I have talked with a lot of people who love their jobs, tasks, and responsibilities. They have stimulating work and good pay. Some even have promotional opportunities but have inconsiderate bosses, backstabbing co-workers, and/or insubordinate employees. Thank goodness, most didn’t have to deal with all three situations simultaneously. If they worked in isolation things would have been fine. Certain jobs allow employees to do just that. However, those who do not, have to learn how to navigate toxic office culture. The maxim “It’s not what happens, but how you deal with it”, is in play.

I found myself in a tough situation when hired to change the culture in a large organization. Three of my direct reports applied for the position and another quit or was fired rather than work with me. The person who hired me accepted a promotion at another organization five weeks after I started my new role. I didn’t know anyone at the institution and didn’t know who could be trusted in the department I headed. The person assigned to onboard me introduced me to others using sugar-coated put-downs. It was a very uncomfortable situation.

This is how I dealt with it. Starting with the onboarding person, I gave examples of how I had successfully done everything the onboarding person questioned. Looking him in the eye, I respectively told him to quit using polite pejoratives when making introductions. Instead of meeting people through the on-boarder, I went from department to department introducing myself. Serendipitously, meeting people outside the department kept the people in the department from openly challenging my authority. In addition, I made an extra effort to get to know supervisors and employees within subunits of my department. I felt it would be better to meet people at all levels face-to-face rather than have my direct reports give their impressions. I built good relationships with staff that way.

Once the relationships were built, I was able to assess the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats within and outside the department. Then I repeated the SWAT analysis process with the combined first and second-level managers. The next step was collectively revising the mission and developing new goals.

Vision, mission, and goals are important; good relationships make things happen. Humility and empathy are the keys to building relationships; that’s how I was able to navigate a tough office political situation. Your situation will be different. I would enjoy navigating it with you.