How to change a toxic workplace without quitting

How to change a toxic workplace without quitting

“Toxic managers” come in many shapes and sizes. There are jerks, avoiders, egomaniacs, dreamers, micromanagers, schemers, and screamers, to name a few.

There is one simple key to working with all of them: behavior not character– makes a workplace “toxic.” Consequently, small changes in behavior can have a dramatic impact in changing the workplace dynamic.

It is within the power of any employee to change a toxic workplace. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Unpack the labels

    Take a piece of paper (not an electronic document) and write across the top the negative labels that describe your toxic manager, leaving space between each label. Under each label, describe specific actions justifying that label.

    You may find it difficult to think of examples, especially for the more egregious labels. Our brains are wired to apply labels because labels save us from having to observe and consider facts on a case-by-case basis.

    But to change the workplace climate, fighting labels doesn’t work. Instead, isolate specific stress-inducing actions. For example: “At the staff meeting on Tuesday, when I suggested a new data collection template, [sarcastic manager] rolled their eyes. They did this in front of Alan, Bri and Celeste.”

    Avoid general statements like “my manager is dismissive of my ideas in meetings.” If you can’t think of specific examples, imagine you are a scriptwriter. How would an actor portray the negative trait?

    Next, copy the actions onto a separate piece of paper without the labels. Shred the first document to avoid potential embarrassment. As a bonus, you will enjoy the symbolic release of shredding the list of things that drive you crazy.

  2. Get in your manager’s head

    This one is tougher. You must imagine why your boss engages in each behavior from their perspective. Even if they are not aware of the behavior, there is a thought in their head that prompts it. Usually, it is a perceived threat to status, competence and goals.

    When feeling threatened, angry or paranoid, few managers think, “I should be respectful of this person, but I’m going to be sarcastic (or paranoid, or vague, etc.) instead.” Rather–if they think about it at all–they think something like: “Mark has yet to deliver on a single commitment. I’m not going to put up with his frivolous new ideas anymore.”

    People behaving badly nearly always believe they deserve to act the way they do. To defuse toxic actions, you have to find their source.

  3. Outline your discussion

    Your plan should include options for discussion and alternatives in the event discussion isn’t productive.

    Consider your emotions as a subject

    Emotions about your work environment are the reason you seek to intervene. They should be discussed calmly and deliberately. To do so, separate emotions from blame. List your negative emotions and how they impact your ability to contribute.

    Consider an apology

    Identify something you might apologize for, even if one percent of the problem. For example, you might say: “I apologize for raising that new idea late in the planning meeting last week. I understand you were working to keep the schedule on track and my idea may have slowed things down.”

    Identify potential defusing actions

    Return to the toxic actions you listed earlier. Consider what potential threat your manager may have been responding to in each case, then outline a new action that could address the perceived threat more productively. Be sure to present your ideas as options for discussion, not as an ultimatum.

    Prepare for possible impasse

    Consider how you might jointly raise the issue to another level, if necessary. Even in the face of non-cooperation and hostility, remain focused on your commitment to a productive work environment. In egregious cases, such as where leaders engage in illegal and dangerous activities, change may require outside intervention. Everyone has someone they must answer to, including customers, suppliers, regulators, the courts and public opinion.

    Get a second opinion

    Changing a toxic workplace takes resilience. Separating emotions from blame takes insight. Talk to a trusted neutral third party such as a friend outside of work or an ombuds to identify blind spots and strengthen your orientation toward problem-solving.

  4. Meet with your boss

    Request to meet at a private, neutral location. Explain you would like their thoughts on some ideas you have to work more effectively with them.

    Preface your meeting by affirming your commitment to the organization’s mission as you understand it. Explain that you have been experiencing some emotions that are getting in the way to contributing fully to the mission.

    Describe what you believe to be your boss’s goals for the team and ask for correction. If they offer corrections, paraphrase them and ask again. Be sure to to explore what kind of workplace climate they want. Throughout the discussion, be brave and curious.

    Once you are confident your boss feels you have understood their perspective, explain what your ideal workplace contribution would feel like. Note any similarities between your ideal and your boss’s goal. Apologize for anything you have done that hasn’t contributed to that ideal. Affirm your confidence that you can bridge the gap together.

    Present requests for behavior adjustments

    Ask for and offer no more than three requests for behavior adjustments for each of you that might change the dynamic. It is best to offer adjustments that you will make along with any request.

    Adjustments should follow this pattern:

    Identify a trigger

    A “trigger” in this case is an observation, event, or feeling that seems to lead to behaviors contributing to the perception gap.

    Propose an action step

    An “action step” is something you or the supervisor can do independently.

    Commit to seek later calibration

    “Calibration” is a commitment to later assess the effectiveness of the action step.

    For example, you could say: “When you feel I haven’t been taking initiative (trigger), ask me privately what I understood my responsibilities were (action step). Then, both of us can ask for feedback on how it went (calibration).”

    Conclude by re-stating commitments and affirm your optimism for improvement.