjoying life at all. The worst part was that he wasn't able to put his finger on exactly what it was that was affecting his health, motivation and overall sense of purpose.
As Mark walked into the cafe, a few minutes after me, I had to do a double take because I almost didn't recognize him. He looked bright and fresh, even though we met after a long working day, and seemed enthusiastic -- just full of life. Something had changed. This was definitely not the same person I had seen a while back.
"Mark, you look great. Did you just get back from holiday?"
"No actually, I quit my job and have joined a new firm. Best decision I ever made! The other place was literally draining the life out of me -- it was so toxic!"
The notion of a "toxic environment" is fascinating yet still inadequately explored, making such places difficult to identify. It refers to the psychological poison that contaminates a particular group of people, dysfunctionally driving much of the work activity, behavior and interpersonal communication.
Such workplaces are defined by five main characteristics:
- Confusion and decline in performance and productivity that results from poor decision-making
- High levels of stress and dis-ease/dissatisfaction
- Lack of support, clear objectives, guidance and vision
- Blame, bullying and backstabbing
- Lack of transparent communication and multiple inconsistent messages conveyed to different people
Some of the other sings of a toxic workplace include:
- A punitive environment where creativity or challenging the process can land you in hot water
- Management disable you rather than enable and encourage their people to develop and reach their potential
- Policies and procedures aren't clear and aren't applicable to the leader
- Getting things done/approved takes forever because there's a central decision making structure
- The common mantra is, "Good or bad, this is how we do things around here so get used to it." So employees become victim of "Learned Helplessness" where they begin to believe that they have no control over the dysfunctional situation, even when they do
- The company doesn't care much about people; its all about profit and cost cutting
- Your health and subjective well-being is affected negatively and it gets harder to feel motivated to go to work everyday without knowing the root cause of your discontent
The first step towards recovery after working in a toxic environment is to acknowledge that it's not a reflection of your skills, abilities and overall competence as an employee. After being in a dimension loaded with negativity, lack of trust, gossip, unfairness, favoritism and passive aggressive leadership, your self-worth can be easily damaged, demoralizing you to the point of serious physical and emotional health related ailments.
Cleaning up contamination requires change management, strategic leadership and long-term commitment to eradicating the roots of work related psychological pollution. This may not be your battle and you're not shackled to your cubicle so begin planning your exit, learn from this experience and don't delay moving on.