How to manage difficult conversations in a toxic work environment

Monday 16 September 2019
Have a sunny disposition. Ignore egregiously toxic behaviour. Know when to separate off the troublemakers. Plus other proven techniques
Sand falling through someones hands

In 2018, Oxford dictionaries announced ‘toxic’ as their word of the year. The term resonates not only for the political climate, but for those in unhealthy or unprofessional working environments that are marred by individuals or the workplace culture. It’s incredibly challenging to tactfully manage a team that are already embedded within this toxic culture – especially when you’re trying to tackle a difficult and complicated topic. How should you go about it?


“When it comes to toxic behaviour, a lot is at stake,” says Stacey Engle from Fierce Inc, a US-based leadership consultancy. “Some people do not react well when confronted, regardless of how eloquent and thoughtful you are. Luckily, the more you have these challenging conversations, the more empowering and less intimidating they become.” Engle advises establishing the conversation you want to have beforehand, then scheduling a time and preparing yourself thoroughly. She says it’s beneficial to know what you want to happen next, as “leaving the meeting with a plan for what steps will be taken, perhaps on both ends, is important in ensuring lasting results.”

No matter the cause of the workplace toxicity – whether it’s a lack of morale, unenthusiastic heads of business, or it’s a period of stressful change at work – having a cheerful disposition will help to re-frame the conversation as a step forwards, and give your appraisals and action plans a tangible sense of direction. If you fall victim to the toxicity around you, you will further demotivate your team in an already challenging environment. Lead the change to a positive working environment by having a sunny disposition – you may find it inspires people to mirror your attitude.


In this situation, use of language is vital. It is best to neither admit nor attribute blame but concentrate on the issues in a calm and measured, non-accusatory manner. “We’ve all seen people hurt their careers by ineffectively discussing tough issues,” explain the co-authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High. “You may have done if yourself. Fed up with a lengthy and unhealthy pattern of behaviour, you finally speak out – but a bit too abruptly.”

In this situation, it may be best to bring along some support, so that if the meeting goes in the wrong direction and becomes argumentative, you have a third party who can be objective. It also means that they can act as a witness so that if a complaint is made against you, they can recount the story as it happened.


If you fear you are presiding over a particularly toxic team, it’s important to start addressing behaviours by talking to staff on a one-to-one basis to try to encourage positive change. When dealing with toxic colleagues, Lisa Gulesserian of Thrive Global (the leadership company founded by Arianna Huffington) adds that it’s important to reward any positive behaviour in order to encourage more of it: “You can do this whether or not you are the boss through both physical and verbal cues: smiling, agreeing, engaging with and working more with positive people.”

Discourage negative behaviour by ignoring it: “Responding to triggers will only make a toxic person more toxic. For example, if a toxic person tries to embarrass you on an email string – don’t reply. Instead, and if appropriate, address the issue with others in person, one-on-one.” It’s important not to avoid these conversations – no matter how difficult they may be to initiate. It’s possible that a toxic individual might not understand the toxicity they create, and helping them to be self-aware can lead to positive change.

If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, there are some measures you can put in place to make your company a better place to work. This can be moving team leaders into different departments to physically separate those who don’t work well together, or even terminating employment. Such situations can be combated with company-wide training, updated HR or bullying policies, creating open conversations about discrimination, and setting work perks or incentives in place to motivate your employees.

Watch our webinar for more information on navigating difficult conversations in the workplace.

Image: Unsplash