Navigating a Toxic Workplace

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Navigating a Toxic Workplace

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Chances are good your job involves working with other people and chances are also good that you didn’t sign up for dealing with toxic workplace relationships. Are you trying to navigate a toxic workplace? Is there a way to regain control or minimize some of the problems?

toxic workplace

Absolutely, but it likely won’t be easy because if it was easy it wouldn’t still be a problem.

Bad News

Often people seek to change the behaviors of others but when you are dealing with toxic relationships chances are very good that the other party will not change. In fact, some of their behaviors might be linked to and feeding off of your own behaviors.

Good News

The good news is that you control your actions and reactions to others. You decide if you’re willing let things get under your skin and if you’ll worry about what they are doing now or what they might do next. You likely won’t directly change their behavior but you can change the nature of your interactions with them.

Beyond Conflict

Many people will identify toxic workplace relationships with conflict. Certainly we could easily agree that conflict might be part of the problem, but not all conflict is bad and I often suggest in conflict management seminars that when conflict is properly managed it doesn’t have to become harmful.

Toxic relationships are a step beyond workplace conflict. They are often an anxiety elevating, energy zapping, and viral performance inhibiting set of behaviors that can lead to additional problems such as poor communication, absenteeism, and employee turnover.

What do many people do? They try to avoid the situation, they attempt to pretend it doesn’t exist, they try to steer clear of the toxic people, and then they tell their boss. The truth of the matter is that often their boss isn’t the solution to the problem.

Avoidance is not the answer either. In some cases keeping a little more distance can be helpful, but not to the extent that you stop communicating about your work or in any way harm productivity, quality, or safety.

The Real Problem

In order to solve the problem or help the situation you will need to thoroughly understand it and get to the root cause. Toxic workplace relationships often develop from one or more of these areas:

  • Our behavior sets us up for others to take advantage of us
  • A person with different values or beliefs violates one or more of our boundaries
  • We allow the behavior of others to spark our own negativity, adding to the problem

Can you improve your situation? Yes, of course.

Improving the Situation

Every situation might be unique. However there are a few things that anyone can do to help improve their plight. Here are a few steps that you might consider taking:

  1. Gain control of your emotions. Any kind of outburst probably won’t help your cause. Take a deep breath, a restroom break, find or create an opportunity to regroup for a few moments, hours, or even until the next day.  This is not avoidance, but an allowance for clear thinking.
  2. Analyze what’s happening. If this is a new problem, what has changed? What are the facts of the situation, not opinions? What part of this do you own? Consider a strategy to start a needed and meaningful conversation.
  3. Have a conversation. As painful as it might seem, you’re going to have to communicate in order to improve the situation. This doesn’t mean an attack or argument, but it might mean setting some clear boundaries while also identifying your contribution to the problem.

Whenever you have people working together you’re going to have different values, beliefs, and ideas about how things should work or the way things should be done.

You likely won’t change the other person, but think about how you can change your own reactions or responses to any situation. You might need to be clear about your boundaries with others and change some of your own behaviors. Navigating it won’t be easy, but doing nothing in most cases will only intensify the problem.


Dennis E. Gilbert is a business consultant, speaker (CSPTM), and corporate trainer that specializes in helping businesses and individuals accelerate their leadership, their team, and their success. He is a four-time author and some of his work includes, Forgotten Respect, Navigating A Multigenerational Workforce and Pivot and Accelerate, The Next Move Is Yours! Reach him through his website at or by calling +1 646.546.5553.

Dennis Gilbert on Google+

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