What do you do when you discover that you’re contributing to a toxic work environment? I share practical lessons on how to tackle these behaviors in yourself and how to recognize them in others.
Lately I’ve had a little free time on my hands. Okay, like everyone else, I’ve had lots of free time on my hands. With this extra time, I decided to revisit a writing project about managing office and institutional politics. To refresh my passion of the project, I decided to look through my blog and really explore some of the things I have written on the topics.
It struck me that I spent a great deal of time describing the impact of working with challenging co-workers. I’ve also spent hours thinking about my previous unsupportive bosses. I knew these would be the cornerstone of the new publication. But something else did occur to me.
What if I was, also, the one contributing to the toxic behavior? And if so, what did that look and sound like?
In my previous blog posts, I identified a few times that I helped instigate some bad behaviors in the office. But those one-off situations may not be the entire story. Did I have a habit of de-railing the work environment? Could I be honest enough with myself to self-identify my own toxic behaviors? And most importantly, what have I learned since working in those offices?
In order to remain authentic in my work, I have to ask myself “Was I one of the people contributing to toxic work behavior?”
What Does Toxic Behavior Look Like in the Office?
A quick search on the Internet shows list after list describing toxic behavior in the office. It can be humbling to see yourself reflected in what can only be described as anti-team building behavior. In reading through a handful, I found a few traits in common across the lists. Below are some of the traits that showed up that I feel sometimes describe my own behavior:
From Inc.com: 8 Sure Signs That Your Co-Workers Are Toxic
#2: They act as if they’ve already paid their dues.
“An employee did great things last year, last month, or even yesterday. You’re appreciative. You’re grateful.
“Still, today is a new day. Dues aren’t paid. Dues get paid. The only real measure of any employee’s value is the tangible contribution he or she makes on a daily basis.
“Saying, “I’ve paid my dues,” is like saying, “I no longer need to work as hard.” And suddenly, before you know it, other employees start to feel they’ve earned the right to coast too.”
by Jeff Haden, Inc.com, December 17, 2017
#3: You’re jealous of others’ success.
“Let’s dive into jealousy just a bit more. It’s a common trait that can turn into toxic behavior at work. This can be especially true if you also happen to be a brilliant employee at your job. You know, the one who’s used to getting promotions, accolades, and pats on the back.”
By John Boitnott, Inc.com, February 14, 2018
From Monster.com: 3 Signs You’re a Toxic Coworker
#2. You’re judgmental
“You’re quick to point out that there was a typo on the 14th slide of a coworker’s presentation.
“You know that there has to be a better way to design the new marketing brochure—even though you work in the finance department.
“No one is perfect and everyone is judgmental from time to time but if inner eye-rolling is your MO, it is a sign that your behavior is toxic.”
By Lyn Goss, Monster.com, May 2018
Of the many topics that were covered, these three traits spoke to my worst behavior the most. I believe that when we examine these moments, we can better learn own triggers to behave badly. Below are three of the worst times I created the toxic environment I say I loathe.
My Top Three Worst Moments
I spent the best part of last week dreading writing this section. Like, it literally made me stay awake at night. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed to share these stories. But I think it was more because admitting my shame was so strong.
The difference for me is that people do bad things all the time, so what is embarrassing about admitting that? But I did feel shame for doing bad things because it benefitted me and I knew that it would. I can only hope that sharing my stories can be considered part of my own healing.
It can be tough to admit the toxic behavior we exhibit at work. For me, it reminds me of things I felt shame about. And sometimes, still feel shame about.
So as an internal compromise, I decided to summarize my worst moments. I believe that working through this shame is good for me, because I am choosing to make this experience a learning one. So here goes:
When I Felt I Had Paid My Dues
When I quit my full-time job to go back to grad school, I held a significant professional role. I was making great money for my work and I believed I was on track to take on more complicated roles in the future.
And then I became a graduate hall director to help pay for my courses, I switched to only supervising 10 students and working at most 30 hours a week. I had supervised people like this for years. I had done this kind of work before, too!
Thinking back to when I first started this role, all I could think about was how ‘over’ the entire experience I was. It was both challenging and boring at the same time, and I just felt like I had done all of this work before. Trust me, I let as many people know my feelings and they weren’t always couched in self-improvement language.
Girl, I’ve said ‘I’m so over it’ more than once in a work-related environment. And you know what, no one cares. It doesn’t change anything and you still have work to do!
I had a great conversation with my supervisor, Kenya. She asked me a great question that helped me frame what I was doing as a co-worker. She asked me, “I can understand that the role you’re in may feel like something you’ve done before. But what about all of these new staff that haven’t? What are you telling them about yourself and your skills other than you’re over it?”
That one conversation shifted how I saw myself for the next three years. Instead of seeing myself as having ‘been there, done that,’ I thought instead ‘what can I share authentically to people who want to get where I’ve been professionally?’
When I’ve Been Jealous of Others’ Success
I have worked with some stellar professionals. People who have been lauded for their ingenuity and their ability to impact our field. Colleagues who helped others and knew how to network their way to progressively more challenging professional roles.
And I knew that I was not on that list. And I was jealous. I can readily admit that now.
I would often tell people I wasn’t jealous of my friends’ successes. But that wasn’t the entire truth and I was very jealous of many of them.
I have no specific story to share. Mostly because this is the shame I carried with me for years, without naming it. Decades, really. It crippled me when I would think about applying for jobs, thinking to myself ‘so-and-so got this job years ago…and I’m probably not going to get it because they were so much more….’ My jealousy became a block for attempting to reach my own success. And sometimes they still do.
These internal scripts almost definitely made me act out. Play into the gossip machine. Start my own tall tales, too. Act rude and above them when I saw them in person. Without a good poker face, it was probably very noticeable in person – and who wants to work with the jealous gossip?
When I Was Judgmental
Anyone who knows me well would probably ask themselves “when is Joseph NOT judgmental?”
And that’s probably one of the toxic behaviors I deal with in nearly every office I have worked in.
If there was judgement in the room, most likely it was started by me. And encouraged by me. And remembered by me.
There have been times when I was judgmental that contributed to damaging office politics. Sometimes my judgmental side emerges when I feel others haven’t paid their dues when I definitely feel that I have. Other times, my judgmental side is an attempt to influence and become an insider with whoever is in charge.
I have more than a few experiences to draw from. None of them resolved themselves on their own. Almost all of them involved a supervisor pointing out the dangers of this behavior and how destructive it was on team morale. And I would stop it – at the office. When I started a new job, however, I would almost immediately regret engaging in that behavior.
What I found useful was calling out this behavior in myself to the person I felt I was judging. I would admit that it was often unconscious, but still damaging. Owning up to the behavior made me feel trustworthy, at least. That while I would try to consciously stop engaging in a toxic behavior, its sometimes easier said that done But I can apologize and do damage control and mean it.
Removing the Toxicity in Myself
In order to remove the toxicity, it was important to see if I was causing some of the negative behaviors I say I dislike in the workplace. Erica Bonham, in Are You a Toxic Person? 10 Questions to Ask Yourself from Good Therapy, asks us to consider what role we play in creating the toxic environment we ask others to take responsibility for.
She adds, “We have all likely engaged in some of these behaviors from time to time, but if it feels like you do these a lot, it’s time to embrace a little self-awareness and consider finding a skilled therapist to help get to the root of some of these behaviors. Here are some questions to ask yourself: Do You…”
- Use shaming language?
- Tend to blame others for your problems?
- Try to “one-up” people who come to you with a struggle or good news?
- Tend to take more than you give?
- Say you don’t like drama, but your life is full of it?
- Fish for attention on social media?
- Complain a lot?
- Dominate the conversation?
- Believe your friends are disappearing?
Bonham reminds us that, while we may have been the victim of mistreatment and the victim of toxic behavior ourselves but only we can change our own behavior and reactions. This has been one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to teach myself over the years. When I can feel the behaviors emerge, I need to hold myself accountable, apologize and address the root of the issue.
Listen. And Don’t Respond. And Show Yourself Grace.
Brianna Weist, in How To Know If You’re The Toxic Person Everyone’s Trying To Avoid, gives the best advice to follow when you receive feedback on your behavior: “[T]he first thing you need to do is listen. If someone tells you that you are hurting them, do not respond with a list of reasons why you are not.” This is the hardest advice to follow, since we are often in the defensive. I’ve learned to listen, acknowledge and repeat what I’ve heard, and say that I’ll come back later with a response. These moments of reflection about bad behavior are tough to work through, but once we do we can rebuild trust and a sense of team.
When it comes to my own behaviors, I haven’t been the best listener. I’ve learned that in order to regain trust, I need to listen more and talk less.
One of the last lessons I had to learn was to show myself patience and grace to improve myself. The authors at A Conscious Rethink offer the following advice: “It might take years to truly find out what you believe in deep down, but you will get there and this process will often involve tackling toxic behaviors head on. Be kind to yourself in the meantime. You will undoubtedly continue to hurt others as you learn what is and isn’t the right thing to do in any given circumstances. Don’t punish yourself for these slip ups, but see them as valuable learning opportunities.”
Part of my learning journey is to exhibit authenticity and vulnerability. As I share what I struggle to learn, I improve my ability to talk about the topic. I may never master the skills that avoid hurting others, but I get better and better at recognizing the triggers. I can only hope that your own journey allows you to begin to recognize your own toxic behaviors and learn how to stop them.
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