Nov 9

How to avoid a toxic environment

Seems a post on toxic environments is more relevant this morning than I would have liked. I can’t quite help you on a world scale yet but, if you’re looking to get your mind off what’s going on, here’s a post that may help your work. Let’s start with a little Star Trek…

I finished reading the two volumes of 50 Year Mission, all about Star Trek. One thing that was interesting is that, on just about every Star Trek show, the environment for writers seemed pretty toxic for the first few years. It was adversarial and antagonistic with writers feeling they couldn’t do their job, professional lines crossed again and again and, from what I can gather, probably a large amount of time spent complaining about the situation which led to bitterness, low morale and plenty of firing and quitting.

None of that was good for the shows. In the early shows, they did well in spite of this toxic environment but the effects are there to see in the stories. With the later shows, this environment created problems that they never really recovered from, eventually leading to low ratings on DS9 and Voyager, the cancellation of Enterprise and the end of Star Trek until the 2009 reboot that left behind everyone involved in the previous decades of Star Trek.

A toxic creative environment is bad for everyone. Star Trek was so fortunate that it carried so much weight that it could overcome this problem many times. Most of us won’t ever be so lucky. If we’re working in a very negative space, our work probably won’t survive. It will be too apparent in the final product and we don’t have the big name or Patrick Stewart keeping us going. It can kill our projects.

So we have to avoid it. The difficulty is that it is something that can come from all ends of the creative chain. Problems and uncertainties at the top can make life very difficult for everyone having to work under that – lack of clarity in decisions or notes, decisions reversed too late, lack of trust in the people you hired to do the job. What much of this comes down to is that those at the top, the ones with the power to make the final calls, need to know that their role is to help everyone else do their best work. Help. Not force, demean into or any other more negative way.

I have been in this position as director of many shows. I have to trust my team to give me their best. I have to help them do that, giving them the right information, the clarity of direction (not just dictation) and, at the right times, the freedom to let them give me something they think might actually be better than what I’m asking for (my big rule for animators, for example, has always been ‘surprise me’). When I get that wrong, and I have at times especially early on, it makes their job more difficult. If it stays difficult, you can be sure that a toxic environment will be created. So you always have to look out for the problems and see where you can help your team do better.

But a toxic environment can also be created from the bottom up. This is often more difficult to deal with because what it usually comes down to is negativity from one or more people that spreads like a slow virus. Maybe someone isn’t suited to the job or has misunderstood the job. Or maybe (and I’ve seen this) they’re just a very negative person who moans out of habit. They complain and mumble and find fault and there is a danger that that viewpoint becomes accepted as normal. It spreads and soon you have a team that spends their time looking for fault, rolling their eyes and being generally unhappy. That’s a toxic environment and it’s no good for everyone, especially the unhappy team.

That can’t be allowed to continue because it will poison your production.

If you’re running a production or leading a creative team in any way, my advice would be to assume first that there are problems you can fix. Look at how you’re doing things and see what you can do to help your team do better. Think of it with that word: help. Actively encourage your team to come to you with suggestions on how to help – better they talk to you than complain to each other about things you never know about. But if after all that it turns out that there are just negative influences in your team, you can talk to them and try to encourage them to do better but it could be a case that you need to separate them from the group or get rid of them altogether.

If you’re on that team, understand that complaining to your colleagues won’t help. Go to whoever can actually change things and explain the situation and ask for help. If you have a very negative person on your team, don’t feed into it. Don’t laugh nervously and agree. If you’re working on something good or something that is giving you some satisfaction, say it. Try to counter that negativity.

Because no matter where you are in a creative process, a toxic creative environment is bad for everyone.

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