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Toxic Tribe: It’s Not a Punk Band. It’s Your Work-Life, and This is How You Break Free

by Todd R. Nordstrom

There’s anger. There’s rebellion. There’s a loud undertone of disrespect for authority. And, we’re not talking about the musicians at your neighborhood dive bar. This is your team at work, minus the mohawks.

Okay, so you work with a bunch of people who are legitimately disgruntled. These are the people, when you walked around during your new-hire orientation, who told you that your company was the worst place to work ever. They asked, “Why’d you come here?” and they told you, “You’re going to hate it.”

Maybe you flinched. Maybe you questioned your decision. But, maybe you also asked yourself the question, “If they hate it so much, why have they worked here for thirteen years?”

Sure, we’ve all met the curmudgeons—the people who hate your company. We’ve met the blowhards—the people who pretend to like it because they have nothing else to be proud of.   And, we’ve met the cheerleaders—the people who seemingly oversell the company because they really want you to join because it justifies their own decision to stay.

While the descriptions above may feel cynical, every person reading this has met all three of these personalities in the workplace. In fact, if you lined up these personalities in a graffiti-covered alley, you could snap a perfect album-cover picture. The band would be called Toxic Tribe. And, songs [on their album would be: the darkly melodramatic Welcome to My Ultimate Nightmare, the hard-thumping My Smile Through the Torture, and the poppy ballad Can You Justify Me?

But, is this a punk band? Or, is it the opposite?

You were excited. That’s gone. You had high hopes. That vanished. You were thrilled because you honestly believed you finally found the company, project, and team that could skyrocket your career goals. And, now you’re stuck with this demoralized and demoralizing group—a group unwilling to fight for something better. That’s not a punk band. That’s just a sad trio. And, that’s something we all need to see for what it is—a bunch of people who have lost the will to become better.

Listen, we all need a horrible boss to show us exactly what we don’t want to become at work. We all need to work side-by-side with teammates who are happy to settle for marginal, even dismal, results. We all need our hopes elevated by empty promises, and our dreams crushed by harsh realities. And, more than anything else, we all need to find a place where we stop asking for permission to become amazing.  Honestly, we all need to be a little more punk.

If you want to overcome the attitudes of those around you, you need a punk rock attitude of your own. In fact, you need to write your song, become the lead singer, and break stuff while you’re on your stage. Punk rock is not about being angry. It’s actually intended to break norms, start revolutions, and create positive change. And, probably more than anything else, it’s about expressing your unique individuality—you need to be you. 

Okay, so without the mohawks, and the spiked dog collars, how do you break free of the toxic world around you to become your best self? Here are a few (extremely professional) things to consider in your development.     

  • Focus on Your Lyrics. Punk lyrics draw a line in the sand. They tell a story about what you are, and are not, willing to accept. They express passion, discontent, and purpose. So, what is your song? What are your lyrics? What stories do you need to be telling the world, your workplace, and your leadership ? What type of revolution are you ready to lead? Is it a project that you could perfect? Is it a client that you could convince? Is it a policy you’d love to replace—because you know it would increase productivity, efficiency, or collaboration? If you learn to tell your story, and learn to tell stories that support your idea, you can change the world around you.   
  • Engage in the Battle. Punk rock is rebellion. While that sounds extreme, it’s actually quite normal. While you might not be rebelling against a social cause, an imminent threat, or even a corrupt hierarchy, you do engage daily with plenty of injustice. How do you deal with office politics? How do you deal with a workplace bully? How do you squash the rumors and gossip? Or, how do you overcome the petty power-plays of a team member, when all you really want to achieve is a better result? We all deal with conflict at work. The question is, how do you navigate it? A punk-rocker seeks the battle. But, be mindful of this; they strategically use words, melody, and community to make their point heard. There are proper ways to navigate conflict in the office. Here’s how. 
  • A Kick-Drum Drives Everything. When it comes to music, drummers are often the least noticed, but most important players in the band. In fact, we can boil it down further. The drummer isn’t the most important leader of the band, but instead it’s the drummer’s feet. The rhythm you hear from a bass drum controls the direction of all the other players on the stage. In business, we call this ‘Leadership.’ Your leaders may have a slow rhythm. They might have a fast rhythm. Or, they might be off-rhythm which throws everyone else off beat. That’s a catastrophe. Nevertheless, it’s critical for you to understand that anyone (even you) can sit down at a kick-drum at any point and create your own beat. You can be a leader even if you don’t have the title. You can lead a high-energy culture, even if those around you are moving at a snail’s pace. Kick your drum. You be you
  • Learn to Harmonize. Alright, punk rock is not necessarily celebrated for harmonizing voices. However, that’s not the point. Various instruments need to play together too. And, that’s what all of us need to understand if we’re going to make it through our careers, our relationships, and our lives. The human species is like a band—if we don’t play together, we can’t produce music. And, this concept isn’t always easy. However, when we encounter situations where someone doesn’t want to play the same song, there are steps we can take to find harmony.  In music, we ask a conductor to settle our differences. In business and life, we ask a mediator to help us get on the same note. If you have difficulty harmonizing in life, learn more about mediated conversations. 

In all honesty, we all need to face the fact that the world, and the workplace, is not necessarily a fair and friendly place. And, it’s not because all of humankind is evil, or wrong, or greedy. It’s because we all view this life from a unique perspective. We all hope that we can become the best versions of ourselves. Or, at least we start with that belief. Some of us get distracted by obligation. Some of us succumb to expectation. Some of us actually lose ourselves in despair. But, some of us become ‘punk rockers’—we create our own destiny no matter what stands in our way.

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