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How to deal with toxic workplaces

How to deal with toxic workplaces


Have you ever found yourself in a hostile work environment? Personalities in any workplace will occasionally clash, says experienced business psychologist and mediator Clive Lewis.

But how do we prevent conflicts from escalating, destroying relationships and affecting our mental health?



Personalities in any workplace will occasionally clash. It is a good idea for a leader to expect that tensions will at some point arise. This is not a negative thought. Employees will have come from varying backgrounds, upbringing, and cultures. They will have different views on life. Tension is inevitable.

This can quickly lead to an unpleasant working environment. Accusations can be thrown around like pancakes, splattering the workplace with messy leftovers.

The worst thing a leader should do in these cases is to march in applying heavy-handed techniques with an authoritative tone. By simulating aggressive tactics, it encourages a toxic atmosphere to flourish. The leader becomes the bully, and everyone feels they can go on without change.

Observe early signs

Leaders must be alert. However bad the situation has become, there is one common point worth thinking about. All these individuals, regardless of their personal goals, are joined by the single common aim of helping the company toward greater success. This concept alone carries huge energy and is worth hanging onto.

Relationships tend to deteriorate gradually. A toxic workplace does not happen with one simple disagreement or unkind remark. It explodes when the tipping point arrives.

Whatever the outward signs, when they repeatedly occur, a stealthy war is in progress. It is the work of a leader to stop this and preferably before bigger bombs explode.

Considered, thoughtful analysis of the situation is the strategy that is needed. When early signs are spotted, it is time to look more seriously at what is happening. Lack of agreement or clarity over an issue can easily turn to loss of harmony, or worse, what is now described as artificially harmony. This is when colleagues indicate in public that all is well, but the reality is that beneath the surface there is tension and discord. It may be no more than a frustrating niggle between young and old that lights the touchpaper. Or the problem may hinge on outspoken verbal comments, devious underhand remarks, even simple body language. Deliberate avoidance of explaining new techniques clearly or making things generally difficult for an employee, are other clues.

The role of mediation

These small elements are often the big antecedents of conflict. Yet they can usually be sorted out by engaging a mediator. Taking place over one day in a safe, reassuring, and confidential setting, the case will not appear on official records. Parties are encouraged to work together to achieve an amicable arrangement that is likely to involve some compromise. It is confidential, voluntary and the mediator is always neutral and impartial. Parties control the outcome, deciding between them how they will resolve their differences and get back to work. The goal of mediation is to facilitate an agreement that is acceptable. As with most forms of negotiation, parties may need to consider ‘giving something up’ in order to reach settlement.

One thing is clear. If a toxic atmosphere exists, employees need help. If two or more individuals reach a point, whereby they cannot stand the sight of each other, hostility will soon become obvious. Unfortunately, if left to stew, the result can lead to absenteeism costing industry millions of pounds, a drop in productivity, decrease in sales, sometimes leading to widespread negative public judgement and a business in crisis.

The way in which leaders set about defusing tensions that have reached boiling point can have a huge impact…but they may need support. Mediation in the workplace is becoming increasingly popular as an effective way to sort the problem and move on. Very often, mediation goes far beyond resolving differences; it can lead to strengthening bonds, creating more meaningful working relationships and provide an opportunity for growth and learning.

Working together

Furthermore, the collaborative approach offered by mediation is a cooperative rather than a combative process. It facilitates finding a resolution that will help restore equilibrium in a fractured working relationship.

It is surprising how many employees are labelled untrustworthy, scheming liars, bragging chauvinists, or deliberate bullies by their colleagues. Yet within the calm walls of mediation, the same individuals may be perfectly reasonable people, responsible, honest, and keen to do their job.

The reason for out-of-character reactions is so often because employees are responding to negative emotions spiralling out of control around them. Stop, look, and listen. You may not always instantly observe the insults, see the tear-stained faces, or hear the cold silence. In a nicely flourishing toxic environment, they will be throbbing in the background, somewhere. As a leader, it is up to you to find the roots and dig them out. A mediator can offer powerful, and at the same time quietly constructive, support.

Recognise and accept it is fine for employees to have a difference of opinion. This is referred to as constructive controversy. This is healthy and should not be stamped upon. A fresh perspective on an issue can bring forth vibrant new ideas. No employee should be made to feel ashamed, hurt, angry, resentful, embarrassed, or self-conscious at suggesting a different way of doing things. Likewise, no employee should feel unable to dispute a suggestion made by a colleague, whatever their status.

Neutral third-party support

A trained mediator can examine how best two or more employees can manage differences of opinions, without inciting altercation. From here, a leader can demonstrate how a pool of ideas can be extremely beneficial. Leaders can also recognise and applaud the courage it takes to come forward with a difference of opinion.

No-one enjoys conflict at work. No-one wins, not even a loud-mouthed, obvious perpetrator. No employee should be clock-watching, desperate to get away and go home or dreading going in to work.

A mediator does not bounce in and put everything right with a bit of understanding chat. In mediation, an informal but professional environment exists in which the warring parties can come together and find a solution to their disagreements in a sensible manner.

And it works.

However well-intentioned, a manager may not always be the person to resolve office conflict. In a volatile atmosphere, accusations of favouritism, bias or playing to office politics may cause further instability. The eventual outcome could be the chaos of expensive litigation, involving discrimination, harassment, or other issues.

It may be better to consider an alternative means of handling disputes in which emotions are running high. Preferably, the mediator will be from outside the organisation with no personal interest in the outcome except to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. However, the mediator should be a highly trained and accredited professional. They will be armed with extensive experience handling office disputes, working within a range of organisations.

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