Steering away from dangerous waters: toxic culture in the workplace and how we learn to consciously collaborate

One of the biggest changes in my recent life has to have been the move from working with others out of circumstance, to choosing the people I work with and circumstances in which I work with them. It’s a trend that started when I co-founded my first project and company while I was in my full-time job, and the stark contrast between collaboration conditions have stayed with me ever since.


Last month, we hit a roadblock within part of the #OurField and Future Farm Lab team. Multiple clashes in opinion and frustrations had started to cumulate into a tangible tension between a number of us - like a ball of string tangled around members of the team, so that each time somebody moved forward, the tension created would pull on each of us. Sorting this out required a conscious intention and commitment of energy- which in the end brought us closer to a way of being and working together that we all wanted much more.
 

It’s funny what happens when these tensions arise in traditional, full-time and hierarchical employment. As many of you can probably testify, these rustlings of ego and competition arise frequently, and can lead to irritation, resentment, anxiety and even sabotage. Even worse can be the situation of conflict arising between employees when their boss or hierarchical superior has little interest in people management or creating positive company/workplace culture. Particularly in the world of academia and science, learning skills like non-violent communication and conflict resolution were practically off the priority list. 
 

In the worst scenarios in my experience of this, it can lead to really damaging behaviour and what people refer to as “toxic culture”. I find this really difficult to contend with- that anyone in the world should have to get up every morning and spend their whole day in a workplace that feels “toxic”! And ultimately, the manifestations of non-addressed conflict can be disastrous- for both the individuals and the work of the organisation they are part of, too. 
 

My basic assumption is that people ultimately are good, want to be loved, and want to get along. But somehow in the traditional workplace, prioritising relationship building and cooperation are simply not encouraged, prioritised, nor do they actually feel worth doing when you are in those shoes, and working against the current. It’s no wonder many people end up keeping their head down, trying to avoid too much interaction, and withdrawing from anything beyond pleasantries while acting in self-interest.
 

Imagine if one hour of every workday was replaced with an hour in group process, group learning, and practising skills in non-violent or authentic relating. I really wonder whether net productivity would ultimately rise or fall. For sure the priority of a workplace would shift from extracting the most ‘work’ from their employees to creating a team, vision, movement, of fuller, more holistic human-beings. And I think the demand for obtaining the latter from a workplace is on the rise, too.
 

In a hierarchical workplace, it’s like you’re all aboard the same ship, and there’s a captain steering. You didn’t choose your fellow shipmates, and you didn’t get onboard with a shared intention of becoming a close-knit community; you joined so that you could have a job, and a place to eat and sleep. You realise it would ultimately be better for you all if you got along, but letting natural human dynamics of power-play and competition play out is not going to jeopardise the steering of the ship. If a tension arises, you literally have zero accountability to work towards a more harmonious and healthy relationship, and actually expending that extra energy when you are struggling enough to get by already seems really counterintuitive. Plus, if you can show that you’re better than the other inmates, you may get promoted and have the chance of steering the ship one day.
 

The difference between working under a boss, in a large organisation, versus the collaboration of a non-hierarchical team of project founders, is down to one major thing in my opinion: the commitment to relationship. When the success of what you are building together literally sits upon the relationships of those of you building it, there is no other option than to fully prioritise your connections. Before joining a new workplace or job, you also often don’t even get the chance to meet your future work buddies, nor are you part of a process of creating agreements or guidelines as to how you would like to work together. But when you come together as a team to build and co-create, you are literally creating your working conditions from scratch, starting from where you work, and what kind of hours you all put it, all the way to methods of communication and processes for conflict resolution.
 

The thing is, we are totally unprepared to implement these skills and initiative from our mainstream education system. We were never taught to work in teams. We never truly witnessed the real benefit of true cooperation over competition. In the school I came from, working in groups was actively discouraged. Even in the scarce project work we did do, we would still most often be graded separately, or the learning harvested would be in order to take an exam, alone, at the end of the year. Moving into the world of science and academia, no matter how fruitful and joyous your teamwork may be, it is still only one person who gets their name on a paper as first author, and PhD theses are submitted by only one person. 
 

To me, there are many deep parallels between my personal relationships and those between my co-founders and collaborators. We all know the feeling of being in a relationship we aren’t really committed to, right? It’s easy to get by at first, taking the path of least resistance, skirting on the surface and not expending too much energy, but eventually it can get messy, and eventually collapse. The relationships we are committed to take hard work. They take truly examining our own motivations, questioning our assumptions and owning up to our ego. But this commitment to work on ourselves and on how we interact, communicate and love with others can birth something amazing. 
 

So last month we were offered the opportunity to really show up in the commitment to our working relationships within #OurField and Future Farm Lab. And although I don’t want to speak too soon or place expectations, I have to say that the group process we went through felt transformational. How amazing to come together with the people that you work with to admit feelings of resentment, annoyance, ego, envy and all the other good things?! But really- it felt so healthy to share on how it feels to be a human being learning to collaborate with others.
 

During that process, I decided to crystallise the feelings of what I yearned for in working and collaborating together into a ‘manifesto’ of being and working together. We’ve since adapted the document, and it now sits in our constitution that we are submitting on incorporating in a legal structure. I wanted to share this and open source it - to make it available as a starting template for anyone else who wants to create the kind of workplace they want to see in the world. You can download it as a PDF by clicking the button below.
 


Here's to creating the conditions for thriving life in all parts of our lives - including the workplace. Perhaps even those in full-time traditional employment may brave bringing such a resource into the workplace, and perhaps more workplaces can transform into places of collaboration, kindness and commitment to amazing, and human, relationships.