When I started as an executive coach, I never guessed I would have a specialty in helping people handle complicated office politics.
But I sure do. In fact, it’s probably the number one problem my clients face.
In 2014 I was asked to do a webinar with the Harvard Business Review Online on Bullies, Jerks, and Other Annoyances. It was, at the time, the most popular webinar on their platform.
Which is awesome and awful at the same time.
When I work with people facing toxic workplaces, there are a few things I ask them to consider.
Is it me? You really need to know yourself. Are you highly sensitive? Take everything personally? Then perhaps a little detachment might give you some relief. It’s counter-intuitive, but sometimes caring less allows you to perform at a higher level.
When you ask, Is it me? you need to look hard at the role in the whole mess which you may be playing. For instance, from time to time folks tell me that they simply have very high standards which no one else can seem to meet. Huh. Really? So interesting.
Because sometimes “high standards” are really “impossible to meet standards”. So why have them? Let’s see… so you don’t have to really cooperate, so you can take all the credit, so your ego soars. If that’s you, you are adding to the toxicity and it’s on you. To change the situation, you need to first change yourself – toward the good.
When you ask Is it me?, you can also explore places where you might have a simple misunderstanding which gets amplified. Like, for instance, a recent situation a client faced with a bossy, imperious peer who it appeared was overstepping boundaries of authority by gigantic leaps. Only by having a brave conversation did my client uncover that her office enemy actually had been promised a promotion which had been postponed… year after year. Once my client realized the injustice done to her enemy, the relationship turned into an alliance.
No enemy, no stress. Win-win.
If you take a hard look at yourself first and figure out that you’ve done all you can to be a good person, then look at the culture of the organization. Is it them?
I once worked with a senior leadership team which was backstabbing and in-fighting all day, every day. They spent so much energy on office politics that productivity and impact suffered. When I raised it with the CEO, his eyes twinkled and he said, “That’s exactly what I want! I want them to fight! Keeps them on their toes.”
He also knew that when his people appeared unstable, he could appear stable in contrast. When he was called on to settle petty disputes between his underlings, he was king.
Once I realized that the culture of the organization was being set by a leader with bad intentions, I knew that there was nothing I could do. Nor could any members of the senior team.
Nor could you, if your office culture is contrary to your values and your ability to grow.
If It Is Them – if there is a culture mismatch between you and where you work – you have a couple of choices.
You might be in a senior enough position to change things – which will take alliances and agreements with other people to buck the culture and create a new way. It’s hard but it can be done.
My clients have done it.
You might have to change yourself – go against your values or drop them all together, in order to stay. This option often feels like the path of least resistance, so plenty of people take it. That is, until they realize they have crushed their soul and hate themselves and really, really, really hate their jobs.
You might have to leave your organization if you realize that the culture is toxic, it’s not going to change and you’re at risk of turning into someone you really don’t like. But, the good news is there has never been a better time to find a new job.
Also not kidding.
Finally, after you’ve taken a gander at Is It Me? and Is It Them? you can ask What Do I Really Want?
Which, by the way, is the essential question any of us can ask.
And we’ll talk about that next week.