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Stuck in a toxic work culture? Three thoughts on what to do.

Our leadership students come from many different companies.  Most come from companies with great cultures that take an active interest in their employees and develop them into engaged individuals with a vested interest in organizational success. Others…not so much.  I’ve had a number of students who, unfortunately, worked in environments that could best be described as toxic.  These environments have cultures that foster toxic behavior; as a result, unhealthy conflict, back-stabbing, gossip, integrity issues and employee disengagement run rampant. What do you do if you find yourself in this situation?  Consider these thoughts:

We must be the change we wish to see in the world. – Ghandi

1) It starts with you. Culture is often a local phenomenon and those leaders closest to that localized culture have the greatest impact on it.  But what do you do when stuck in poor culture and the local leaders are either unwilling or unable to change it?  A former student once called me to discuss a situation he was facing where doing the right thing might cause him hardship. In the worst-case scenario his boss might sabotage his career.  As we discussed the situation, Paul (not his real name) told me it would be very simple for him to play the game and not make waves.  But then he said something like, “if I take the easy way out, I wouldn’t be living my leadership philosophy because in it I say I value integrity.” Paul gives us a clue to the first step.  Begin with yourself.  Realize that the only person you can control is yourself, so know your values and live them.

“We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we LEAD people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” ‑ George S. Patton

2) Take the lead. It’s often said that in the absence of leadership, someone will lead.  People crave good leadership.  When it isn’t present, they will turn to those natural leaders from within. Will it be you? If culture is a local phenomenon and is most affected by those closest to it, and your “leaders” aren’t leading, then set the path yourself and begin to get others to follow your lead.  Is office gossip causing problems, don’t do it and refuse to participate.  Are people not being accountable for their actions?  Hold yourself accountable and don’t allow others to shirk responsibility.  “Don’t care” attitudes?  Enlist others with your enthusiasm. Pressured to compromise your integrity? Know where you stand and what you won’t stand for.

“If uncontrolled below 10,000 feet, abandon the aircraft…”

3) Have an escape plan. While flying high-performance jets it was understood that some situations were unrecoverable and abandoning the aircraft might be the only option available.  Those who deny this reality often perish with their aircraft. While we may like to think that we can always be successful at changing culture, the sad truth is that if the organization’s leadership is part of the problem not the solution, then the vessel may be lost.  I’ve had several students that have moved on to other organizations and have found cultures that they can thrive in and embrace. Although this may seem disloyal, remember that loyalty is a two-way street.  Is a false sense of loyalty worth sacrificing your values for? Are you abandoning the organization, or did it abandon you?

There you have it: begin with yourself, take the lead, or escape the situation. I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts in the comments section.

                   Author’s note: A recent conversation with a student reminded me of a previous article I wrote on this subject. It seemed to resonate with folks back then so I decided to update it here.

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