ask the readers: my new job has an incredibly negative office culture

Throwing this one out to readers to answer while I’m away. A reader writes:

I recently changed jobs, a bit of a sidestep move to a slightly larger non profit arts organization. I was extremely excited for this opportunity when I took the position. This is the field I’m interested and dedicated to supporting, it’s a leadership role, and the staff seemed genuinely excited when I arrived. Sadly, this initial excitement quickly diminished in just 3 months and I’m feeling a bit disappointed by the experience.

The problem isn’t the work itself, but the staff and office culture. The staff is intensely negative and mean-spirited to each other as well as to the artists the organization supports. For example, the director will say cruel things about the artists behind their backs in staff meetings. Some staff members told me that the previous director would yell not only at the staff but the board members as well. Many seem extremely sensitive and prickly because of this kind of negative leadership. The other day, one staff member became overly defensive when I simply checked in about a deadline we had set for a small project. It saddens me because from what I can tell, my colleagues’ negativity stem from bad experiences in the past, which I am only just starting to uncover. I’m a fiercely positive person but I’m starting to catch myself thinking and speaking negatively as well… I’m working hard to combat those urges.

I was so eager to take on a new opportunity and tackle new challenges, I just never anticipated that the challenge would be a negative work environment. Could this just be some growing pains as I adjust to a new office culture? Or should I accept that this might not be the right culture fit and start to look for another job?

Readers, what do you say?

{ 77 comments… read them below }

  1. John*

    I’m making the assumption that you manage these people. In that case, I think you need to pull them together and talk about two things: you and them.

    You — the kind of supportive, positive culture you’re working to build and how you operate (with respect and appreciation)

    Them — what you expect (professionalism, positive attitudes, respect for the artists you support).

    They need to know that things are going to change and them need to get on the bus.

    1. Allison (not AAM)*

      This +1
      We’ve seen how direct, open communication has helped tremendously in difficult situations, and it should here, too. Let them know there’s a new sheriff in town!

    2. WWWONKA*

      I do not think you can expect positive attitudes in a sense, it can not be forced. You have to build them, especially since you do not have them.

      1. Colette*

        You can expect positive behaviour – i.e. no badmouthing other employees or clients, presenting solutions along with complaints, etc.

          1. John*

            And if tbings don’t start to change, you have to start removing the cancer, which sends a loud message to those who remain.

      2. AJ-in-Memphis*

        Yes, it should be built BUT if it’s reflective poorly on the organization as whole and outsiders are likely to catch wind of it – it must be changed. This is plain old customer service – internal and external.

  2. Beth*

    I had to do a double take to make sure this wasn’t my email. I’m very interested in what people have to say about this.

    1. Melissa*

      Beth – do you work in a non-profit as well? Because this whole situation is almost identical to mine! The only difference is that our office is influenced by one individual who happens to be in charge of HR. The executive director folds under her pressure all the time. Our office is completely different when the HR manager is on vacation. It’s like night and day.

  3. thenoiseinspace*

    *raises fist in solidarity* I know that feel. My new office is basically Mean Girls, except on Wednesdays they wear jeans. Sadly I don’t have any pointers, but I’m curious to see what the other readers say.

    Stay strong, my friend.

    1. I hear ya*

      They wear jeans on Fridays here. Otherwise, yup. I wanted to leave after my first day when they were all oh so nice to me. :-(

    2. AJ-in-Memphis*

      It depends on where you are in the organization. If you’re a manager over some of/all of the mean people, then you can set your expectations for how they will need to behave and treat others in the workplace. If you’re an equal or subordinate, you can choose to not participate and hope that you’ll sway some of the ones are just “followers” to see the light (this behavior reminds me of ‘group think’ where there’s a strong-minded leader making fun of people and others are doing it to not be outside of the ‘circle’). Either way, distance yourself from it, because chances are when those that are being ridiculed or bullied move up or on, they won’t forget about this.

    3. AJ-in-Memphis*

      Oh and if they are picking on you, stand up to them. You don’t deserve that kind of treatment and I’ll bet they won’t be ready for it! Good luck!

      1. thenoiseinspace*

        I’m definitely the low man on the totem pole. They’re just particularly catty about our boss and one of the team members, both of whom have always been perfectly nice and professional to me. The problem is that I work much more closely with the catty people than the others – I don’t want to defend the others too much for fear I’ll be ostracized too and unable to do my job well (we’re a team), but I don’t want to join in on the meanness either. So far I just try to say nothing, but who knows how long that will work. :(

        1. Anna*

          Unfortunately saying nothing is too frequently taken as a sign of agreement. I had a very negative coworker who would badmouth our supervisor, who I always got on well with. I would just say, “I think you have a different relationship with her than I do. I’ve never run in to that with her”. And then change the subject.

  4. Jamie*

    Positive is good…fiercely positive can be a little much even for non-negative people. I’d try to make sure you aren’t falling into the negativity trap and remaining positive and you might be surprised by how this could affect others.

    People can take on the attitudes of their environment, good and bad, and maybe having you as an example of how much more pleasant it is not to be mired in the past could be a real change agent.

    And yes, as John said, if you manage them you need to address it when the attitude is affecting the work. If they don’t report to you just worry about your own attitude.

    But I feel for you, because it sucks being surrounded by people who are openly nasty and it’s hard to keep your spirit up.

  5. A Teacher*

    Also, remember that you are new to the dynamic and weren’t there for the issues that were before you so don’t judge the negativity about the past–it may be legit, who knows. Empathy seems to go a long way in environments like this.

    Stay positive but not overly positive to the point where you’re the annoying one because its never okay to have a bad day and you always have to see the positive in the negative–bad managers from other jobs felt that way and it was frustrating and annoying.

    Figuring out how to change the dynamic may be the hard part but if you can get one or two key players on your side that is where I would start.

    1. Jen*

      This is good advice. In high school at a part-time job I worked with a whole group of Mean Girls. It sucked for about a year. Slowly but surely though they hired new people and I was nice and friendly and helpful to those people. Eventually the happy, fun new group outnumbered the bitter snarky mean girls and the politics of the office changed.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        There’s definitely something to be said for changing up the people in the group. Sometimes no matter what you do, you can’t change the negative attitudes until you start replacing those people with people who want to work, contribute, make a difference, etc. As long as the new people don’t get sucked into the negativity vortex, things will start to change for the better.

    2. Gjest*

      I think that’s an important point about the issues that may have been there before you arrived, contributing (or causing) the negativity that is there. I’m not defending the negativity, especially the unprofessional behavior, but it helps knowing the negative people may have some valid complaints that have never been dealt with.

      This was my last job. Everyone who had been there for a while had morale in the gutter. I think the new people were taken aback, but it’s hard to work somewhere where you see horrible management making the same mistakes over and over. I knew I had to get out when I just felt like the whole place needed to be shut down, with a whole new staff hired (including me). The morale was just so crappy, and management even more crappy, that I felt like there was no way that place could dig out of the craptastic hole it was in. Compounding this was that it was a non-profit, with a mission that I really did believe in. I think that makes it worse when you continually think about how it could be such an amazing place, and such an amazing job, but because of a lazy board and incredibly inept management, it really really sucked.

      So anyway, this is getting long- I think it’s good to try and be positive, but that you should try to find a way to be positive without discounting that the negative people may have some real reasons for the negativity. If you are in a position to any way change these, that would go a long way to fixing the negativity.

  6. Jen in RO*

    No advice, but I feel for you. I recently left a negative workplace and I am very sorry for the new hire who had to deal with all the negativity *and* all the experienced people leaving…

  7. My 2 Cents*

    This sounds literally like my last job, same theatre and all! OP, any chance you are the PT in Indy?

    1. A Teacher*

      wait, is it a PT company that is by chance owned by a company in the suburbs of Illinois? That is my last job–the negativity, most of it brought on by poor management that has trickled down as people are really unhappy.

      1. My 2 Cents*

        PT was shorthand for the name of the theatre where I worked. I didn’t want to call out the OP publicly but wanted to know if it was the same place that I worked because this is very specifically EXACTLY my old job.

  8. Ann Furthermore*

    Ugh, that sounds awful. Unfortunately, any time anyone tries to gather people together to tell them to be more happy, it’s never going to end well. It will just make people band together against the Mary Sue who’s telling them to turn their frowns upside down.

    I think you need to gather your team together and tell them that they all need to treat each other, and your customers, with respect. You can even tell them, “I really don’t care if you like each other or not, or if you’re friends with each other or not. All I care about is that we all treat each other with basic respect. We don’t all have to be best friends, but we do all have to figure out how to work together productively.”

    Then try some straightforward correction. Like with the employee who became overly defensive — next time that happens, say something like, “I’m not expecting you to have everything done already, the deadline isn’t for 2 weeks. I’m just checking in to see how things are going and if you need any help.” Or if you witness your staff being nasty to each other, say, “There’s really no need to act that way, and that behavior needs to stop.”

      1. fposte*

        And also, badmouthing the clientele you serve gets shut down. But yeah, overall, be specific on the corrections about what people need to do and not do rather than feel and not feel, and then be very clearly supportive of people’s achievements.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Because, as Jamie says above, if their behaviour is appropriate (pleasant and professional), then their attitude will usually follow. Especially if you are working to identify and resolve (as much as possible) any legitimate complaints.

    1. MeganO*

      That seems like a really great way to deal with it, because it takes into account some of the bad-environment PTSD stuff you’re seeing in their behavior, OP, without having to tiptoe around or give in to the negativity.
      I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this – the constant negativity can really bring you down. Good luck bringing your workplace around, even if it’s only a little at a time!

  9. Diane*

    OP, I’m sorry it’s turning into a negative experience. I’d start with both individual and group meetings that specifically address your expectations about culture and specific behaviors that move the culture forward. Engage the group in ways to make positive changes. If Susie Sourpuss can name one or two of her own behaviors she’d like to change, she’s more likely to monitor herself willingly.

    Acknowledge the organization didn’t become a cesspool of negativity overnight, so it’s going to take time to change. Reward small changes. If Susie catches herself criticizing an artist, acknowledge that.

    You can be understanding about past problems while directing people back to the future (heh), as in, “I understand you felt criticized/overwhelmed/threatened when past managers/artists/clients would behave x. Let’s explore ways to handle y positively.”

    Good luck, OP. This sounds frustrating.

    1. A Teacher*

      I agree minus the last paragraph to some extent, work isn’t all sunshine and blue skies all of the time. You can try to find ways to handle things positively *most of the time but do allow for the fact that sometimes there will be discontent and disagreement. If I worked in a place that was sugary sweetness and all positivity all the time I’d probably hate my life. Telling someone to handle it with a positive attitude is telling someone to not be themselves. Asking them to figure out a solution that is beneficial to all is different to me–maybe its just semantics but I can’t stand when my boss wants me to “focus on the positive” because lets face it, sometimes there isn’t a positive to be found.

      1. Diane*

        I agree. I don’t think I worded it very well. I’m trying to say it’s important to acknowledge people’s feelings and past experiences. If that happens and people feel heard, it’s so much easier to talk about next steps. For me, I will keep complaining and dwelling and worrying until I feel like my boss/boyfriend/sister/friend gets it, and then I feel so much more able to roll up my sleeves and do something positive (even if it’s accepting a situation that can’t be changed).

        1. A Teacher*

          Totally see what you’re saying. Validating someone else (empathy–as we’re discussing in my classes today) is a big deal. A lot of it is about being both self-aware of your behavior and socially aware of how your behavior is impacting others and vice versa, if that makes sense. Negative cultures are hard to break for sure.

  10. Cat*

    Since it sounds like you’re a manager, I think you’re likely to have more ability to set the tone of the office culture than were you not in a supervisory role. I agree with others that setting an example of the attitude you’re wanting to foster is a good idea. It might also make sense to have some more informal discussions with each of your staffers. Take each one out to lunch, if the budget allows, or coffee; talk to them about what has worked for them in the office and what hasn’t; what they’re looking to do more of; and what issues they’ve experienced in the past. That’ll help you understand whether people have just fallen into some bad habits, or whether there’s some serious dysfunction that can be addressed by you (or, conversely, whether it can’t be addressed by you, in which case the job might not be salvageable).

    It might also be a chance for you to start setting a new tone in which problems are addresses collaboratively and with an eye towards solutions, instead of people just becoming mired in negativity.

    1. Jen in RO*

      I agree with Cat, with one addition: after you gather your employees’ feedback, either do something about it or keep them in the loop! I’d rather know that boss is trying to solve problem X but can’t, rather than thinking that boss is only *saying* that he’s trying to solve problem X.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Amen! And if you can’t change a problem, and it is appropriate, tell them and ask what they think might be the best way to deal with it unsolved. “Whining just brings us all down; it doesn’t appear that she is planning on leaving any time soon; hiring a hit man is illegal. So what are some other ideas we can use to deal with her/an issue and still get our jobs done in a professional way?” Expect they will be professional and adult and can be part of the solution, and perhaps they will.

      2. MeganO*

        +100, and I agree with Jen in RO – one of the most insidious fears in the workplace (that I’ve experienced so far) is the fear that your boss isn’t really doing anything to try and solve problems, but is just telling you what you want to hear so you continue to hope they’ll be resolved. It’s really hard to feel sure about what’s going on with management once that fear starts. Keeping people in the loop is hugely important!

    2. Ann Furthermore*

      Oh, I like the idea of spending one-on-one time with each employee. One of my best bosses ever did that once. As soon as she joined the department, she spent an hour with each person on the team, asking them about their jobs, what was working, what wasn’t working, and so on. She was a senior manager, and not only met with her direct reports, but with the people managed by her direct reports. She was very well-liked and respected by the whole team, and everyone was quite disappointed when she left.

      Her successor, did not do this, and got off on the wrong foot with everyone almost immediately. His being extremely arrogant and cocky probably contributed to his unpopularity as well. I advised him, many times, to do what OldBoss had done, because it had gone a long way in helping her establish a rapport with the team, and everyone really appreciated her taking the time to get to know them. But he didn’t. Everyone was overjoyed when he left.

  11. ali*

    I think this is unfortunately the nature of a lot of arts organizations, at least it has been in my experience both as a performer and as a board member. I really hope the director is not saying bad things about the artists where it gets back to the artists in question – that happened with one theatre I was involved with and it made a lot of really talented performers leave the company because the management (board at the time, as there was no ED) didn’t want to address it – the paid Artistic Director was bringing in money to the organization so they didn’t want to do anything about his behavior. One board member decided to take him aside individually and gently let him know that he should not be saying negative things about performers, especially not when the gossip channels are so vibrant that it will get back to the performer. He was told that if he wanted to critique a performance to work directly with the performer on it. That conversation did actually change the director’s behavior – I think he just didn’t realize how easily gossip was spread around the organization and that each time it got told it made him look worse.

    So I’d suggest a soft/gentle one-on-one with the negative people – let them know that word gets around and make both them and the organization look bad (and possibly end up in the ears of donors, costing the organization funding). This is assuming you’re in some sort of management role, of course. Otherwise maybe target a board member that you feel is particularly helpful and ask them for advice.

    1. the poster*

      Ah yes, this is my greatest fear of all – The gossip getting back to the artists. I guess I should note that I’m the communications director, and I’ve been driving home to the staff to make positive messages about the artists and organization.

  12. Just A Thought...*

    It can be overcome, just depends how you look at it. Continue to strive to remain positive. Tackle the small things that are apart of this negative culture. It took a while for this atmosphere to manifest and it will take awhile to see change. Also, change normally flows from the top down; it starts with leadership.

    Remember, we are creatures of habit and are sometimes resistant to change. Even if you wind up leaving before you see a major change, take comfort in knowing that you impacted someone’s life for the better.

    Sometimes we plant the seed and someone else waters it…

    1. the poster*

      My close friends have been telling me the same thing. It will just take time to see the impact.

  13. Marina*

    What’s with the negative environments in nonprofits??? Ugh. Anyway, yeah, you’re not alone. :)

    As a fiercely positive non-manager in a negative environment, I deal with it by basically just shutting it down around me. My office is a no negativity zone. (Or, you know, minimal negativity.) I’m not blunt about it, but if people start in around me I change the subject. People get the message surprisingly quickly. At most I’ve needed to say, “Actually, I don’t mind that person/type of communication/event, I like xyz about it.” I don’t know that it makes the office a better place, but it certainly shields me from the worst of it.

    For specific events like someone being overly defensive about a standard check-in, try to do as much as possible in person. If someone reacts defensively to an email, walk over to their office or pick up the phone ASAP. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to imply x, I think you’re doing a GREAT job” can do wonders.

    Whether or not you should leave…. Well, the office environment is not likely to get better without some direct action by top management. So if it’s a dealbreaker for you, then yes, you should leave ASAP. But if you enjoy the work itself, and maybe get one or two coworkers to join your undercover positivity club, it might not be all that bad.

  14. Rich*

    I think you should stick it out for a while (a year) and do your best to create positive change without being overeager. This is a good chance to highlight “an opportunity for improvement” with your manager and see what type of feedback you get. It’s gonna take more than you trying to be positive. And if whoever’s above you or at the top doesn’t work to create change, it’s not gonna happen. You’ll drift into misery and that will spill into other aspects of your life. Once you feel you’ve done everything in your power to make it work and it still doesn’t work, that’s when you look. Makes for a much better story if an interviewer probes beyond you saying “it wasn’t a culture match.”

  15. Joshua*

    Inheriting a bad culture is always difficult. It’s like peeling layers of bad wallpaper, you keep wondering when you’ll find the actual wall.

    The advantage is, you have something concrete to blame for awhile, which is good for you ;-) You can use this situation to your advantage in many ways. I used to work in a place like that, was there for 11 years and the culture went from bad to worse to total apathy. The org kept throwing new managers and directors at the problem and they kept leaving shaking their heads. I left too and it hasn’t changed.

    But, I know *why* it hasn’t changed… The reason it doesn’t change is a fundamental lack of trust. That’s the missing ingredient for culture change. As a new leader you don’t have any history with the issues, and don’t spend too much effort getting into the the sausage-making process that birthed them. Instead focus on helping your direct people trust you specifically. Then, widen the net by leveraging the trust they have in you to trust another co-worker. you do that by saying, “I trust you, and I trust so-and-so to do the right thing. If they don’t do the right thing, we will have a conversation about trust” or something along those lines.

    Use that trust in you to build a team that trusts each other. From there it starts to spread organically through an organization. You’ll get some flak for going against status quo, especially in NPO’s but it can be done.

    Re-hashing a bunch of old crap that didn’t involve you is like going to talk-therapy. It’s good to a point, but at some juncture it just feeds the problem and solutions, strategies and forgiveness must come in to play.

    If you want to lead by example, pick that over-reactive person and sit down with them and cover the following points:
    – It seems that you are responding based on past experiences
    – Is there anyone in this org. that you trust? Why?
    – If you could change the culture here what would that look like?
    – If you could change it yourself, how would you start?
    – What would it take to make coming to work every day less difficult?

    Do this with each of your staff. You’ll get a ton of data this way. And a lot of gossip and stuff to discard. But, you are also likely to find the poison dart without digging through all of the reactionary stuff.

    1. fposte*

      “The reason it doesn’t change is a fundamental lack of trust.” Sure, that’s a factor, but some of these behaviors are their own reward, and they’re not likely to stop of their own accord. Bitching is really enjoyable, and that’s the main reason that it’s a hard habit to break even if the situation improves. And since it contributes to creating the environment where there’s something to bitch about, addressing the behavior directly is an important part of breaking the cycle.

  16. Anonymous*

    As others have said, focus on behaviors that need to change (for the people who report to you), rather than trying to work on the global culture. You can set your expectations for how people behave, not how they think.

    While being unpleasant and mean is not acceptable, there is a difference between not being positive and being nasty. there is a lot of interesting stuff out there about how positive thinking has drawbacks. I recommend “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” by Oliver Burkeman for a look into that.

    I’m not saying that you should change how you are and I don’t think that mean, petty, unpleasant behavior should be tolerated. But people can be non-positive without being unpleasant/mean. Having a pessimistic/realistic point of view on the world has its merits and isn’t any less valid than having a positive point of view on the world.

    1. Fee*

      “I recommend “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” by Oliver Burkeman for a look into that.”

      Ooh I’m reading this at the moment!

    2. the poster*

      Of course, completely understand where you and other posters echoing the same sentiment are coming from. I believe I’m responding to the lack of ANY positivity in this office. I would be thrilled with neutrality, but the fact is that all my coworkers and my director have not shown any empathy and it boggles my mind that they chose to work in the non-profit sector.

      I will certainly look into The Antidote. Thanks for the recommendation.

  17. Malissa*

    This is a problem that needs to be addressed in many ways. First off, getting to know people and how they feel and making them fell like they are being understood will go a long way. So sit and talk and understand.
    Also be the positive influence, not suzy sunshine hopped up on a quad shot espresso, but nice and not over the top.
    Third be armed and ready when you encounter negativity on the spot. I’ve found that when someone says something awful saying in a very calm and straight forward manner, “I’m sorry, what?” Will often make them think about what they are saying and they will often rephrase it nicer.
    “Wow” is good for when someone says something so awful it’s like a steaming pile stinking up the room. It almost always leads to back peddling.
    Also a look that says, “are you really talking that way, ” does a lot of good.
    Eventually people will change, those that don’t will need further action. Set a respectful tone and basically insist that those around you follow it.

  18. knitcrazybooknut*

    If I were in this situation, here’s what I’d do:

    Sit down with each staff member individually and talk about the great things I see them doing every day. Then ask them what could make the job better, and how they think those things could happen.

    Schedule regular meetings with each staff member as a check in, and continue to get their input and ideas. Heavily praise them any time they have a positive suggestion or idea, to themselves and to the team overall.

    Schedule regular staff meetings where one of the agenda items would be your own version of “pushing positive”. I’d start with the difference between venting and being negative, and talk about when it’s appropriate to do each kind of talking. If you start this up and let people talk about it, you’ll learn a lot from what they say.

    Usually (but not always) there is an instigator of the negative chatter, and you’ll uncover this and need to follow up with specific behavioral performance issues. “You’re draining the entire department of enthusiasm” isn’t going to work. It’ll have to be “You made x and y negative statements yesterday, which weren’t appropriate.”

    Someone above mentioned that you can’t make everything positive, and that’s absolutely true. But you can do your best to figure out the real problems and get buy-in on trying to fix them. Making it a team project, asking for help from your people, and creating the positive feedback will help. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

    If the reasons that everyone is bitter can’t be fixed or are so entrenched in the organization that nothing changes, you’ve still done your best. It happens, unfortunately.

    1. Editor*

      I think it is important for the OP not to overpromise when asking about what would make the job better. I think in a negative environment like this, finding out the problems and then changing what can be changed is more effective than trying to fix everything. So, as people have suggested, telling people they can’t say nasty things about the artists behind their backs is important. Making them be cheerful or giving large raises may not be possible.

      I also wonder if a contributing factor is a belief — in the artists and the staff and perhaps the volunteers — that artistic temperament is acceptable. Many, many years ago I did some volunteering with a college theater group that did musicals, and some of the stars would make scenes when they got upset. Yes, I understand that the lead soprano would be panicked when she got a sore throat the night of the dress rehearsal. No, I do not understand why the lead soprano thinks it is appropriate to rip the costume off when she has trouble with her warmup, to tell one of the volunteer seamstresses that the volunteer is ugly and it is her fault the costume is horrible, and to continue her shrieking and sobbing. (My solution was to not volunteer there again.) If the artists are getting away with bad behavior, that may be poisoning the nonprofit staff members, but my experience affects my view.

      1. the poster*

        This comment was surprisingly helpful and gave me a great realization!

        Artist personalities can be very difficult, it should be expected and managed appropriately. I’ve been the target of an artist’s outburst but, as an arts administrator, I’ve always seen my role as someone to talk them down and focus them on the project at hand – And this is exactly what I should do with my colleagues in the office.

  19. HAnon*

    I’m finally leaving a job with an extremely negative work culture (after looking for 9 months!) and I couldn’t be happier about it! I was a very upbeat, positive person when I first started with the company, but the negativity really started getting to me after a couple of months. By the end of my time with this company, everyone in my life had seen a definite impact the environment had on me. In my case, a lot of the issues provoking the negativity were legitimate concerns that the company was not addressing, and that made it worse — the problems weren’t fixable/the company wasn’t addressing the issues, and everyone knew it, so they griped all the time. (So that’s something — are some of the concerns legitimate? Are there problems that previous leadership ignored that you can address?)

    Ultimately for me, I had to leave the environment to better my situation because I knew it wasn’t going to change and it was having a bad impact on my quality of life outside of work. But I tried my best to keep my chin up, kept looking for another job, and actually ended up befriending a lot of my negative co-workers and made an effort to make the environment a more positive place as long as I was there (getting people together for lunches “off campus”, taking walks outside, etc).

    But if you’re in a leadership role, I think you would have the authority to communicate that there’s been a culture-shift and that kind of outright whiny, mean-spirited behavior about clients and the company won’t be tolerated on your team. And if they can’t get over that, you might have to find some new people who would appreciate the opportunity to work under your leadership. I would also suggest that you focus as much energy as you can to developing your interests and relationships outside of work, as it sounds like work is going to be an emotional drain for a while. Good luck!

  20. InspireOthers*

    Mahtma Gandhi has a great quote about this – “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I also like the quote “Make yourself so happy so that when others look at you they become happy too” – Yogi Bhajan.

    Behavior, as you can tell by the negativity that is spreading in the office (and to you), tends to be contagious. If you are happy then others tend to be as well – though it can take time since you are new for the positivity to rub off on others. You can’t change other people, but you can influence them.

    Also, having a big picture positive goal or outlook can help. For example, do you feel like you’re doing something important for the organization or cause the organization represents? Can you make your coworkers lives better by providing a friendly environment whenever you are around?

  21. Not So NewReader*

    Negative Nancy here…. I say, try as you can but have plan B to get out.

    I have never seen these types of things get better. If you are feeling the drain after three months, imagine what you will be feeling in a year.

    I feel like Eeyore next to some of the comments that are here- very good advice written above my post here.

    The one thing you want to consider is do you want to do this ALONE? Do you want to be the lone voice in the wilderness saying “com’on folks!”?

    Try to figure out where the negativity is coming from. If it is coming from people above you- watch yourself. You might be able to swing your own group around but the next step is you become a human shield for what falls from above. Do you want that?

    I can understand the idea of radiating positive energy and cutting off negative remarks. But too much of that will turn you into a lame duck leader, as people talk behind your back and say that you do not understand the situation. (Or worse remarks.)
    I tend to go with the idea of addressing directly what is said “Yeah, that situation sucks. Let’s see if we can fix aspects A and B and maybe it won’t be as tough.”
    As to the history of the group interactions- you do need to know a little of that otherwise you are going to be out in left field. However, you don’t need to wallow in it as others have pointed out. You should know that Sam throws things when he is angry or that Jane suddenly calls in sick every time her favorite cousin comes to visit. See, things that are still going on in the present might need addressing. The fact that Joe and Cindy dated 5 years ago has no bearing on the present.
    And, lastly, you want to approach your higher ups and tell them what you have observed and how you would like to fix it. If you do not have their buy in and if you cannot get their support – start looking for a new job. Know yourself, know what you can and cannot do and how much you can put up with. Personally, I like to work with time frames, for example “I will do this for 18 months and then re-evaluate how this is going for me.”

    I know.

    It’s like buying a car. How much of a fixer-upper are you willing to put up with so you have wheels? What is important to you and what is not important to you?

    1. anon*

      Yeah, I’m surprised so many readers are expecting the OP to be able to fix this situation. These kinds of ingrained cultural patterns are really tough for one person to shift on their own — especially if they are new and haven’t had a chance to build rapport/trust with anyone yet. If you push back against their negativity too hard, they may just dismiss you as being naive and out of the loop.

      I think the only realistic course of action is to try to be the kind of person you want to work with. Follow through and do what you say you will do. Get to know your coworkers and listen to them and treat them with courtesy and respect. Do your job well and take pride in that. Don’t gossip about others behind their backs. Be assertive when necessary. Be a class act. Have integrity.

      From there, stick it out for a while and see how it goes. See if there are any avenues that might be open to change. But also recognize that maybe this organization could be a bad fit for you. That happens. And you don’t want to hurt yourself by trying to swim against the tide the entire time. Your discomfort may be a red flag showing you that this organization doesn’t deserve much more of your time or energy (but give it a year to see).

      1. Fee*

        I think maybe some of the commenters are suggesting that because the OP specifies a ‘leadership role’. That would be my view: if you’re running the place, you have a chance to change this. If you’re not, I would start putting together an exit strategy.

        The commenter above who mentioned the bitching being self-rewarding nailed it. I was in an extremely negative environment for years (interestingly, also an arts-related non-profit). Most of it was directed towards the terrible senior management, so in our case at least there was some solidarity among the lower ranks (and the few sensible, competent middle managers). A LOT of time and energy was spent on complaining, it was thoroughly draining and distracting and it really got me down. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that a) it would never change because b) some people actually enjoy moaning (or have at least allowed it to become such an ingrained habit that they don’t even see it as a problem). I’m not excluding myself from that.

        There are a lot of the same issues in the organisation I’m now in, although not quite that dysfunctional. The major difference is I’m a day-rate contractor and when my colleagues moan I just nod along, get back to work and forget it immediately. It feels great.

      2. the poster*

        I don’t expect to fix the situation, but I do hope I can leave this place better than how I found it. Will just have to stick it out and see what happens.

    2. Jen in RO*

      I don’t think you’re being a Negative Nancy, I think you’re being realistic. Being Suzy Sunshine hopped up on a quad shot espresso, like Malissa so eloquently put it, won’t turn the situation around and will probably make things even worse.

  22. Xay*

    I think people have given a lot of great advice. I left a similar situation a few months ago – highly negative environment, I was one of the low ranking people. The only way I could get through the day was by reminding myself “This is not your fault. You have done nothing wrong. They were miserable before you came. They will be miserable when you leave.”

    Every morning, every lunch, every day when I walked out of the door for 6 months until I was reassigned.

  23. Cat*

    A few guesses/thoughts/questions here, in no particular order:

    -Nonprofits and the arts are often underfunded, particularly in a bad economy. That has a multifaceted effect. It hampers the ability to get things done, therefore it limits creativity, “can-do” spirit and curtails mood. Many of these people are earning less than they could elsewhere, many of them probably haven’t had a raise in years. When you’ve been somewhere a long time and have gone through the drill of being fresh, green and full of enthusiasm and ideas (and enamored of the idea of working in the arts, doing something you can believe in idealistically) only to have your spirit crushed by how things really operate, how much red tape, etc., well, it’s souring. You reach a point where you don’t let yourself expect much, which outsiders may see as “negativity”.

    -Many people working in “background” functions in the arts wish they were center stage. This may explain the insults about the artists/performers behind their backs and why there might be some “drama”.

    -Are you in a direct supervisory role to any of these people? (The word “colleagues” in your OP is unclear, but since you say you have a “leadership position” I’ll assume the answer is yes.) Was their last leader beloved and is now missed? If so, you’re the wicked step-parent in their eyes. Or the overly positive step-parent, which they might find even worse! Like they’re not allowed to feel disappointed or unsure how things will change. Did this specific group even HAVE a leader before you were brought in? If not, then that’s going to be tough, on them and on you.

    -Was your position one that any or all of them may have gunned for and didn’t get? That’s no fun either.

    1. glennis*

      Many people working in “background” functions in the arts wish they were center stage.

      That has not been my experience at all from working 20+ years in the arts. Most people working in background functions in the arts choose to work in those functions and have just as much a passion for their specialty as the onstage performers have for theirs.

      1. Cat*

        “Many”, not “most”. No field has a one-size-fits-all “type”, and of course it would be ridiculous to suggest that. I’ve worked in the arts all my life, and I’ve definitely seen it a number of times (“many”), but no, certainly not in every person or even a majority. And I bet the same could be said of a random sample of folks in any field— there will always be some who are less than fully fulfilled in their jobs, who wish they had a higher visibility role, etc. Because not every person gets to have their dream be their job, this is bound to sometimes occur. When I’ve seen it in the world of the arts, it’s naturally easier to make the literal “backstage”/”center stage” analogy.

  24. Zesyra*

    Hi there,

    first of all I’d say stay on the job if you’re willing to go that extra mile to improve office culture. If you can’t and if it is just too hard for you: leave.

    Here’s what I’d do.

    I’d highly recommend starting off with 1on1-Talks to your team. Take & bring time! Taking the issues into account I’d recommend ~1 – 1,5hrs/employee.

    You can consider doing this “out of work”, so e.g. in a cafe nearby (you pay ;) ). Bring pen & paper to take notes, turn off your phone and ask the employee to do the same. You may be important but you’re not too important to take same for one single employee and for focusing on him without *bling new mail*.

    When your employee talks, do not interrupt him/her. Just listen. Do not judge their comments. If they hesitate to go on, reassure them. If they lost track of the topic guide them back with questions.

    1.) (~5% of the Time) Tell them what you’ll talk about, that this is a 100% confident talk and that you wont share the results with other staff members, or your boss or someone else. Just between you and them. Explain that you’ll take notes do remember the details of the talk later and work on their ideas.
    2.) (~10% of the time) Tell them who you are, where you come from and what you expect from a working environment. Say why you decided for the job, talk about the passion you have for this field.
    3.) (~15% of the time) Tell them how you experience the working environment at the moment, what your concerns are and why. No names. No blames. No “You here in the company are…”, but “I have the feeling that,…”, say where you see chances to improve that and in which time frame you’re planning to start change.
    4.) (~30% of the time) Ask them to tell you who they are, where they came from and what they expect. Ask them why they decided to take the job they currently have.
    5.) (~35% of the time) Ask them how they feel in the team and in the company, what they would like to see changed.
    6.) (~5% of the time) Summarize and make sure you got everything correct, ask the employee if you can do anything to improve the situation for him/her directly.

    However, keep a healthy distance. You’re their Lead not their friend.

    If you notice one of the other staff members outside your team (or in your team) starts gossiping, bitching, spreading negativity, confront them! Or change the topic.

    For confronting you can basically go two ways. a) direct or b) humorous.
    For a) Just reply “I don’t like this gossiping, if I imagine someone talks like that behind my back I’d feel really bad. How about you?”
    b) Reply e.g. “Oh yeah and you noticed that one guy with [brief description of the person you’re talking with], who always goes bitching about everyone else in the company, (s)he is so cute when (s)he tries to make fun of others.”

    Make sure that everyone knows that you’ll not support such behavior in any way, including yourself and the upper management.
    Make it a topic on the next meeting on leadership level (or above) you attend.

    Don’t let yourself drown in the negativity. Try to make the team you lead run without that and try your best to make it spread.


  25. Sarah*

    We’re dealing with this at my arts organization. My CEO started in June. I started in July. There are two mean girls that want to control everything, and in some cases, try to undermine the CEO (not introducing him to some donors, wanting to be on every conversation/decision making process when it doesn’t involve their area, etc.). The CEO has recognized this and has spoken to me about it (I think mostly to make sure I’m transitioning well). He is trying to have incremental change so that they don’t stop being productive. One of the worst employees you can have is one that “quits and stays.” If they quit and leave, you can replace them with a potentially better employee, but if they stay, you have an issue. You can try to motivate them and change their habits (very hard) or you can fire them (may not be politically possible/acceptable). One of these employees was interim director before this CEO and has a good relationship with the board – so that would be a very hard termination.

    Anyway, OP, you’re in a tricky spot. I would say that if you are in a leadership spot, you should get to know each employee. Sit down with them. Treat them to lunch. Ask them about their job, their likes and dislikes, their hopes for the future, ideas they have to improve the organization (in and outside of their area). You are the boss (in some capacity) so you also need to lead by example. Be positive. Correct others when they are negative. Do you have weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one meetings? This is a great strategy for the employees to provide feedback without influencing others negatively.

  26. the poster*

    Thank you all for your advice and experiences. I believe I will stick it out for at least a year in this position and lead by example. Being here for 3 months isn’t much time at all, it takes time to build rapport and I shouldn’t expect everyone to trust me right of the bat, especially considering the history. Hope to leave this organization better than I found it.

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