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Six Positive Professional Development Strategies for the Toxic Workplace

Hazmat Suits

I'm finding that the combination of "doing more with less," and the morale fall-out of the recession is increasingly adding to the psychological burden that many of us deal with at work. We've always had bad bosses, ill-tempered co-workers and heavy work loads, but there's a special something in the air that I think makes things even more difficult than they've been. 

Over the weekend, I ran across a nice article in Psychology Today on how to deal with the Toxic Workplace. It got me thinking about how a Positive Professional Development approach can help us deal with a bad work environment. So here are six strategies for dealing with toxic work. 

1. Keep the Focus on You

As the Psychology Today article points out, it helps to start by keeping the focus on you and your responses to various situations. You can't control what other people do or say, but you can control how you respond. Recognizing this can be empowering and broaden the range of options for dealing with the situation that open themselves up to you. 

I also find that when you keep the focus on you, it's easier to treat your current situation as a learning experience. You can ask yourself on a regular basis, "How can I get the most out of this situation so that I can continue to build myself for the next opportunity I decide to pursue?" 

2. Reframe Your Experience

One of the most helpful things I've found in dealing with toxic situations is finding a way to reframe my experience. For me, Positive Professional Development is about finding ways to learn from what's happening to us, asking positive questions that can lead us to a different way of processing our lives. So if you're in a toxic work environment or are encountering a particular challenge, asking the right kinds of questions can help you re-frame things. Some possible questions to ask include:

  • What is good about this situation? What can I appreciate and focus on?
  • What am I focusing on in this situation and how can I focus on getting MORE of what I want, rather than less?
  • What do I believe is realistically possible in this situation? How can I broaden my beliefs to expand the possiblities? 
  • What learning is available to me in this situation? How can I be open to that learning and focusing on what I can learn rather than on the negatives? 
  • What small thing can I do to make the situation just a little easier or better?

This isn't to suggest that you should tolerate a bad situation forever, but sometimes asking these kinds of positive questions can help you begin to shift into a more positive frame of mind and, therefore, into more possibilities for dealing with the situation. 

3. Schedule Daily Debriefings for Yourself

This is another suggestion from the Psychology Today article that I think is tremendously helpful in shifting your focus for better problem-solving. 

Toxic workplaces, like toxic families, can give you a skewed sense of reality. You can begin to believe all the negative feedback and stories you may be receiving about yourself and your work. One way to use your daily debriefing time is to do periodic "reality checks," checking in with yourself to remind yourself of your positive qualities and attributes. This may sound hokey, but it really is necessary to counter-balance the impact that negative feedback can have on your psyche. If possible, find a co-worker to do this with--maybe you can take turns reminding each other of what makes each of you awesome. 

You can also use your daily debriefings to focus on what you may have learned that day. Did you have an opportunity to try out some new communication skills on people? What happened? Did you learn some new skill or piece of information? If you use your daily debrief time to focus on the positives you may be getting from the situation, this can help you focus more on growth, rather than on feeling demoralized. 

4. Seek the Growth Mindset

I've written before about the importance of cultivating the growth mindset over the fixed mindset. Sometimes our "toxic workplace" is something that we are creating ourselves--or at least contributing to by being in a "fixed" mindset where we are reluctant to grow and learn. Further, toxic workplaces often nurture and encourage the fixed mindset, making it even more likely that we're trapped in a cycle of stagnation. By nurturing in ourselves the growth approach, where we seek daily to be open to learning, we can sometimes address some of the worst characteristics of our toxic work. 

5. Focus on What You Want MORE Of in Your Work Life

Negativity can fuel more negativity. Often when we are thinking about a toxic work environment, we will focus on what we want less of--less complaining or less negative feedback, for example. This, in turn, has us focused on all the times that we are seeing complaining and negative feedback. But if we try to get clarity about what we want MORE of in our work--for example, more positive feedback--then we can go looking for that. And we may find that there's more of it than we realized. We can also focus on providing more positive feedback to others ourselves, which, in turn, can create a more positive workplace. 

6. Engage in Strategic Action

The first item on this list of strategies was to keep the focus on you. In this strategy, I'm going to bring it back around. You can't control what others say or do. You can only control your own responses and actions. Try strategically acting in ways that support more of the behaviors you'd like to see at work. If nothing else, see if you can focus on improving your life in some small ways. This article on 60 Small Ways to Improve Your Life in 100 Days might be helpful. You may also get some ideas from this article


Again, I want to reiterate that I am NOT advocating that we stay in toxic work situations and just try to put a happy face on them. But I am aware that, for a variety of reasons, we may find ourselves in negative work environments for much longer than we'd like to be, so finding ways to cope is critical. 

By focusing on using your negative situation as a positive opportunity for growth, you may be able to make more of your toxic workplace--or at least make it more bearable. 

Have you had to deal with a toxic work environment? What strategies did you use to get you through it? 


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Good thoughts, Michele. If you have to be there, you might as well make the most of it.

It's that re-framing of the negative that can be so challenging.

Hi Tom--You're right--re-framing can be a challenge. When I can't do it, then I try to focus on "what am I learning about myself in this situation? How do I handle things? How could I do something differently?" At a minimum, I will at least see some good in that.

Liked you on Facebook, too. =)

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