Toxic environment or work challenge?
January 17, 2018 12:00 AM   Subscribe

What are some key indicators that a work place is toxic vs just merely “challenging”?

Background if helpful: I am on a temporary assignment with a new group. Suspect I was sent there to bring fresh perspective to situation, and potentially rise to a leadership position. On one hand I’m appreciating the opportunity to take on a challenge. On the other I’m not sure I really like the work, and there is so much negativity and sh*ttalking going on in this new group. How does one sort out the difference between “here is a challenging work situation where I have the opportunity to affect positive change!” Vs “holy crap don’t even take this for a promotion because someone made this environment so toxic, and it’s beyond hope bc the persons who made this place toxic may be the people you will be now working for”.? Are there particular red flags to be looking out for that could help me choose between giving it a try vs G-ingTFO? Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd take it as a good sign if the people there acknowledge there are issues. Conversely, if they're in denial I would most likely nope out.
posted by Harald74 at 12:05 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


If I were sent in there without clear direction ("suspect I was sent there to") and are leadership position is only being dangled ("potentially rise to") rather than be given the reins ("the persons who made this place toxic maybe be the people you will be working for"), I'd nope the hell out.
posted by jamaro at 12:30 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


I've worked somewhere genuinely toxic where there was a complete loss of respect between much of the team due (mainly) to a weak manager. Eventually it turned out that the whole thing was being very deliberately run down so it could be shut down. Situations like this tend to ripple outwards when they crash and one doesn't want to be there when they do.

Is your continued employment likely to be contingent on success with this new group? Do you think / know if the toxic someone is still there?
posted by unearthed at 12:38 AM on January 17


In a similar situation I found reading about sick systems to be helpful. I’ve been in one clear sick system and another that was not a sick system but had a very poor leader and therefore a temporarily bad environment (it was fine once the leader left). The really key difference was that my peers were extremely aware of the bad leader and did not go along with the leader blindly - there was a lot of conflict, that was uncomfortable, but a signal of fighting back. Do you have allies? Do your peers seem to recognize the issues? Is there a sane leader you can talk to?

Being in a truly sick system is disconcerting. I felt like people around me had Stockholm syndrome and were very bought into the system of overwork and intermittent rewards. They competed for favors from the abusive leader. It was dystopian. I also observed that the system kept going even after the abusive leader left - those under the leader “learned” this was how the system was and just perpetuated it without examining what was dysfunctional about it.
posted by rainydayfilms at 4:15 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


IME two key red flag indicators are negative competition and an entrenched blame culture. If there are insecure, negatively competitive people who regularly "one up" by propping themselves up at another team member's expense, and that behavior is tolerated or even encouraged, that's going to damage trust and collaboration. If the behavior persists it will eventually run off the people who are the most capable of teamwork.

An often related problem is how safe within that culture (and/or emotionally secure within themselves) the team members feel to take responsibility for and fix problems. If people feel like admitting to a mistake is going to threaten their jobs they won't do it, and problems with the work product and processes won't get fixed. Additionally, people do not want to innovate in blame cultures because they don't want to take a chance of trying something new and failing.
posted by jazzbaby at 6:28 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


Never voluntarily step into this kind of situation unless you'd have the power to hire, fire and adjust the compensation of the team, and the performance improvement that you're expected to produce is clearly explained to you and is reasonably achievable.
posted by MattD at 8:21 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


“holy crap don’t even take this for a promotion because someone made this environment so toxic, and it’s beyond hope bc the persons who made this place toxic may be the people you will be now working for” -- is this a possibility here? What do you mean about temporary? And what do you mean when you wrote that this is "potentially rise to a leadership position" -- would you be leading this group, or is this being used only as a testing ground for you, where you would leave if you succeed (and/or if you fail) to improve the toxic environment?

Beyond those ground-setting questions, are the people negative and shit-talking about the work, their leadership, or both? At times at my current job, we can gripe when decisions made by others that make our lives tough for a while, but we generally accept this as a period of venting, and then we try to go back to being professional, if not upbeat.

If "decreasing the toxicity" is your "challenge" here, is that a challenge you are willing to take to possibly display your leadership skills? And will these efforts to change the culture or environment impact your productivity in other areas? Unless "removing toxicity" is your only duty, it could end up that you fail to improve the situation, and you fail to deliver on other deadlines and projects, which could be two black eyes for you.

What are the chances that this toxicity will seep into you, making you miserable? You don't want to take that home with you, even if you can withstand it at work.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:34 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Tasks or projects can be challenging. I start getting wary when I am using more energy on navigating the interpersonal dynamics in the group than on the project implementation. (Or if there's signs of being given bad information regularly.)
posted by typecloud at 9:17 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


To me, I think it's a fine line and it has more to do with how it affects you. If you're dreading going to work, if your self worth and your confidence are taking hits, if you feel like a ball of stress and anxious all the time, then for you it's a toxic environment, even if to someone else it would merely be a challenge to navigate. I would take stock of your own well-being.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:13 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I took a job in a group with a toxic culture because it was clear that they were actively working toward firing the manager causing the problems (and they did!). Can you call / visit a higher-up and ask what they see as the future for the group? Are you supported in pushing back against the toxic culture?
posted by momus_window at 4:50 PM on January 17


Seconding the sick systems essay posted upthread. It's an excellent summary of real red flag stuff to watch out for.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:23 AM on January 18


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