The Toxic Work Culture We Love to Hate on TV

Whether you’re working remotely, working hybrid or fully returned to the office, you know what a toxic workplace looks like – all you have to do is switch on the latest TV drama.

From Succession to Severance, a number of hit shows are resonating with audiences right now on both sides of the pond thanks to their gripping plot lines that surround ruthless, high-stakes, unhealthy offices. It’s a striking trend of art imitating life and our hunger for programming filled with unhealthy office dynamics makes the reality quite clear: we feel better about our own dysfunctional workplaces when we see how bad it could truly be by clicking on the TV.

There’s something satisfying, no doubt, about coming home (or logging off) after a long, difficult day at the office and watching characters who are struggling with the same issues. And no current show on television offers a more bone-chilling take on business back-stabbing than Industry.

Industry is an office drama that takes cutthroat workplace competition straight to the C-suite. At a prestigious investment bank in London, a group of young, hyper-ambitious new graduates are locked in a high-stakes competition for recognition and job security.. It’s a hostile work environment of the highest order, and amid all the financial roulette and the piles of drugs, there are countless opportunities for teamwork improvement.

While we can’t turn away from the drama, we have to wonder: how would truly investing in employees, offering them classes, mentorship and coaching, as well as a refresh on office culture, shift the dynamic in these fictional pressure cookers?

And how can we apply these lessons to our own off-screen lives, as well?

The characters in these shows —  nearly all of them young, attractive and extremely ambitious — probably wouldn’t have seen much change from a simple team building initiative.

But luckily, we live in the real world and aren’t trapped in a drama that feeds on dysfunction. At least we hope that’s the case. In our offices, the building blocks of a healthy office dynamic are simple and involve skills we’ve all known since grade school: you get coworkers to work together and help each other through peer-coaching programs, building a sense of community that also, at the same time, provides an opportunity to speak up about hostile behavior in a safe space. Now it’s not always as simple as it sounds but these basic building blocks and tactics definitely work.

Sometimes, however, the atmosphere in the office has turned so sour that it feels too far gone to salvage. On the first day of Industry, the dysfunction is apparent – William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies,” couldn’t have drawn a more menacing scene! But even in extreme real-world cases, there are still opportunities to turn things around — with the right strategy, programming, flexibility and monitoring.

Toxic workplaces come in all colors, shapes and sizes, but they share the same traits. Leaders lead with fear.

Hierarchies have evolved that don’t recognize hard work and achievement. There is unhealthy competition between co-workers, and not only do leaders play favorites, but they make no effort to hide it, either.

But even the most toxic workplaces can be fixed. To heal, however, change needs to start at the top.

Leadership strategy is the number one driver of an office atmosphere, and it’s also the key in getting away from toxicity and into the zone of health. Leaders who want to shift the culture in their workplaces need to model the right kind of behavior and strategy. They need to support role changes and promotions; and focus on reducing attrition and elevating top talent. Improving collaboration across teams and putting an emphasis on up-skilling — investing in their people with the understanding that employees are a company’s most precious resource — is vital.

In some offices, there are traditions in place that can be hard to change. It’s a tough sell to ask leaders who have been doing things one way for decades to suddenly change their behavior. But social norms evolve, and as they do, workplaces need to, as well.

Meaningful conversations that value truth and transparency, across all levels of talent in the workplace, further these goals.

The best leaders understand their job requires more than just managing performance, systems and processes. It also requires them to help employees develop critical skills like empathy, inclusion, resilience and communication. To combat toxicity in the workplace, leaders need to stop  thinking in silos. Collaboration, and the understanding that a workforce is a team and a leader is a coach, is the ultimate antidote.

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That may sound great in theory, but applying it in practice will be harder. To begin, start with four critical steps:

  • Senior leadership and human resources should lean on a group coach who can help them define how they want to lead. There’s a question here that always needs to be asked: “What is our leadership structure? What kind of culture do we want to create?”

  • Once the culture has been defined, it’s time to roll up sleeves and put them into practice. Workshops for both leadership and management that define the culture and bring it into play will help establish a baseline.

  • Now, the key is to apply lessons to real-world problems. Great leaders will identify a challenge in their workplace and allow their teams to work in groups to solve that challenge using their new skills.

  • Finally, to make sure the lessons stick, internal mentoring and individual coaching will help. Leaders need to remember to enforce the lessons from coaching so that training sessions turn into ingrained behaviors.

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The impact will be felt across all levels. In workplaces that are shedding their toxicity, more open communication will step into the space. There will be a sense of support for new hires, and the persistent, never-ending stress that feels like a norm will be reduced, resulting in better productivity and creativity for everyone who walks in the door. And in places where the atmosphere is welcoming and supportive, goals can be more easily met because workers, rather than watching their backs, can focus on the tasks at hand.

Toxicity is usually subtle when it creeps into workplaces. Very rarely will employees walk into a new job and find an environment as cutthroat as that on our screens although there is no doubt that with stakes so high, the drama makes addictive viewing. The atmosphere at many of these fictionalized companies may be beyond repair. But in the real, off-screen world, nearly all workplace issues can be resolved with the right human capital strategy, team collaboration and motivation, professional development  programs, and the commitment to growing for the better.

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