Three signs you're internalising a toxic culture at work | Women's Agenda

Three signs you’re internalising a toxic culture at work

The recent uproar regarding violence — on our streets and in our homes — and the perpetrators of such crime gives us cause to think about the ways in which we as humans can unconsciously internalise the behaviours, values and norms of our peers, our family and our culture. By internalising, I am referring to the ways in which we learn and embed various experiences and beliefs into our own views of the world and fundamentally into our sense of self. Often this is a positive process and it gets to the heart of how we discover the world, how we learn and how we grow. (One example may be the powerful impact of role models and mentors on our sense of who we are). However it can also be a negative thing as we have witnessed recently.

When it comes to violence on our streets, at what stage did these individuals learn that this was an acceptable? And whilst we understand that alcohol can exacerbate a situation, where do these behaviours come from? I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that (unfortunately) the situation we have been seeing parallels some of the behaviours we are seeing elsewhere – in our politics and our organisations. Of course I am not referring to the overt use of physical violence but I am referring to the prevalence of toxic behaviours that can still pervade so many areas.

Consider every time we see a politician denigrating the opposition or disrespecting their peers – what underlying message does this send about valuing others? Further, what impact does an executive team have on those around them when they talk over each other and don’t listen?

In my leadership practice we find that on balance, organisational cultures are improving and many are moving in a positive direction. Cultures of innovation, creativity and valuing individual differences are on the rise. However that doesn’t stop the toxic behaviours that individuals can still perpetuate on each other under times of stress or as a result of general mismanagement. In workshop after workshop one of the most energetic discussions we seem to have centres on individuals’ experiences of a difficult manager or toxic leader in their organisation.

This mix of the good with the ugly means that we can be at risk of internalising beliefs, values or behaviours that are not positive, not collaborative and that can potentially perpetuate difficult cultures. Being able to identify the ways in which these behaviours may be impacting you, whether you may be unconsciously taking them on yourself, is vital to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of your colleagues.

To help bring this concept to life, I have suggested three common signs that indicate you may be unintentionally internalising the behaviours of significant others. This list is far from exhaustive however its purpose is to highlight that even relatively trivial behaviours can start to impact on the culture at large. Consider the following:

  1. Are you working longer hours at the office than you would like? Do you find yourself looking for an inconspicuous way to leave at the end of your day? Are you taking the exit stairs instead of the lift so that you can leave unnoticed?

    This is a classic response for those who may have unwittingly internalised the message that long hours equal performance. Often times this may be the overriding culture and you may still be working for a misguided manager who walks the floor at 6pm (or even 7pm) to see who is “making an effort”. I know this sounds so outdated but it does continue in workplaces today.

    What to do? Externalise this unhelpful norm by being firm about your boundaries. Communicate them to whoever in your team needs to know. Hold your head high and take the front exit – without apologising on your way out. Leading organisations know that output is vitally more important than hours.

  2. Do you find yourself holding back information in meetings even though you recognise that your knowledge could be helpful? Are you keeping quiet rather than opening up about your ideas or suggestions that have been canvassed in earlier discussions?

    This behaviour signals that you may be internalising the politics of your company or your manager. Perhaps leadership in your organisation is interpreted that maintaining knowledge is central to maintaining power. Importantly, in today’s connected world, the opposite holds true. Further, research shows that this lack of transparency erodes trust, the foundation of any high performing team.

    What to do? Overcome this tendency by staying true to your own sense of collaboration. Often it is the people in teams who are unafraid to share even a bad idea that garner the respect of their peers.

  3. Are you at risk of taking the credit for things that aren’t yours? Do you gloss over the contributions of others in the face of more senior stakeholders?

    Taking undue credit can be a sign that you may be internalising this unhelpful behaviour – perhaps it is part of the culture or your manager’s preferred approach? I know this may sound harsh but so often taking credit for others work is driven by insecurity and a need for constant validation. Unfortunately this is a bugbear for so many employees.

    What to do? Without trying to oversimplify a tricky situation, the first step is to choose not to do this yourself and role-model the behaviours for others. Consider the phrase: a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. This abundance approach to working with others (and giving generously your support and recognition) is a powerful way to make a stand and change damaging workplace dynamics.

Doing this well takes courage and reflection and the ability to notice the behavioural patterns that are going on around you – choosing those you will internalise and those you won’t. To do this in sustainable way, consider the following steps:

  1. Spend time articulating your unique self: be clear about who you are and how you want to show up at work. Ask yourself, what will you stand for?
  2. Acknowledge and showcase the best parts of yourself: commit to maintaining your independence of thought despite what is going on around you
  3. Externalise the behaviours you see: take time to identify some of the patterns and be deliberate about challenging them by questioning whether they are helpful to you and your future.

Avoiding internalising unhelpful or even toxic behaviours is a skill you can practice by staying alert and active. This is a powerful way to maintain your uniqueness and authenticity.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox