Shola Richards’ workplace had become so unbearably toxic that he considered driving his car off the freeway overpass.
After two years at a “soul-destroying” job in education, this — contemplating suicide — was the breaking point. He finally quit to begin a career helping others struggling in similarly unhealthy work environments.
“I thought to myself, ‘Who’s doing something about this?’” says Richards. “When I realized nobody was — well, not to the level I wanted, anyway — I decided to lead the journey myself.”
Amy Cooper Hakim experienced a less daunting situation with her first post-college job in the staffing industry. The cutthroat, hostile environment forced her to leave after only a month. But it was her grandmother’s book about dealing with challenging people at work—which she has now expanded and revised into “Working With Difficult People”—that inspired her. She threw herself into a mountain of research and eventually landed a job in organizational psychology. “Basically, I help employees and employers get along better,” she says.
With the advice of these workplace experts, we’ve compiled tips for fostering a positive office environment.
“Respect is a basic skill we strive to enforce in our children from a young age,” explains Richards, “but somehow forget about as we get older.” It’s typically the guiding principle in a kindergarten classroom and should also be in the workplace — but not just when it’s convenient. “It has to be practiced consistently and relentlessly,” says Richards. He suggests people take the time to write out “respect commitments,” explicit promises that can be referred to. He has one that he reminds himself of daily: “When in conflict with someone else, I will have the courage to speak to the person, not about the person.” The concept of respect "boils down to taking ownership of your behavior, attitude and words and realizing how they affect others.”
When it comes to dealing with bullies in the workplace, rather than sit back and suffer in silence, Richards recommends being frank. “Having direct conversations with people who are being difficult and simply asking them to stop or modify their behavior really brings about positivity,” he says. “A lot of people are not confrontational by nature and want to avoid uncomfortable situations.” Further, bullies in particular tend to prey on silent victims, adds Hakim. Her tip — a piece of advice from a middle-school principal — is easy: Look them in the eye and tell them,“Thank you. I didn’t ask for your opinion.”
Establish strong leadership
A proper leader should make sure that employees feel comfortable in their workplace by setting a tone of positive morale, camaraderie and respect, says Hakim. After all, employees are more likely to stick around when they’re part of a welcoming, friendly and fun environment. “Leaders who recognize the people component — people over task — are able to develop a sense of commitment,” she says. “Employees should not be viewed as simply cogs in a wheel whose main goal is to generate profit for the company.”
Take emotion out
When we’re upset, we tend to let our emotions drive our decision-making, says Hakim. Rather than immediately react, consider the person’s tendencies. “If you’re able to take the emotion out and look at it from a logical standpoint and apply critical thinking instead,” explains Hakim, “then you’re really able to get what you need from that person.” Plus, “You catch more flies with honey.” By responding in a mature, kind, and respectful manner, she says, “you’re also likely to avoid problems down the road.”