I swim in public pools.

That kind of activity totally skeeves out some people I know. Not me.

At least not since I changed my technique a bit.

In 2002, I started training for my first mini triathlon. Since the car accident in which my left arm was separated from my body, I couldn’t do a front crawl in a straight line. I was zigzagging all over the pool, and I was swallowing a lot of water.

It was frustrating, because I was a competitive swimmer when I was a kid and I felt like I had lost control over my body. I signed up for swimming lessons.

I asked my coach how I could stop gulping down buckets of pool water. He said, “Well, you should know the kids lessons are right before yours.”

[insert pregnant pause for effect]

When I tell an audience this during a presentation, everyone in the room gets it faster than I did that day.

After my coach explained a bit further, I figured out how to adjust for my injury and rotate my head.


Don’t pee in your own pool

The experience inspired one of my favourite presentations, focusing on the toxic workplace. (I give all the credit to the title, It’s Your Pool, Don’t Pee In It, to my awesome husband, George.)

We each swim in a unique pool called life. We let other people swim in our pools, too, and sometimes they pee in them.

If we never clean our pools, the water is going to get murky. It should be clean and healthy so people want to keep coming back for a swim.

But what kind of filter systems are we using? Are we just throwing in clean water and hoping that will dilute the dirty stuff, or are we regularly checking the pH balance?

How the water gets dirty

You know the people who take a leak in our water, creating a toxic workplace. They:

  • Love meetings (and that’s just crazy)
  • Say “that’s not my job”
  • Act like they’ve already paid their dues
  • Rely on their “experience”
  • Gossip
  • Holds everyone else back
  • Take all the credit
  • Throw others under the bus and refuse to accept responsibility

You feel like you have to pull their weight in addition to your own.

You try to stand out by being a pleaser or a perfectionist.

You get drawn into the office drama and gossip.

You feel like your work world is in chaos.

It builds up to BS (Burnout & Stress) and you take that home with you.

Now, you’re peeing in your own pool. You’re making your own water dirty.

Cleaning the water in your pool

No one else is going to clean your pool for you. This is on you.

Everyone at work has a different perspective. You might peek into their yards and think their pool is filthy. Meanwhile, they just finished dragging the skimmer over the surface and throwing in some fresh chlorine and, in their minds, it’s ready for a party.

It’s the same with your office. Is it a toxic workplace? According to whom and to what degree? Not everyone experiences the toxicity to the same degree. What one person is decimated by may just annoy another. What frustrates you may not cause someone else the slightest distress.

However, everyone’s experience needs to be validated. I worked with one company where some people were ready to quit, some people were on the verge of stress breakdowns and others were stomping mad.

The toxicity — or the murkiness of pool water — is always in relation to our own situation.

So, when we’re dealing with people who pee in our pools, our priority is to keep our own pools clean and leave their dirty work to them.

Here’s how:

1. Set appropriate boundaries.

We talked about boundaries last week. They protect us from toxic people, whether they’re in our family, in our social circle or at work. Boundaries are how we control the time and the degree to which those people are allowed to play in our pool. Boundaries also apply to our participation in office gossip and other activities that drain our energy.

2. Align your core values

Our core values define who we are and what brings us joy. When our work lives are congruent with those core values, we have a stronger sense of self. We know who we are and what we need to be content and happy. We are more confident and more resistant to the negativity that comes with working around toxicity.

3. Get clear on your role

Having a concrete a definition of our role in our workplace helps us know where we fit and what are our responsibilities. If we aren’t meeting those expectations, we need to improve to be successful, improving our skill sets and understanding what motivates us.

4. Pick your battles

We can exhaust ourselves if we’re constantly fighting with co-workers, management, the damn photocopier. Some battles just aren’t worth fighting and get us nowhere. Recognizing our own stages of conflict goes a long way in choosing what battle we have the energy to take on and the steps we need to move through it.

In Relationship Awareness Theory®, we look at the three motives people use to try and reduce the conflict and clean the water:

  1. Accommodate … and preserve harmony
  2. Assert … and prevail over obstacles
  3. Analyze … and slow things down

At any given time, all three of these motives are in play. The degree to which we lean into them depends on how we each handle conflict (something we’ll go into soon!).

5. Find your patience

Hey, look, you still want that paycheque, right? Some things, we do have to suck up, buttercup. Let’s ask first if we’ve tried our best to communicate with the people we find toxic. If we have, we can take some inspiration from Winnie the Pooh and the gang. They accept Eeyore for who he is: mopey, depressed, depressing, negative. They don’t sink to his level and he doesn’t have an impact on their lives. Remember: you have to work with toxic people; you don’t have to go for coffee with them after work.

6. Have an exit strategy

We can reach our limit. If work is so toxic that it’s causing us stress, grief, health problems, family problems and more, it’s time to step back, get a good view of how we want our lives to look, and then make some changes.

I’ve encouraged people to take a medical leave. While they’re on break, they realize how toxic their situations really are. If they stayed in the environment, they never would have seen the forest for the trees.

I work with them to build an exit plan. We work on options, such as early buyout, retirement or working with a recruiting firm. Quitting is a big change but sometimes, it’s the only change you can make for the sake of your health.

And last but not least, brush your teeth.

Every time I leave the pool, I brush my teeth. I still take in water — water that’s been peed in — and I have to clean it out of my system the best way I know how.

It’s like purging our minds of all the toxicity at the end of the work day.

We can’t clean our pools just by putting new water into the murky water. We have to check the pH balance.

That means checking in with ourselves regularly and reinforcing our core values and boundaries.

Because no one likes to swim in dirty water.

I’m Janice Otremba, a professional speaker, facilitator and coach who specializes in stress management, health and wellness, personal growth and life balance. Let’s kick your butt into gear with simple, sound advice for beating burnout and powering up your happy. Book a free 15-minute consultation call with me to get started!

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