• Caleb Clark


Creative land can be stressful.

We have deadlines, demanding clients, and people that we work with that can drive us mad. The terms "creative shop" and “sweatshop" are too often used interchangeably when it comes to describing certain work environments. Working late nights, on the weekends, or on vacation is considered normal. A creative career with a positive work-life balance is often very hard to come by.

Truth be told, many organizations value “the work” above all else. The work pays the bills and keep the clients coming. Too often, we forget that it's the people behind the work that make it happen.

As employees, I think we are pretty savvy when it comes to deciding where we work. We know ahead of time what we are getting ourselves into. You can bet we’ve googled the company and its leadership, and checked out the dirt on industry blogs. Our friends have told us about the environment, the recruiter used certain words to clue us in, and quite frankly, the company’s values are pretty much out in the open.

While we may have an idea of what we are getting into often long before we start working for a company, we may selectively forget some of it. We think to ourselves, the place is known for winning awards and it's a stepping stone for our career. I know it's going to be hard, but the culture can't be that bad. As an industry we get it. How often have you heard someone justifying the worst offenders by saying, “You only have to stay for a year—just long enough to build something for the portfolio.”

On the organization side, the company may even be structured to take advantage of your same thinking. They know they aren’t going to keep you long.

While not every creative place is that extreme, I think we can all agree—every job sucks sometimes.

However, there are degrees of bad work environments. Some jobs are so toxic, they can really put a toll on your mental and physical well-being. Your teammates may have nutty issues, your boss may be prone to mood swings. You're trapped doing work for a client the agency is afraid to fire, and getting pounded for not delivering. Worst of all, you haven’t seen the sun outside of the office window in weeks. Any of these situations can be soul-sucking; compounded, a bad culture can be cancerous.

We stick it out in these environments, because we feel we have to. As creative people, we feel we need to suffer for our art. I think we delude ourselves into thinking that some types of adversity makes us stronger (creatively) and helps us build better solutions.

What drives a creative organization is leadership, but how many times have we worked for a place that was great under one ECD and miserable under another? Alternatively, have you ever worked for a company where the environment started out fine, but as the company grew fast and large it became toxic beyond perceivable salvaging?

At the end of the day, some of us don’t quit because we can’t quit, even though we should. We need to pay our bills and don’t have the next job lined up.

To be honest, there may not be much you can do to protect yourself in a real toxic environment. When a company culture has gotten bad, only changes at the top will make a real difference to the overall health of the organization. When it gets to the point where you feel ill going to work everyday, you need to get your butt into a healthier environment. If you can't right away, then you need a plan to get out.

Can you make the best of the current situation?

Hell, yes – if you are going to survive to the next job.

First, you need to identify what it is that is pushing you over the edge. Is it not being valued by the team, your boss, or the company, or are there on-going conflicts or issues that go unresolved? If it's with the team, one of the key ways toxic environments form is by the formation of smaller cliques. To survive the cliques, you need to build real relationships with individuals, clique or no clique. You are going to need a group of people to help you through these times.

It can be hard to know who to be friends with in this toxic environment. You need to remember to be that person that can work with all of the little groups and fiefdoms. Your best bet to breaking through these cliques is to get to know people on a one-on-one basis.

When your boss is being a jerk, remember that it's not you. You were just the person who was at the wrong place at the wrong time for this individual's mood swing. In this situation, relax, take a deep breath. Let the person rant and keep your distance emotionally; the interaction will eventually pass.

You can’t control your boss’ behavior, but you can control your own. Don’t let that person get to you. It's important to find a way to mentally destress. Get to the gym, go to yoga, take a walk. Set aside time that is just for you, and make that time a priority.

Like many industries, we have managers who have sometimes been put into a place of power without possessing real leadership skills. As a staff person, you may not be able to act as a coach to your boss because their personality won't allow it. What you can do is to build up strategies for working and interacting with this individual. Change the way you interact to make the best of the working relationship. If one strategy doesn't work, try another.

When everything and everyone seems negative, it can be hard to feel good about what you are doing. When working in this environment remember, it is not a reflection of who you really are or who you can be.

On that note, do you want leadership to perceive you as being part of toxic land? The best advice I can give you, is to model a positive attitude and remain professional. Hopefully, you will find yourself gravitating towards others who are not as effected by the negativity of the situation. A toxic work environment is often coupled with low morale, gossip, politics, aggressive leadership, and a negative work culture. Don’t contribute to it. Find ways to build successes and ways of celebrating those successes within your own team, and within the company.

One of the reasons why creative organizations fail to notice the severity of a negative environment is that HR roles are not always well defined or even present. Sometimes there is no one to act as the go-between. However, that doesn’t mean that as an individual you can’t go and have a coffee or knock on the door of agency leadership. It may mean you have to tread lightly and tactfully. It may mean joining forces with other employees to have a multi-pronged approach. When approached correctly (by preparing solutions) there is always the possibility for change.

As one employee, it may seem that company cultures are hard to change, but that doesn’t mean there isn't room or opportunity for change. At the root-level we can all change ourselves and our mode of thinking. We can leave the organization. Or, we can shake up the culture by managing “up” – by changing the relationship between our boss and us. We can go out of our way to be role models, and build relationships instead of joining cliques.

We can stop blaming our bosses and start speaking up for positive change. At the very least, your mindset will hopefully change a little so you can focus on and act on your own long-term goals. Don't let toxic people rule your head.

Look at your time in these environments as a learning experience. Pay close attention to what lessons you are learning. In every bad situation, there is something that you can take away that will help you become a better person.

I know it is easy for even the best of us to give up on our job. You may even feel justified to slack off or to contribute to the negativity because of the failures that exist within the company. Creative land can be very small. Do a sh-t job and it gets out; do your best, and people will remember it and want to work with you again.

For agency leaders, it can be hard to concentrate on fixing the bad culture when you are focusing so hard on the business. However, a toxic environment has a direct correlation to the health of organization, the mental well-being of your staff, and your bottom-line.

What a toxic environment looks like and its direct effects on the business:

People are frustrated and there are conflict issues in the company. This leads to low morale, low productivity, absenteeism and high-employee turnover, high recruiter fees, and difficulty finding new talent.

  • Leaders or individuals who bully or are allowed to act aggressively or offensively; leads to lawsuits, damaging company reputation.

  • Ineffective leadership, inconsistent management, no accountability; leads to unreasonable expectations, unresponsiveness to the needs of the employees, not meeting client expectations, low quality, small mistakes.

  • Unprofessional behavior of staff or employees; leads to lack of respect at all levels, ignoring process and agency procedures, can even lead to discrimination or harassment behavior and issues.

  • Cliques, unhealthy employee or leadership relationships; leads to holding grudges, underutilizing some employees and over utilizing others, unhelpful criticism, back-talk, aggressive behavior, “cult” like team formation.

But lets be honest, toxic behavior is unacceptable at all levels. It works against your bottom line. As an agency leader, it's in your best interest and in the interest of the people that work with you to curtail it.

About the Author

Caleb Clark has been on management teams for creative agencies in the Greater Pittsburgh area, running operations and integrated production, for years. He runs Qonsult — a organizational development consultancy that specializes in creative organizations and internal brands. Qonsult focuses on people, process & cultural development to drive creativity and innovation.

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