A toxic work environment takes its toll on a person’s attitudes, thoughts, and feelings as a professional and a person. Being able to separate oneself out from the negativity at work is so important for a vulnerable worker, but easier said than done. It is next to impossible to not be affected by toxicity at work. This is because of how the tentacles of the workplace aggression wraps itself around and stifles the target, even if they are aware of what is happening.
Vulnerable workers need to apply conscious care strategies to reduce harm in toxic work environments. The first step is for targets to actively pursue emotional disengagement from the turmoil of their workplace. Because targets are often dedicated and hardworking employees who vest themselves in their job and/or profession, this can be extremely problematic and difficult. However, disengaging from the emotional chaos is a means of self-protection and helps the workers start the process of regaining their personal power.
Emotional disengagement does not mean that a target changes or alters their work ethic or habits in any way. Rather, it focuses on taking a step back and de-investing oneself emotionally from the workplace aggression. The vulnerable worker makes a conscious decision to deflect the toxicity at work instead of internalizing it. They have a clear understanding that they are not the problem.
I would like to talk about my own personal experience in this area in an effort to show you can in fact disengage emotionally and use care-conscious strategies to manage bully cultures.
The environment I worked in was highly toxic and I was the frequent victim of workplace bullying by my boss. A common occurrence was for my boss to call me into his office and attack me about something that I supposedly did or did not do. On one of these occasions, after having been yelled at and insulted, I came back to my office feeling very disrespected and de-valued. I remember thinking that I was sick of this stuff and that I knew I was a great worker and did not deserve to be abused at work. At that very moment, I decided I was done allowing my boss to control my emotions and how I felt about myself. I was done with that and I made a conscious decision to react differently to how I was treated. I chose in a sense to take my power and control back. I decided that I would continue to do my job to the best of my ability, but I would stop putting myself into situations where others could affect how I felt. I made a choice to de-vest myself from my work and to reinvest in myself as a professional and a person.
I developed some strategies on how to do this because I knew this was going against who I was, but I knew I had no choice. I learned how to tune my boss out when he started in on me. I would count in my mead or repeat the lyrics to my favorite song. This allowed me to focus on other things instead of what my boss was saying.
I decided that I would maintain rigid professional boundaries that included just doing my job and not offering anything outside of this. I agreed with decisions made but offered no suggestions or additional input. I know that this does not seem like the best workplace behavior, but remember that best workplace behavior is not valued in a persistent workplace aggressive environment. For a target, best workplace behaviors are often opportunities for abuse. This reduced the amount of harm I experienced at work.
Another decision that I made was to never react and keep my emotions under strict control. Again, this is much easier to say than it is to do. I developed deep breathing techniques that I used in meetings and in conversations with my boss and other aggressors. I also developed diversion plans that I used if I felt I was getting out of control or that the environment was becoming too toxic.
One of the diversion tactics that I frequently used when I felt cornered in my office was to grab the phone when I heard my boss coming down the hallway and pretend I was talking to someone. I would also begin to pull my things together and I would say, “Hi John, I can see you need to talk to me, but I was just heading to a meeting across campus. Can I come down to your office when I get back in an hour? And, what did you need to talk to me about?” This allowed me to develop an understanding of what the aggressor wanted to talk to me about but also granted me with time to think about my response. On more than one occasion, when I would go down to the aggressor’s office, they were not even interested in talking with me.
It is important for vulnerable workers to actively develop conscious care strategies to reduce their exposure to workplace violence, but also to ensure that they are not internalizing the abuse. The vulnerable worker may not be able to stop the workplace violence, but conscious care strategies can assist them with better managing of a toxic work environment.
Call to Action:
If you are a vulnerable worker think about high risks times for workplace violence and develop one conscious care strategy to reduce harm. And then use it!!
Talk to the vulnerable worker and work together to develop one conscious care strategy to reduce harm.