When Work is Toxic: Drive, Survive, or Thrive?

Challenges female colleagues face with each other

The situation

You’re a female professional preparing a new proposal presentation with another female colleague. There is a meeting later, and you suggest inserting a timeline. She nods her head, saying, “That’s a great idea! Let’s put it in the next revision after today’s feedback.” You agree. At the meeting, you are stunned when she suggests a timeline for proposal management. The leader applauds HER idea. When you confront her, she dismisses your concern, “It’s no big deal. We both thought of it. I just said it.”

A few days later, you overhear her sharing with another colleague, “We have to work together, but let’s face it, I’m carrying her on this one.”

What is happening?

You are the target of a toxic co-worker, using two common tactics:

  1. Appropriating another’s ideas and/or work and taking credit for it.
  2. Disparaging your contributions in front of co-workers, diminishing your role.

Other common behaviors Harvard Business Review[i] identified include:

  • Backstabbing, criticizing and blaming.
  • Agreeing in meetings but not following through.
  • Hoarding information.
  • Purposefully undermining others.
  • Caring only about personal agendas.

These behaviors diminish team effectiveness. HBR research found that 70% of the difference between low-performing and high-performing teams results from team relationships. One toxic team member can destroy a high-performing team. One toxic co-worker can destroy you, too.

Why don’t women support each other more?

Somehow, this scenario seems worse because both co-workers are women. But why would it seem better if the toxic co-worker were a man? Because, according to Forbes[ii], we expect men to exhibit EQ attributes such as assertiveness and confidence that translate into toughness, fitting a leadership mold at the expense of attributes such as empathy and collegiality. To get ahead, then, women must act like we think men act, even to each other. The toxic co-worker in the example sees an opportunity to gain approval in front of authority and acts on it. Another reason, writes Forbes, is the “power dead-even rule” Pat Heim and his colleagues describe. They suggest healthy relationships between women requires similar power and self-esteem, or “dead-even.” When one woman achieves a higher rank, her colleagues may try to undermine her new position and re-establish the balance of power.

These concepts translate into behavior calculated to gain favor from authority and/or upset the perceived balance of power between individuals. This latter behavior explains the efforts by a co-worker to diminish your contributions. But why do these behaviors work? Do efforts to act like we think men act or maintain a balance of power between female co-workers really explain why individuals are toxic actors?

And, the effects of toxic behaviors in the workplace go beyond hurt feelings. They affect targeted individuals; they affect the whole team and they can have a significant impact on a company as whole. Inc. Magazine[iii] reported a study by Christine Porath (Georgetown University) and Christine Pearson (Arizona State University). They conducted interviews and surveys with 14,000 CEOs, finding employees consciously withdrew their connections to work because of incivility and other toxic actions. Almost half of the employees reduced work effort; 38% intentionally lowered work quality.

“Hurt feelings” may not adequately describe the impact of marginalizing toxicity on targeted individuals. When our beliefs about ethical codes of conduct between co-workers are betrayed by toxic behaviors, we can experience “moral injury.” The sense of having someone “turn on you” in front of the team or talk negatively about you are examples of potential moral injury. The Moral Injury Project[iv] cites Shay, who emphasized leadership failure and betrayal of what’s right by a person who holds legitimate authority. It is no accident that the concept originated to describe the effects of war on combat veterans. Toxic behavior feels like being attacked.

Wait. What about leadership?

In Bad Leadership (2004), Barbara Kellerman writes about the leadership team of Enron, which failed in 2001, damaging their employees and thousands of Americans: “Let’s be clear here. These men were not just a few rotten apples. Rather, they created, indeed encouraged, an organizational culture that allowed many apples to spoil and, in turn, ruin others.”

What could you do?

If it’s leadership, it’s in the culture. Online advice about work culture makes good points. HBR recommends taking care of yourself – live with what you cannot influence; make a change if you must. Survive or drive.

Survive. Do what you can at work. But how long could that continue? How many people can just go home and not internalize bad experiences without moral injury?

Drive. Change jobs. Indeed.com listed 45,985 positions for “Proposal Manager.”[v] There are lots of opportunities for us. But would you feel like you failed?

Thrive. Overcome the Culture. But how? Here are a few ideas, extrapolated from references:

  • Build a better you. The Mayo Clinic suggests making connections outside work, staying hopeful, and caring for yourself to become more resilient. [vi]
  • Excel at your job. Author Cal Newport advises, “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You” (2012). Grow your expertise – become APMP-certified, take classes or get a degree.
  • Create agency. That is, be an actor, not a bystander. Share your good ideas in front of leadership, but check your ego and share credit with your co-worker.
  • Confront toxicity. Be matter-of-fact but firm. HBR suggests explaining how behavior affects you and asking the other person to just stop.

And if these steps don’t help? Well, there are thousands of jobs out there. One of them is for you – with a great team who will appreciate your knowledge and resilience. Go get it.

[i] 4 Ways to Deal With a Toxic Coworker (hbr.org)

[ii] Why Women Don’t Always Support Other Women (forbes.com)

[iii] The True Cost of a Toxic Work Environment | Inc.com

[iv] What is Moral Injury – The Moral Injury Project – Syracuse University

[v] Proposal Manager Jobs, Employment | Indeed.com Searched August 16, 2023.

[vi] Resilience: Build skills to endure hardship – Mayo Clinic


About the Author

Cindy’s built a career of resilience at work for over 37 years – helping to change work cultures for the better through service, achievement, and advancing her colleagues, companies, and clients. She worked with many winning teams and thanks them for their collaboration.

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