Episode 016: Toxic Workplaces Hurt Us All: Here’s How to Identify and Shift the Dynamic

If a kaleidoscope of butterflies commandeers your stomach whenever you see your boss, or an invisible gag tightens around your mouth every time a creative idea flits through your brain, or a dagger lands between your shoulder blades whenever your back is turned, you might be feeling the effects of a toxic workplace.

The poison of workplace toxicity comes in many different formulas, but Sarah Lerner, founder of And Together, divides them into two broad groups: conformist cultures that hand out trophies for defending the status quo and competitive cultures where every day is a swim in a viper pit. 

Whether the issue is parental leave discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment, when an individual wants to challenge the status quo, the odds are never in their favour. Traditional mechanisms for reporting workplace complaints insulate the organization at the employee’s expense. A worker who feels fungible isn’t going to want to be the squeaky wheel.

Organizations need to pay attention, says Lerner, not out of some humanitarian concern (as nice as that would be), but with an eye towards their bottom line. She cites a 2020 study that found 20% of US workers left a job in the past five years because of workplace toxicity, estimating a loss in productivity totalling $220 billion. 

That staggering figure doesn’t attempt to quantify the opportunity cost of the lack of innovation. Lerner’s message to organizations that cling to their old ways? “You’re missing out on a lot of potential from your people.” 

Silencing whistle-blowers who report problematic behaviour also carries its own risk. After all, as the #metoo movement showed, if organizations don’t listen to employee complaints, millions of people on social media will.

The downside of perpetuating the status quo has never been starker. Organizations, Lerner believes, are better off embracing discomfort — and investing in a more inclusive culture.

How to Escape the Toxic Workplace Swamp

To get the best out of their employees and position themselves to thrive in turbulent times, organizations need to step up. But individuals can do plenty to mitigate the effects of workplace toxicity.

Lerner suggests the following:

Be willing to have hard conversations. Ask for feedback — and then really listen to what people are trying to tell you. Don’t try to explain it away, get defensive, or paint a rosy picture. See what you can learn from things you may not want to hear.

Easier said than done? To increase your ability to handle difficult conversations, Lerner recommends yoga — a practice that allows you to experience physical and mental discomfort in a controlled environment. When you learn to breathe through uncomfortable sensations, you quiet your reactivity by teaching your body that it’s safe — which allows you to hold space for ideas that disrupt your notions of reality.

Check in with your limiting beliefs. As a longtime Shift client, Lerner recommends being mindful of how your limiting beliefs show up in the workplace. For example, people who hold the belief “I’m not good enough” might get particularly activated by bullying.

When a triggered limiting belief opens the emotional floodgates, it can be hard to listen to the rational voice in your head that’s trying to help you through. Shift clinician Zac Erickson suggests that when we start confronting those beliefs, we’re able to step back more quickly and tell ourselves, “This is not okay.”

Remember you have a choice. It might not be easy, but you always have a choice about whether to speak up against a toxic situation — which requires weighing your financial pressures against your ethical concerns. Do you speak up and risk a lay off? Do you stay silent and condone the abuse? When you frame it in terms of choice, you empower yourself. As crushing as workplace discrimination can be, view it as an opportunity “to do something with your experience to make things better for other people,” says Lerner. “That’s a pretty powerful place to be.”

Every cruise ship, no matter how huge, needs a rudder. If you have the ability to be that rudder for your organization, that’s an enormous privilege.

Use the resources available to you. With recent shifts in organizational culture towards a more holistic vision of employee wellness, take advantage of any benefits your employer might provide, whether it’s on-site counselling or financial credits toward seeking your own therapy provider.

Outside your organization, visit andtogether.ca, where you can read anonymous stories submitted by members of the community Lerner fosters — and submit your own. Reach out to Lerner and her colleagues to learn more, or sign up for one of their Strategy Culture and Inclusion Labs. You may also want to pop in and visit the celebration event held at the end of these labs, to hear the participants’ solutions and network with other change-makers.