Surviving in a Toxic Culture

by | Feb 19, 2024 | Energy Leadership Model, Health, Well-Being/ Self-Leadership

How do you survive in a toxic culture?

Before we answer this question, let me define what I mean by a toxic culture.

I’m talking about an organization that has a pattern of not communicating clear expectations, decisions are not based on existing policies or procedures, responsibilities are high (although not clearly communicated) and authority is low. Often, there is confusion about whom to go to to get questions answered or permission to move forward. When someone does take initiative to make a decision and take action, this person is often criticized openly in meetings and in informal conversations. There is no clear way to succeed in this culture and the price for failure is feels high.

So, now, how does one survive in this culture?

Our default strategies include withdrawal and fighting; level 1 and level 2 in the Energy Leadership Model.

Level 1 strategies tend to be quite passive. We don’t feel supported, but we don’t want to upset the apple cart and risk losing our job either. We withdraw our energy,  but this typically doesn’t mean quitting. The post-COVID phenomenon of quiet quitting is more accurate. We stop engaging first with the most difficult people. This buys us a little relief, but this usually isn’t enough to stop the pain. As the pain continues, we begin to “find our tribe” so that we can find some comfort and support. When this isn’t enough, then we start to hold back on our work; we work slower or we get sloppy. After all, no one is getting any validation or reinforcement for doing quality work, so why bother? Meanwhile, our nervous system is taking this all in as evidence that we are not enough.

Level 2 strategies often include behaviors that are more aggressive and overt. At this level, we are determined to win. We blame, complain, judge and criticize people and processes. We are certain that if only someone would listen to us, we have the solution. We are not afraid to turn on one another if it gives us some advantage. We hold back information and we don’t share unnecessary details about ourselves so that we don’t become vulnerable. We hold grudges and believe that those who have offended or harmed us should be punished.

You might notice that the energy of level 1 and 2 is also reflective of the culture as a whole and this can be used to justify our own behavior. I characterize these two levels of energy as swimming upstream. We are using most of our available energy, swimming against the current as if our life depended on it (because our nervous system is quite sure that it does!). This means that we are using all of our energy to swim upstream with a leader and organization that is also swimming upstream. Where does it end?

Coming back to our opening question then, how do we survive? Is it possible to even thrive? Are we willing to step out of the current, even for a while, to establish our own anchor?

This is where self-care is critical. You will not be able to establish your personal anchor if you are continuously swimming upstream. You must care enough about yourself to be willing to look inward and connect to the highest version of yourself by stepping out of the current. This is the ground you are looking for.

I recommend two activities.

First, get clarity on your purpose.  There is no one way to do this, so find a way that works best for you. As a general guideline, I recommend that you look back at your timeline and map out the highs and lows of your experience. Then, feel into what made these events so impactful for you. What was the pain you experienced, or what was the insight that you gained? What has brought you the most joy and satisfaction? What have you needed throughout these highs and lows? Is this something you want to be for others?

Second, visualize your ideal work environment. Have fun with this. Stay connected to your heart and feel into the experience. If you try to do this from your head, you’re simply going to get some re-worked version of what you already have, but when you use your sensitivity to your emotions and energy, you’ll find what is just right for you. There is no right or wrong, just what feels better. You’ll know when it is “right” because there will be a sense of completion. Give yourself time to play with this and allow the vision to develop. Once you have enough of this vision to get started, imagine yourself IN that scenario. See what you would see, hear what you would hear and feel what you would feel. Then, feel gratitude for such an optimal opportunity and experience! This is using your energy to create rather than resist what is.

Don’t be surprised if your inner objector wants to interject “reality” into this vision. This is your nervous system preferring the pain you know to an uncertain future. When this happens, listen as you would to a small child who is scared. Acknowledge the fear, forgive yourself for limiting yourself in this way, and recommit to your purpose.

When you have clarity around your purpose and when you have clarity around the conditions in which you can be your best self, you will experience the safety of being grounded in your truth. From this space, it will be easier to stay open, curious and even playful in the midst of the drama. As you immerse yourself in your vision, you are collaborating with the unseen energies that conspire on your behalf. Therefore, be observant of when and how your vision starts to show up in your reality.

Most of all—PLAY with these ideas. Don’t take my word for it, try it out for yourself and then let me know how it goes for you.

And remember, we’re social beings meant to learn and grow together. Seek out a supportive community if you’re facing challenges alone. And when you’re ready to elevate your life and business, consider booking a strategy call for support. The sooner you seek help, the faster you’ll grow.

About This Blog

I’m Mary Meduna-Gross, a professional coach and the founder of Plena Vita, a company that offers coaching services and products to help people rewire their success.

Embark on a transformative journey with me as we challenge the conventional notions of success. In our blog and Fully Alive podcast, discover a unique path that prioritizes energy management, enabling you to effortlessly bring your dreams to life by embracing a state of creative flow.