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6 Steps to Rise Above a Toxic Environment

November 21, 20234 min read

Periodically, I coach or consult with people who find themselves in a negative or toxic work environment. They feel “beat up,” discouraged, and some are even considering quitting. Working in such an environment is tough. What can you do about it? Below are 6 steps that will help.

Step #1 – Work on your “head space.”

Because working in a negative environment is difficult, your “work walls” feel like they are closing in on you. Unless you can create a path forward to overcome the environment, you will become unproductive or even quit. Creating a path forward provides hope. Otherwise, you feel trapped and find yourself getting discouraged.

In a negative work environment, your biggest battle is in your mind. We all talk to ourselves. You need to become sensitive to what you say. If you find yourself rehearsing negative thoughts, you will become negative.  

Try looking for the positive. No matter how difficult your situation is, there will be some positive aspects of your job. Focus on those things or people. Purposely rehearse your gratitude for your health, the income to pay your bills, the favorable co-worker relationships you have built, etc.

What you think about greatly impacts what you become. Catch yourself thinking negative thoughts and turn your thoughts positive. Pleasant thoughts create a positive person. Negative thoughts create a negative person. Make sure you dwell on positive people and situations.

Working in "head space"

Step #2 – Focus on what you can change!

Most people in a negative work environment focus on what they cannot change. They find themselves replaying the proverbial “record player” about something or someone over which they have no ability to change. That’s frustrating and unfruitful.  

Instead, focus on what you can change. Those changes may be small, but at least they are positive changes that help your environment or company. They give hope and lift your spirit.  

Focusing on things or people over which you have no control will discourage you and cause you to lose hope. Most times, the things you can change concern you or your responsibility. You can always improve how you do your job, the spirit with which you do it, etc.

Step #3 – Distance yourself from negative people!

Stop and think for a moment to determine if people around you are impacting you negatively. It is very difficult to be around a negative person and not become negative. You will find yourself adopting his or her attitude, point of view, or reaction.

Work hard to distance yourself from negative people. You can be nice to them, but you do not have to spend extensive time with them. Distancing yourself will keep you from adopting their issues. You have your own concerns. Don’t take on the issues of others also.

Positive people at work

Step #4 – Engage with positive people!

Look for positive people where you work. Those are the people with whom you want to spend time. They have a better point of view, a better attitude, and respond appropriately, even with difficult challenges.

Many years ago, I read a couplet that went like this: “Two men looked out of prison bars. One saw mud, the other stars.” Adopting a positive point of view helps you in life. Search for people who work hard at responding positively. You will soon find yourself doing the same thing.

Step #5 – Help people who are open to your assistance!

Negative work environments cause people to focus upon themselves. Instead, focus on others, particularly helping others. If you are struggling, others are likely struggling also. Help them with their struggles.

Become the type person who constantly lifts up others. Not everyone will be open to your help. Help those who are open to your assistance. Guide them, encourage them, and assist them. You can’t change everything about their world, but you can change some things. Make a difference in someone’s life. By doing so, you bring positive energy to a negative work world.

Team work

Step #6 – Focus on growing personally in spite of the environment!

Negative work environments do not have to define you. You can grow personally in spite of your environment.

Give deep thought to your job. What can you do better? How can you make a difference among your fellow employees? How can you bring positivity to a negative environment?

Growth is more internal than external. It requires you to take definitive steps to develop as a person, an employee, and a fellow-worker. Approaching your environment with purpose or intent to grow will produce growth. Although your environment may not improve, you can!

Improving personally in a negative environment allows you to stand out with your fellow employees. You can make a difference in the lives of others. Stop making excuses. Just grow no matter how negative your work environment might be.

You don’t have to stay in a negative or hostile work environment. However, you don’t have to leave either. You can be a person who helps change the environment. You may be the reason others stay. Regardless of whether you stay or go, work hard to overcome the negative elements of your work world. Implement these and other steps in your work life. They will greatly shape your life, the lives of others, and your company!


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Dave Pennington PhD

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