Office Diaries

An insider's guide to success in the workplace

Toxic Workplaces

Is your job making you sick?

Toxicity is like cancer. It spreads. It has a degenerative effect on health. And it is hard to control. But when we talk about toxic workplaces, make no mistake, the place itself is not toxic without the people who make it that way. And since you can’t have an organization without people, chances are good that we will all end up working in a toxic workplace with toxic people at one point or another.

So what do you do? Well, first assess the damage. Is it systemic? In other words, is the environment so toxic that it’s hard (or impossible) to find a room with clean air to breathe? If so, it’s doubtful you can have an impact and it’s best to find a better place to work. Or, is it a one-off - a boss or coworker who slipped through the cracks of an otherwise great company?

Typically, toxic people don’t fare well in inherently healthy organizations the same way healthy people are at odds with toxic organizations. It is a classic case of natural selection at work. If you have a company that is run by a control freak, who is negative and critical, that will be the DNA of the company–a company that thrives on fear and insecurity, which will not align with everyone. Those people tend to self-select out. Or, they are “let out” for reasons often filed under “not the right fit.” Consequently, the toxic people are left to reinforce each other even more as they self-select themselves in. Either way, there is an organic process that tends to fill a company with “more of the same.”

This is how the fabric of organizations is woven. But it’s big picture. There is also a grey area in between the two absolutes where there is not so linear a relationship between being healthy or not. Natural selection takes time, and in that time, the energy to which we are exposed is contagious, for better or worse.  So there is always a chance that no matter how positive you are, the downers will manage to bring you down. In the end it's about making a choice. Trying to change someone else’s toixic energy or mindset is not time well spent. Multiply that by the size of an organization and you're in for a real a waste of time.  Do yourself a favor and move on.

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Photo: Shutterstock

Donna Flagg is the author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations and a New York City-based dancer.

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