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How To Thrive In A Toxic Work Environment

How to Thrive in a Toxic Work Environment

Ever had a job that you hated? Or ever dealt with a boss that really got on your nerves? In some cases, the best way to deal with them is to keep your distance but, how do you navigate the dynamics of dealing such a toxic atmosphere?

A friend of mine, Sarah McDugal went through some of these experiences a few years ago and released a book entited, “One face: Shed the mask, own your values, and lead wisely.” I gained a lot of great insights from it which I think are applicable no matter which setting you find yourself in. So, pay attention to the following three areas if you want to truly thrive in a toxic work environment.

1. Never underestimate the power of organizational culture.

Organizational culture is “the way things are done around here.” It is the way people behave and make decisions. Organizational culture is usually something that is caught vs. taught because it is, in essence, modeled and lived out every day on your team.

No matter how much you talk about what kind of organization you want to be, at the end of the day, how you act defines what kind of organization you are.

If you complain, your organizational culture will include complaining. Do you see and participate in politicking? Your organizational culture will include politicking.

In a church setting, you can talk about wanting to be a loving and evangelistic church all you want. Yet, if no one is doing outreach and genuinely taking an interest in people’s lives, your church is neither loving nor evangelistic, it’s dreaming.

As someone once said, “Culture will eat vision alive. Always.” If you’re an organizational leader, rather than talking about what kind of values you claim to have or would like to see, spend some time looking at what’s happening around you and live out the values you’d like to see in your team.

If you like what you see, thank the organizational culture. If you don’t like it, change needs to start with someone and there’s no better person than you. Embody change, don’t just preach change.

2. Never underestimate the power of an authentic life.

Sarah shares in her book that she worked with a terrible boss at one point who expected things of his employees that he himself wasn’t willing to do. This is one example of someone living an inauthentic life.

Have you ever heard of “faking it ’till you make it” while in a job? It’s the idea that you pretend to know what you’re doing (even if you don’t). I did that at one point because I thought that being unsure or uncertain was a sign of bad leadership.

In reality though, this leads to all sorts of problems. Whenever our values are out of line with our actions, or we find ourselves developing different ways of treating others, we inevitably start adopting masks in our leadership.

“When you live with multiple faces, there’s an incredible amount of stress required just to maintain a facade of normalcy. You have to keep track of what you said when and where and to whom, and which people you can do which things around. Energy that should be expended on creative productivity is lost in the black hole of juggling identities.”

This tends to happen a lot in churches. Have you ever noticed yourself speaking differently to people who believe like you than to those who don’t? Or regularly using group lingo in public that only insiders know what you’re referring to (for example AY, VBS, NAD, Ingathering, GC, etc.)? How do we expect guests to understand what you’re talking about? In some cases, our “Christianese” creates a mask that becomes a hurdle for outsiders to understand or even relate to.

The whole premise of Sarah’s book is to drop the mask and live authentically.

In my experience, I’ve found that an authentic life is one of the best influences that you can have inside and outside of the church walls. When you’re authentic, people respect you and your beliefs more because they see that your faith is not just an act. What they see is what they get. Conversely, there is nothing more damaging to your witness and reputation than when it is found out that your lived out values are not the same as your professed values.

3. Never underestimate the power of a single decision.

It’s the little choices that sneak up on us, not the big ones. A few years ago when the economy was on the verge of collapse, we heard of stories in the financial world of corruption and oversight. Mega disasters like that don’t happen overnight; they are the result of years of bad decisions done over time.

Like the first point about corporate culture, a decision over time is what builds a destiny for better or worse.

 So what do you do if you wake up one morning with the uneasy realization that you’re not the person you wanted to be? When you notice that you have somehow drifted far from your original values and you’re actually someone adding toxicicity? How do you rediscover integrity when you’ve lost sight of your compass? Is it ever too late to turn around? How would such a change even be possible?

Once again, never underestimate the power of a single decision.

Of course, change doesn’t happen by merely wishing for it. Success doesn’t happen by only thinking about it. It takes hard work. Yet, every day you make the choice to work on becoming the person you want to be is one less day of living with the thought of, “What if?”

Don’t let today’s opportunities slip away while you daydream about tomorrows possibilities.

Nelson Fernandez

Nelson is married to the love of his life, Sarah, and together have a son named Isaac. He serves as Associate Pastor at Miami Temple SDA, a multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural church in South Florida. He loves ministry, Marvel movies, video games, Naruto, and serving the local church. He also runs his own blog about leadership, evangelism, and practical Christianity at You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @nelsonblogs.

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