Muting the Power of Toxic Workplaces

Sound board close up on muted
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Have you ever wished you could mute your coworkers at will?

I’m talking about a mute button that works like the one on the TV remote. The one you use when the commercials start so you don’t have to listen to them.

Come to think of it, coworkers and TV commercials have a lot in common.

Most of them are just part of your daily landscape. They do their job, you do yours, that’s that.

Some become important to you because they represent something good in your world. They lift you up, inspire you, help you understand something or believe in something.

Like this one by the Japanese Ad Council of a misunderstood boy.

Or the love story of the Clydesdale and the puppy from Budweiser.

Or this PBS Kids promo that gives us hope for a brighter future.

Then there are the ones that are so annoying, manipulative, or downright obnoxious you wish they’d leave the airwaves (or the workplace) forever. Like certain purveyors of pillow products. These are the ones that cause you to dive for the mute button.

You can’t mute, but you can be muted.

An annoying commercial on television is of little consequence to any of us in the long run because they’re easy to avoid.

In the workplace, on the other hand, employees can’t usually shut down the screaming boss or harassing team member. They don’t have a mute button that protects them from the coworker creep or the inept manager.

In fact, many hard-working employees are much more likely to be muted themselves by company policies, fear of reprisal, or unwritten norms.

That’s what happens when your workplace is toxic. At its best, such an employer values you as a disposable tool, good for one thing and one thing only; at worst, you serve as someone’s emotional punching bag. Either way, you’re not seen as a human being. You’re easily and frequently muted.

Why?

Why do so many of us put up with it? Rhetorical question, obviously. Because jobs aren’t always easy to get, so the one you have is worth 100 in the bush. Because you don’t believe another job will be any different. Because you’ve bought into someone else’s narrative that you’re not worth any better. Because you have kids at home that are counting on you to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.

Most people who write about toxic workplaces try to make the point that the toxic company tends to do poorly against competitors that have a more respectful company culture. While that’s true, and important, the part that bothers me is the cost in humanity.

What’s the cost?

According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, treating others in demeaning ways has a negative effect on everyone. He cites a study in which students were placed in one of two treatment groups. One group was verbally abused by a person of authority prior to testing, and the other group was not abused. Adam describes the outcome:

The poor students who were randomly assigned to [the verbal abuse] were then asked to solve some anagrams. And they solved a quarter fewer anagrams correctly. Then the students saw someone drop a bunch of books. The ones who had just been verbally abused were nine times less likely to help.

Assholes undermine our ability to think clearly and creatively. But what seems absolutely damning is that they also leave us with more negative attitudes toward others.

What’s the solution?

Since workplaces are simply microcosms of society and reflect the spectrum of human nature, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever be completely rid of the people who create a toxic workplace. However, I think each of us can control the factors in our own world that dictate how much we are exposed to toxic people and toxic workplaces. It’s not as easy as using the mute button, but the effect is more far-reaching.

It starts by refusing to accept toxic workplaces. It’s so easy (well, relatively speaking) to just avoid the rudeness and minimize engagement. That’s using the mute button to keep our sanity. But we have more opportunity to create change than that.

Here’s an example: Barbara is known by all who report to her as a bully. She’ll dress anyone down in public, makes a habit of sarcastic attacks and yelling, and seems to get a kick out of making people cry. Each time she acts this way, people nearby do their best to disappear. Later they bitch about her to each other. When one person on the team fails to meet a deadline, their reaction is to let the project suffer rather than help him out. Another employee keeps a jar of Vaseline at her desk as a subtle joke about the way she feels compelled to “bend over and take it” from Barbara.

The negative attitudes towards the job and to others is evident.

So what happens if someone tries to fight that trend?

A Story

Jill is determined that the next time Barbara speaks rudely to her, she’ll speak up against it as civilly as possible. She plans to use a technique she found online from a conflict resolution expert. Her plan is to take a deep breath, hold up her hand in a “stop” gesture, and say calmly, “Barbara, I can’t listen when you speak so harshly. Please speak more politely.”

Jill doesn’t expect a great reaction from Barbara, but she’ll hope for the best. If Barbara does escalate, Jill plans this response: “Please let me know when you’re ready to discuss this professionally. Thank you.” And Jill will walk away.

Jill gets her chance the very next day. This time, when Barbara begins to ramp up the heat and volume of her speech at Jill, Jill is ready. She implements step one of her plan. Although her hand shakes and her voice is a bit thready, she keeps her head high and her gaze steady. “Barbara, I can’t listen when you speak so harshly to me. Please speak more politely.”

Everyone within earshot turns to stare as if at a suicide jumper. Barbara herself pauses; not, unfortunately, to consider her behavior, but to let her new outrage build until it spews from her lips like hot lava from a volcano.

Jill feels the blast and is frightened, but she sticks to her plan. She makes her voice stronger in order to be heard over Barbara’s screech. “Please let me know when you’re ready to discuss this professionally. Thank you.” And Jill turns and walks away (as quickly as possible).

What’s the outcome?

The fact is that Jill will certainly draw fire from Barbara, who doesn’t appreciate having anyone point out the unprofessional nature of her actions. The immediate result may not seem worth the damage, and it does take a plan and a fair bit of resolution.

But, what about the outcome for Jill’s self-respect?

What Jill felt was a great leap in her own sense of self-worth. Most likely, she’ll also see a jump in the respect others give her as word spreads of the way she responded to Barbara. Because how many of them have wished someone would stand up to Barbara?

Now magnify that seemingly small result for Jill by each person Barbara treats unprofessionally. They’ve all been using the mute button to reduce the emotional impact of the toxicity Barbara creates. Whether they’re aware of it or not, they’ve generally followed Barbara’s lead when it comes to treating others negatively. What happens when they take themselves off mute and display the professionalism that Barbara does not? Yes, Barbara is likely to step up her bullying game in response, but her ability to have a negative effect is reduced.

It’s the bulwark of our own human dignity that will protect us if, like Jill, we can just find the courage to use it. Despite the assault on that bulwark, putting it in harm’s way may be the best way to make it stronger. Isn’t it worth the effort to keep your sense of self-worth intact, and to stop the slow erosion of confidence that can occur when we allow others to treat us badly?

If you can find it in yourself to do so safely, I encourage everyone who works in a toxic environment to draw a line in the sand. I believe you’ll win, even if the toxic people you work with don’t acknowledge it. What’s more important is that you’ll know you’ve done it. You, and each person who witnesses you taking that stand for civility, becomes a little brighter, a little more courageous, a little more willing to believe that changing the workplace culture is possible.

That’s how we mute the power of toxic workplaces.

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Hermit. Instructional designer. Caretaker for my animal family. And writer.

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Sara Pehrsson

Sara Pehrsson

Hermit. Instructional designer. Caretaker for my animal family. And writer.

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