How to Improve a Toxic Office Culture

Oct 17, 2017
4 min read

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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