How to Create a Great Team in a Challenging or Toxic Work Environment

May 17, 2022

How to build a great team in a toxic work environment

When it comes to toxic workplaces, poor leadership is often cited as one of the root causes. The misconception, however, is that all leaders are to blame. Which very often isn’t the case. 

Even in the most challenging work environments, there will be managers that genuinely want the best for the people they lead. In fact, these managers will want to create a great team environment, but aren’t sure how when they’re essentially swimming against the tide, often with no support of their own. 

So, is it possible? Can you really create a great team in a toxic or challenging work environment? 

The honest answer is that it depends. Firstly on whether the environment is truly toxic or just challenging, and secondly on your appetite to deal with these challenges.

In this article, we’ll explore this in more detail.

Is it possible to build a high performing team in a toxic work environment?

Even for managers with the best of intentions, trying to create positive change can be draining. 

But with the right amount of passion and energy, it can be possible. That said, it shouldn’t be at the detriment of your own well being though. 

So, before anything, you should consider whether the environment and culture is just challenging, or if it’s all out toxic.

Figuring out whether your work environment is toxic or challenging

In a recent article in the sloan review, a group explored five elements of a truly toxic culture:

  • People within the organization are disrespectful. They have a lack of consideration, courtesy and dignity for others.
  • The environment is non-inclusive with a pressure to conform.
  • The organization is unethical, dishonest and lacks regulatory compliance.
  • The organization is cutthroat or hyper competitive.
  • People within the organization are downright abusive. This may include bullying, harassment and hostility.

Each of these behaviors have a profound impact. In fact, according to the study, twenty percent of employees have quit a job because of its culture. Then there's the fact that almost three quarters of job seekers want the culture of a company to align with their values. 

So, what should you do if you feel your company's culture is truly toxic?

Well, the best approach may just be to quit. As Adam Grant tweeted recently, "Quitting your job isn’t being disloyal to your boss. Sometimes it’s the only way to stay loyal to yourself. If work threatens your well being, leaving is an act of self preservation. If work violates your values, quitting is an expression of integrity.”

But what if your workplace isn't truly toxic, it's just challenging?

For example, there might be a tendency to overwork, or to micro-manage.

Alternatively, you may be feeling some change-fatigue, perhaps after rounds of cost-cutting and downsizing. It might be challenging, but you might believe culture change is possible, and you may decide that you want to be a key part of that movement. 

So, how can you make the best of this situation?

How to create a great team in a challenging workplace

Unless you have superhuman powers, you're unlikely to change the culture of the organization on your own. 

You may, however, find that you're not alone in seeking this change, meaning you could become part of a movement that changes the organization for the better. 

Here are a few principles to bear in mind:

Look after yourself

It’s critical that at all points you look after your own physical and mental health. You should never feel that your personal values are so out of line with the organization that it’s going to cause you to burnout. You need to feel you have the resilience to take on this challenge

Act as a filter

As a leader, you can be the break point. In other words, you can stop the bad behaviors that affect you from affecting those you manage. 

This can be tough. After all, it's easy for us to mimic behaviors that we don't like, simply because they've become the norm. 

But how do you break this chain?

Start by asking yourself questions like:

  • "Am I treating my team members in a way that I'd like to be managed?"
  • "What behaviors do I want to stop reinforcing in this company?"
  • "Do I inspire people with a genuine hope of a better future?"

Have frank and honest one-to-ones. Be open with your team about what you see and how you'd like things to change in the team and beyond.

But be realistic about how long this might take. Mistakes will be made and you should give space to reflect on them and learn the lessons.

Create a cohesive team culture

Once you've had honest conversations with each individual team member, you will want to develop a clear purpose for your team, with agreed norms of behaviors that you all collectively establish.

Often, talking about purpose happens most naturally when it starts from the individual. This is especially true in these moments of swimming against the tide.

So, you might start with a conversation about what's meaningful for each individual. Then you'd work out the meaningful role the team could play in the change they want to see.

You'll need to be patient though, as this change takes time and cultural change is particularly tough.

Form alliances

It’s unlikely that you will be alone in seeking change. Look for alliances with others.  There are bound to be some other managers, leaders or team members that feel somewhat similar. In particular, work on the teams with whom you need to collaborate the most. If you can develop a positive relationship there, you will start building real momentum for change. A small ecosystem that is modeling new behaviors.

Address bad behaviour, but don't draw battle lines

It’s good to call out poor behaviour. If people are not walking the talk of the aspiration values leaders have signed up to, call it out. But don’t “other or alienate” people at the company. 

Firstly, this is the opposite of what you are trying to do, which is to improve the culture.

Secondly, you will want to build new alliances across the organization as change takes hold.

Being the positive deviant in a toxic work environment

If you feel that work is tough and you are fighting an uphill battle, you do have some choices.

Ultimately, you can leave, try and change the culture, or put up with it. As we discussed, in some cases it makes perfect sense to quit. 

Putting up with a culture may seem like the easiest option, but it probably does the most damage long term. Like the frog in the pan that heats up slowly, we can become altered. And not in a good way.

The third option is to try and be central to the change that needs to take place.

In some circles, this is called being the "positive deviant". 

Positive Deviance (PD) is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, despite having access to the same resources and facing similar—or worse challenges.

This approach enables the wider community to discover these successful behaviors and strategies, and develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned.

It might be helpful to work out the success measures; Happy clients? An engaged team? Increased productivity? A reputation for cooperation and information sharing? The ability to hire the best whilst being honest about the challenges? Low attrition?

All of these could be signals that you are bucking a trend.

If you have the energy and passion to be part of a culture change it can be an exciting journey. It’s likely that some leaders in the organization are looking for your help. But remember that decision starts with you taking some time to reflect on your wellbeing and energy levels. Consider all the options.

In 2019, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall published Nine Lies About Work. "When people choose not to work somewhere, the somewhere isn't a company, it's a team. If we put you in a good team at a bad company, you'll tend to hang around, but if we put you in a bad team at a good company, you won't be there for long. The team is the sun, the moon, and the stars of your experience at work."

If you create a great team environment you will make a difference to people's lives. And if you are interested in becoming a positive deviant - good luck!

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