Coaching Skills: Help with Toxic Workplaces

It can be disheartening to work in a toxic and therefore oppressive work environment, but coaching skills can help.

The toxicities can run the gamut from the seemingly innocuous to the blatantly abusive. While circular communication in which no clear, accurate, truthful or helpful responses are given may seem par for course in small or large strongly authoritative and hierarchical organizations, whether purposeful in nature or not, can be an indicator of toxins in the air.

We can witness this ineffective communication most often when a leader (or the leaders) have created a top-down organizational culture that is passive aggressive – meaning that there is a deep level of distrust, so much so as to not be open to truth telling, but rather talking in circles to avoid speaking truths that may offend or speaking known falsehood to maintain the hierarchical structure of us vs. them or vacillating between the two. A passive aggressive work culture looks much like what you would expect if describing an individual person:

  • Indirect resistance to the demands of its workforce while outwardly agreeing to them
  • Avoidance of direct confrontation, by procrastinating (organizational inertia,) pouting (shaming and blaming the workers,) not making good on promises (espoused values versus lived values)
  • “Accidentally” failing to acknowledge obvious ailment(s) in the organization whether a person, or a people or process issue(s)
  • Subtle insults are flying in all directions, from all levels about all levels of employee – executive to dishwasher – no one is exempt. The criticisms are never direct nor tangible but are meant to undermine and sabotage. After all passive aggression is covert aggression.
  • Sullen behavior is witnessed in the top leadership. There is a dearth of emotional intelligence in the executive ranks causing “moodiness” as the default emotion for difficult managerial situations and decision-making. Gulf-wide shifts can be witnessed between high and low emotional affect. Complaining becomes an organizational cultural norm.
  • Stubbornness and intractability look like an inability to adapt, be flexible and change. In organizational culture it often looks like tone deafness – the organization, its leaders and therefore everyone else cannot hear and know all parts of an analysis of what is, but stubbornly argue a position that favors a partial view of a whole, e.g., only focusing on the good or only focusing on the bad.  
  • Failure to finish required tasks on an organizational level look pretty much the same as when small children commit to not doing what they are tasks with – it looks like taking on an organizational goal paramount for its success and letting it languish, not giving it the right resources, effort, time or perhaps even preliminary planning before executing. It looks and feels like never reaching the finish line.

Usually employees look to upper management to set the tone and provide solid, thoughtful leadership. If our manager is a good one, our work environment usually reflects that – the employees are generally cheerful, productive, and proactive in their duties and relationships. But unfortunately, the best-case scenario isn’t always the reality.

A boss with self-centered, insecure, abrasive, or indecisive tendencies can cause waves that upset the entire feel of a department. And, sadly, the ripples don’t stop when you walk out the front door at the end of the day. Trouble at work usually finds its way home, upsetting your life with partners, children, recreational buddies, and even disturbing what should be quiet restorative time.

This traditional, top-down, authoritative style of management is what most of us expect, but it’s not the best or even the healthiest way to do things. As new workers, new products, and new business models have entered mainstream corporate culture, so has the idea that workplaces should be fluid and adaptive.

Employees today, particularly millennials, are rarely content with “good enough” environments, and the latest communication trends and research back up this push toward more collaborative spaces. You can be the source of profound organizational change at your workplace, you just need a few proven tools and techniques to help you navigate the situation.

If you’re in a toxic work environment, you have three options:

1. Tolerate the situation and tough it out.

Most people will try to make the best of things, at least for a little while. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but in the long run it’s not sustainable, and it typically only works if you’re truly okay with how things are.  Read that last sentence again.

2. Leave the company and find a position that suits you better.

Once the situation becomes intolerable, people begin looking for other options. Given the opportunity, most people will move on, hoping that a change will fix the problems. But change isn’t always an option, and it’s natural to fear that you’ll be leaving the frying pan only to end up in the fire.

3. Decide that change starts with you, and work to remedy the situation.

Addressing and fixing the situation is obviously the most difficult option, but it’s also your best chance of creating positive, lasting change. It also opens opportunities to get noticed, recognized, and maybe even promoted for the right reasons. Obviously, this is the choice I recommend! But I also recognize that it’s all well and good to say “Okay, we need to change things around here!” but how do you go about doing it? I subscribe to the concept of “managing up,” which coincidentally, dovetails nicely with the coaching skills used at HR Quirk.

To successfully “manage up,” you set the example instead of waiting for upper management to have an epiphany. You take the lead by asking questions of management and coworkers, taking the initiative on new projects, and providing solutions instead of objections. However, one caveat, you take those who are wanting to create change along with you – do not undermine these relationships – you need as many hands on-deck to move the needle. Coaching skills make each of these tasks infinitely easier and can help you positively influence a toxic work environment by:

Identifying the root cause of the problem. Whether the issues are coming from management styles, personality conflicts, or poor communication, you’ll be able to listen to yourself and others more deeply, cutting past the surface drama to accurately identify what is going on.

Being more aware and showing up from a place of neutral objectivity. Not only does coaching assist you with becoming more aware of subtle cues, but it gives you the framework and practice to respond to others from a compassionate, calm place.

Setting a positive example for those around you. Remember the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats?” Subtly employed coaching skills bleed over to the people around you. Over time, you’ll notice them echoing your attitude and techniques and ultimately meeting you in your energetic space, rather than keeping interactions bogged down with negativity.

This “covert coaching” to impact covert aggression (and other toxic behaviors) effectively changes the tone and direction of conversations and interactions within the workplace. And, when consistently applied, you may become the ‘go to’ person at the office or the ‘go to people’ as this does not need to be a solitary endeavor; frankly it should not be. If ego is your driving force, you may very well be a part of the toxicity of your workplace. We’ll cover ego in our next installment in this series.

HR Quirk’s coaching methodologies and tools make these types of solution possible because you have a foundation from which to listen and dig beyond the surface problems. You’ll be coached in how to ask empowering questions that allow employees and managers to access innate knowledge and develop effective solutions for the difficulties they’re facing. Combining these skills with the “managing up” strategy means you’re coaching down, sideways, and up to make a difference in your workplace.

Are you in need of a positive change? Click here to request a session with me. Together, we can talk about your specific situation and explore how coaching skills can help you make a profound impact on your workplace culture.

This article is Part 1 of a series about toxic workplaces and the organizational “personality” characteristics shared by these environments. In this article passive aggression is covered.