Dear Public Manager: Advice for Coping With a Toxic Workplace
Thursday, November 10, 2016

You've seen it firsthand or caught wind of it through the grapevine—a supervisor is known to be a bully, there are different rules for different people, or employees are at a loss as to what to prioritize because supervisors don't communicate their expectations. These are some indications of a toxic environment. If your agency is an unpleasant place to work, there are ways to cope—and to make things better. The November issue of The Public Manager offers some help on how to navigate the toxic workplace. 

In “Learning to Live in a Toxic Workplace,” Patty Gaul reminds readers that while you can't change the behavior of others, you do have control of how you react in the toxic environment. She details some clever advice from psychologist and author Paul White. For instance, White recommends several practices for dealing with the various facets of a toxic workplace:

  • Commit to more direct communication.

  • Work at clarifying responsibilities. For example, at the end of a meeting, clarify who is responsible for what action, the date the action is due, and to whom the responsible individual is to report.

  • Invite others to collaborate. This action gets us out of our silos, leads to more effective teams, and may heal past grievances. 

Meanwhile, “Cleaning Up Organizational Toxicity Mess” by Patrick S. Malone, explores how agencies can recover after a toxic leader leaves. “With a barren, lifeless landscape left in his or her wake, the organization may show few signs of life. And the sad fact is that organizational healing doesn't happen right away. It takes time and attention.” It’s not all bad news, though. 

Malone, who is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C., says that institutions can tackle the challenge of recovery in a very real and deliberate way by following a few simple steps. For instance, new leaders should start by addressing the elephant in the room and take the time to listen to those who have been left in the toxic leader’s wake. “The ground may not be fertile for immediate growth, but with a little time and attention, the organizational health can indeed be restored,” writes Malone.


About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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