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6 Shocking Strategies to Navigate an Unhealthy Workplace Culture

by Todd R. Nordstrom

You work for a company on the rise. You see the potential. You like the fast pace. And, there’s a part of you that loves challenging yourself to be your best. Sleep can wait, right?

But, ask yourself, are you in a healthy environment?

Over the past fifteen to twenty years, corporate culture has been one of the most studied aspects of the workplace and for good reason. A strong culture has been proven time-and-again to not only outperform strategy, but also attract and retain the best talent. 

But, what’s the difference between a healthy culture and an unhealthy culture? 

It would be easy to answer the above question by saying something like: Healthy cultures nurture talent, appreciate employees, provide work-life balance, and present opportunities for growth. It would also be easy to answer the above question by saying something like: Unhealthy cultures are demoralizing, exhausting, and make employees feel insecure about their future. 

The irony, of course, is that all of the descriptions above could mean different things to different people. For example, a manager may appreciate employees but never tells them—so the employee assumes they’re not appreciated. Or, an employee might feel demoralized by the fact that their boss is always checking in on their progress, while the boss assumes the employee likes to know they are consistently available. And, all of this leads to just one single point—a healthy culture is defined by you, the employee.

A culture that energizes one person may exhaust another. A culture that demoralizes one person, might invigorate another person. The fact of the matter is, only you can define the perfect culture for you. Yep, I said it. Just because a company says they are a great place to work, doesn’t mean you need to agree with it.

So, how do you navigate a culture, team, boss, or atmosphere that is unhealthy to you? Here are 6 shocking, but simple, approaches: 

    1. Avoid it. Okay, if you’re already working for a company, and already hating your life because of it, this first step doesn’t apply to you now, but it will when you start looking for your next gig. While job postings at other companies might feel attractive, it’s important to realize that your mindset is currently stuck in misery mode. You don’t want to leave just to find yourself in the same situation. So, do your research. Job postings are written to entice you. Instead of trusting those words, reach out to a few employees who currently work at the company. Let them tell you what it’s really like to work there. And, listen closely to their answers. Even if they love it, it doesn’t mean you will. Wait for the right fit.
    2. Gamify it. If you’re currently in a culture that you decide is unhealthy, you can choose to make it a game. What does that mean? It means you’re going to risk being fired. For example, if the workplace culture suggests that everyone works late, but you want to be home for dinner with your family, test it. Go home at dinner time. Spend time with your family. But, start sending emails to your managers at two-thirty in the morning with probing questions about the project you’re working on. In a way, you’re challenging them (and the cultural norm) by saying, “Look, I work just as hard as you do.” Again, you might get fired. But, at this point, do you care? 
    3. Accept it. If you hate your culture, but love your job, you might simply decide to accept the norms. You might bend your priorities. You might succumb to the pressure of your peers. And, eventually you will  begin to  lose your dignity. You’ll begin to resent yourself. If your culture is a wrong fit, and you pretend to play a role, just to remain part of it, you will eventually become even more miserable than you are today. You are you. Be you. Let them be them. And, if they don’t value the true you, some other company will.
    4. Address it. While an unhealthy workplace culture or environment might feel impossible to change, your voice has more power than you might imagine. Share your thoughts and feelings with Human Resources. Explain how the environment is negatively impacting you, your personal life, and even your performance at work. Yes, it’s true. Your words may land on deaf ears. However, every human resource professional will at least wonder how many other employees are feeling the same.  
    5. Embrace it for different reasons. Okay, let’s slow down and think about your job and your workplace from a non-emotional point of view. While  there may be aspects that you dislike, it’s important to spend some time thinking about the things you do like. Do you like your team? Do you love your clients? Do you feel rewarded by the work you do? Once you truly assess every aspect of your workplace, you might realize that you like more aspects than you dislike. And, let’s be honest, nobody loves every single aspect of their job.
    6. Leave it. If you’ve read all of the approaches above, and none seem like viable options, then it’s time to leave your unhealthy workplace. Life is too short. Your happiness and satisfaction are too important. And, the last thing any of us want is to reach retirement age with absolute regret—that we spent our entire career feeling miserable.

Navigating an unhealthy workplace can be one of the most frustrating aspects of life. However,  it’s important to realize that YOU are the navigator. You get to decide how to approach it. And, even though it may cause conflict, it’s worth it. For a more in-depth conversation about how to navigate conflict at work, check out this online course on navigating-workplace-conflict. I found it amazing.

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