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Working in a toxic environment, where the senior leader is lurking in the shadows, ruling with fear and manipulation, can be extremely stressful and doubly so if you feel unable to make a change.

This is a multifaceted issue with many variables that require time and deep coaching to fully unpack it; however, here are seven strategies you can begin to implement today.

You can’t always control the situation but you can control your response. The focus of these seven strategies is your response to the toxic situation and not to focus time and energy directly challenging the issues you encounter. You will find the undercurrent of strength and serving you create with these strategies begins to raise others up and even create a sea change in the overall environment.

  1. Extreme self-care – As the flight attendant says in the pre-flight instructions, “put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting another passenger.” Before you can even hope to affect a change in a difficult situation, you must make sure you are whole, healthy and strong. Start with the basics. Eat healthy, get sleep and exercise the body. These are so often neglected during stressful times but are often the foundation you need to weather the storm and assist others.
  2. Get focused – In the toxic environment, it’s easy to feel like a victim of the situation. You’re focus is typically inward and all about survival. It’s natural to be thinking about losing your job or covering yourself in the next “gotcha” moment. However, to affect a change, you have to take on an “It’s not about me” focus. If it’s not about you, who is it about? It’s about those your leading, your customers/clients, your vendors or suppliers and other stakeholders in your work. Wake up every day and ask, “Who can I serve today?”
  3. Care deeply for your people – To the extent you can, create a sub-culture of caring, respect and integrity with those you are leading. Create a level playing field with them where they know you have their back. Serve their needs and you’ll build influence with them that will stand the test of time and the toxic situation.
  4. Have fun – In stressful times, it’s easy to take on a serious tone. However, while the situation is serious, you won’t have to take yourself so serious. Whether you’re stoic or jovial, the tyrant will still be a tyrant so have fun. Find moments to laugh with your team and engage in some self-deprecating humor that lightens the mood.
  5. Serve your peers – This is a tricky one. In doing this, you might start feeling accountable for their “stuff” and the weight they feel in the situation. Serving them doesn’t mean owning their stuff, it means bringing that sub-culture of caring, respect and fun to your interactions with them. You’ll be adding massive value.
  6. Enlist others – As people witness your approach to the situation, they will undoubtedly ask you first if you’re crazy and then what’s it all about. This is your opportunity to share what you’ve learned and experienced and invite them into your cultural revolution.
  7. Care deeply for those you’re following – This is the hardest of the seven since you’re feeling disrespected and made small by the one you’re following. Every bone in your body is telling you to fight back and challenge them. Caring is listening. Caring is interest in the success of your shared work. Caring is loyalty. Caring is respect. Caring is not “kissing up” or “brown nosing.” Look for their legitimate needs and serve those needs.

These strategies can be powerful whether in a toxic or healthy environment. Where will you start?

Jeff Harmon

Jeff Harmon is the president of Brilliance Within Coaching & Consulting which specializes in developing servant leaders while helping them translate their strategies into actionable plans that drive business results. Jeff is the author of “The Anatomy of a Principled Leader.” Jeff has been developing leaders for nearly 20 years and has led the execution of over 100,000 hours of business strategy for information technology, financial services and non-profit organizations.

What People Are Saying

Jack   |   30 September 2016   |   Reply

Jeff: Your very well-grounded wisdom shows up in all your posts. This one is particularly high impact for anyone caught in a toxic culture – that’s a lot of people. Jack

Jeff Harmon   |   04 October 2016   |   Reply

Thank you Jack. What have you seen work in these type of environments?

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