I have a hard time imagining what it’s like to work in a “healthy” workplace. I mean, I know they exist. I even have friends who work in places they absolutely love. But I’ve worked in more unhealthy ones than not. And some have been downright toxic. Like, hearing the owner of a company I worked for curse a blue streak at my supervisor repeatedly. (Did I mention they lived together, too? Yeah, I worked in a soap opera.)
If Rising Above a Toxic Workplace is any indication, it seems as though my experience isn’t as out of the ordinary as I thought. In fact, according to Gallup, “seven of ten US workers are either ‘going through the motions’ or flat-out hate their jobs” (11). Thousands of people dread going to work every morning, wondering if they can survive another day, or if today will be the day they say “when” and resign. It’s to these people that authors Gary Chapman, Paul White and Harold Myra primarily write this book, providing insight, encouragement and practical strategies for survival. What they’ll find are numerous stories of men and women just like them who have faced the choice of how to cope—and when to quit.
Toxic bosses aren’t necessarily evil—they’re just over their heads
What these stories (which comprise the vast majority of the book) help us see are the choices before us. Consider Melanie’s story of a coworker who was a victim of the Peter Principle—a cheeky description of one who “keeps getting promoted till they reach the level of their incompetence. Often they are promoted into positions of power without the skills to exercise [it]” (29).
Melanie’s colleague, Brenda, was one of these. When she was promoted, Brenda became ornery and “even nasty… She was losing our respect,” Melanie said (29). She would pick a staff member and harass her, and this continued until Melanie finally had enough and told her “I love my job here, and I like you as a person, but I can’t respect you as a boss. I’m no longer going to sacrifice my life here” (30). And so she quit.
But what’s especially helpful in Melanie’s story is the question that arises from it: although Melanie’s husband suggested that Brenda had an evil streak, it might have been just as likely that she simply had no clue how to do her job. When people are overwhelmed, they perform out of their weaknesses, rather than their strengths. Thus, when a person with limited or no leadership skills is elevated to a management position, he or she is doomed to fail. This doesn’t excuse the behavior, by any means, but it should help us consider our responses to these people.
I once knew a man who was Peter Principled; he was a nice guy, fairly decent at the job he had, but he wasn’t someone I would ever have considered a leader. He just wasn’t wired that way. Yet, he wound up in a position he was completely ill-suited for. I knew the moment I heard about it he wouldn’t last. And he didn’t—the job crushed him.
Why do I share that, and why do I find Melanie’s story so helpful? Because it’s a reminder that we should have sympathy even for bad bosses. Very often they’re not bad people; they’ve just over their heads.
We also need to remember that churches and non-profits are just as susceptible as any other organization to becoming toxic. “Appeals to ‘the cause’ create pressures to conform to unhealthy codes. Poisons in ministry culture range from subtle fumes that slowly sicken to flames that scorch. Some workers suffer quietly for years while other get fired” (54). (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
Learning from toxic bosses and cultures
As depressing as reading so many stories of toxic environments can be, we can also learn much from their example.
First, as the authors point out in a survival strategy: toxic work environments naturally make people frustrated and angry. And if we’re not careful, we can become bitter. And bitterness will only make us toxic, too. We need to “find ways to nurture [our] inner reserves and gain perspective. Develop toughness, but resist embittered resentments” (35). We can’t “let bad leadership start to sour [ours].”
Second is to consider what’s right. When the opportunity for a promotion comes our way (if it happens), we need to consider:
- Am I actually the right person for the job?
- Has God wired me for this sort of work?
- Do I have the necessary character and gifts?
Just because an opportunity comes our way, it doesn’t mean we need to say yes. For the good of our colleagues, organizations, families and selves, sometimes the best thing we can do is say “no.”
Finally, we need to remember that our workplace—whether we work in a church, charity, or multinational conglomerate—are all susceptible to having toxic cultures, and we are all responsible for how we contribute. Through our actions, we will either spread the toxicity, or we can can be a voice for health.
Being part of healthy change is probably the hardest. In fact, it’s much easier to continue on in patterns that tear down, rather than build up. And in some organizations, the healthiest thing we can do is leave. I know many people who have done this. But sometimes the hardest thing—staying and fighting for change, either until it happens or they get sick of you and you get fired—is the right thing to do. It’s risky, but sometimes the risk is right.
Helpful tools for gaining insight and developing a plan for change
Rising Above a Toxic Workplace is one of the business culture books you see all-too-rarely: one that actually talks about the problems in a workplace as though they’re problems by speaking to the people most affected by them. Whether your organization is healthy or toxic, and whether you are a leader or a staff member, this book will offer you many useful tools to help you see where you and your culture are at and develop a plan for change.
Title: Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment
Authors: Gary Chapman, Paul White, and Harold Myra
Publisher: Northfield Publishing/Moody Publishers (2014)
Buy it at: Amazon