How to Improve a Toxic Office Culture

You spend at half of your waking hours at work, so if you’re facing a toxic office culture, you may feel trapped in a depressing cycle of drama and panic.

As hopeless as that may feel, your options are pretty simple: You can stay or you can go. When an office has gotten particularly toxic, it may feel like the only thing to do is just cut your losses and start someplace fresh, but if you like other aspects of your job, such as the hours, location, duties, etc, you should considering repairing what you have.

You may also realize that you are not in a financial position to take what could be a month or more to find another position, so maybe your options are even simpler than you thought: you simply have to stay.

Here are a few things to help improve a toxic office culture.

Recognize that a toxic office culture is never just one person’s fault.

This is a common office myth that, although convenient, needs to stop. People in a toxic office environment often find themselves saying “if only [so and so] didn’t work here, we’d all be better off,” but the fact is, by singling that person out, they’ve been put in an impossible situation.

What is created is an “Us Against Them” scenario where they will never be welcome. Coworkers may feel some camaraderie as they commiserate about how terrible that person is, but it’s all at the expense of that singled out coworker. 

Now, I’m not saying that this person is not at times completely insufferable, but creating a better office culture means creating a better office for everyone (Even Crabbypants over there). So let’s do that.

Stop the trash talk.

The first thing you need to do is tell your coworkers that you want positive change. Anticipate some amount of push back.

If you’ve gotten into the habit of making snarky remarks about so-and-so always parking where they shouldn’t, or listening to Elton John too loudly, or getting really aggressively defensive about not vaccinating her children, and suddenly you say that you don’t want to do that anymore, they’re going to feel judged.

They’ll probably go into detail about why this person deserves the treatment they get. Choose a time first thing in the morning, and not immediately after someone has started in complaining (or they’ll really fight back!), and just say that yes, although they deserve it, it makes you feel anxious and unhappy, so you’re not going to partake in it anymore. (That probably feels pretty juvenile, but so is picking on the way a man walks to the restroom.)

Smack talking is a hard habit to break. You may need to reaffirm yourself multiple times before it sticks.

I once had a friend who found he was judging people too much and he didn’t like the way it made him feel, so whenever he would catch himself saying something rude, he would finish the sentence with “just like me,” and it was funny, but it also highlighted how often he was mindlessly judging other people, and he slowly cut it out of his routine.

Connect with the troublemaker(s).

Now that you’ve stopped the negative chatter on your end, the next step is to find common ground with your biggest “problem” person (or people). It could be music, or tv, or food, but if all else fails, remember you’ve all got one thing in common: you’re trying to get through your workday, and (ideally) do the best job possible.

Often communication has completely broken down, and you’ve gone a long time trying to just ignore each other, so start with small positive statements, and continuously reaffirm that you’re in this together, and that their work is valuable. Use words like “we” and “us” and (I know, this is crazy) “thanks.”

Remember: You don’t have to like your co-workers.

Creating a happier office culture does not mean that you’re striving to have everyone hug and go out for drinks at the end of a long day. You’re trying to make your workplace flow smoothly so when you go home, Problem Person isn’t the only thing your family hears about.

Expect them to be suspicious of you for a while when you talk to them, or smile, or ask them how they’re doing, because those aren’t the behaviors of someone who dislikes them, so it IS weird.

Keep trying.

If you stop the negative talk, find common ground, and compliment liberally, your situation will improve. You weren’t born hating this person, it probably happened slowly– or maybe it didn’t, maybe they just did one thing and you decided you would dislike them indefinitely for it, in which case maybe it is just one person causing all this drama: you.

But more likely you grew to dislike this person slowly over time, and so give the healing process time. Make note of the date when you announced that you were no longer going to talk badly about that person.

After a month, reassess your situation. If you think there’s been improvement, that’s awesome, you’re making progress, if not, go back to the basics, make sure the effort you’re making is real, and not token. Normally, this is the part of the article where I hedge my bets. “If all else fails” or “maybe I’m wrong” but in this case, I’m not wrong. This person can be dealt with, and your whole office will be better off because of it.

Can’t handle the drama anymore? We get it. Check out some of the top healthcare jobs at CovalentCareers.com.

Kim Martel

I'm a Certified Ophthalmic Assistant, comedian, and journalist at CovalentCareers!

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