The other day I had coffee with a lady who once made the near mistake of applying to work with me. Fortunately for her, there were no openings at the time. Instead, I tried to give some career advice which may or may not have contributed to her current success.
The key point here is that when we met, she was clearly very happy. There was a smile on her face and bounce in her step that said so much. Over coffee, I found that she was loving what she was doing, where she was working and indeed who she was working with. This, in turn, made me very happy as a year ago it was a different story.
In her own words a year ago she hated where she was working, loathed the environment which was untrusting, discriminatory and at least borderline abusive. Her body language at the time was very different. Her energy levels were low. She felt she was going nowhere.
I tell this as, on the way to meet her, I had been musing on a couple of toxic situations I encountered over my career. Situations that slowly eat your motivation and self-esteem from the inside. Places where in all honesty I stayed too long, for the right reasons (which were also the wrong reasons).
In one I was trying to deliver a struggling programme in a politically charged and culturally challenged business environment. As resourcing was being reduced, demands increased. A number of geographical and cultural groups were barely working together as their affinities and loyalties polarised during a period of organisational stress. I was an outsider without the same links and no perceived power over their “pay & rations” which came from often remote line managers.
What I brought was vision, experience, energy and a belief in the proposition and in myself. I did not consider the possibility of failure, just a realignment of expectations and I put my heart and soul into a number of initiatives to repackage the work and remotivate the staff involved. It was probably the first time (though not the last) that I truly understood the term “herding cats”, and in retrospect, I can see that a big issue was that a number of key players withheld critical information from me.
Eventually, my stress reached unacceptable levels, and we parted company. The endeavour limped on for another 2 or so years before eventually vanishing, having delivered little or nothing that it promised. By then virtually all the players had left or been let go.
It was toxic, and I knew it, but I also believed that I could turn it around. Not only did I believe I could, I felt responsible for turning it around. It was why I had been hired and not to complete it would have been an unacceptable (to me) failure on my part. But there was a price.
When I left, it was with a sense of failure and bitter disappointment, rather like stepping off a cliff. It took about 6 months for my physical health and mental drive to recover. They do say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that does not mean you have to go through something like that.
With hindsight, I can see the toxicity (for me) was clearly rising from early days, yet my own sense of self and values initially suppressed the realisation and then denied it for too long. To this day I am surprised how I let that situation affect me. My pride and self-belief were too dominant for my own good.
Two other situations came to mind; one early in my career and the other later. They are linked as they shared a common symptom – I had a long period of mental under-stimulation and felt largely unappreciated. The first one included. working stupid hours – yes that is not just a phenomenon of today. I had days working from early morning through to 3 am back in the 1980’s. I perceived it as a necessary step on the road to corporate advancement – I had drunk the company cool-aid if you like. It was also pretty boring, repetitive work and a lot of hanging around because you had to be there, not because you had work to do.
I ignored the impact all this was having on my social life and on me physically until one day, after a 20-hour stint, I came as close to a physical breakdown as I ever want to be. In the end, I was in bed for three days catching up on missed sleep, but I did realise that things had to change and I had to change them. I moved jobs internally quite quickly, but by then I was done with the organisation, and within a few months I had found a new employer.
I had let this all happen to me, but at the time I knew no better. I think that again I did not want to fail or be seen to fail. The good thing that came from it was that I can now recognise the early signs of physical exhaustion and have never allowed myself to reach that low again.
The other situation was more recent and followed me giving my word to see a piece of work to the end. That work was then delayed for 12 months – for reasons outside of my control – but my commitment (as a consultant) to stay until the revised implementation date was confirmed to the client. I then felt obligated to stay even though I was barely stimulated by the work. I saw others come and go, but my personal sense of integrity rather blinkered me to the toll it was taking on me as a person. I did see it through, but looking back I probably should have left when the delay was announced. The last 12 months or so were really not good for me.
The point is that most of us will find ourselves in a toxic place at some point in our working career. How we respond to it is more important than we realise at the time. We may feel trapped, obligated, helpless, unappreciated, under-stimulated, exhausted, etc.. and the drivers and outcomes will differ for each of us, but in the end, we have to do right by ourselves. Despite what may be said in corporate brochures, the only person you can truly trust to look after your interests is yourself.
There are some key steps to navigating yourself through this particular set of life’s rapids.
Know Your Poison?
By this I mean it is important to understand the situations and behaviours that debilitate you; the things that slowly push you towards a personal crisis. The specifics are likely to be different for each of us, but by way of illustration some people need more sleep than others; for them, persistent lack of sleep will be a problem. For me, two key things are the lack of mental stimulation and a lack of inclusion. There might be a bit of pride and personal integrity in there too.
If you know yours, then you are more likely to spot their presence and impact earlier.
The impact of a toxic environment is manifest, including low morale, low motivation, low energy, poor health, but as many of these situations develop gradually, our ability to see what is happening is reduced. The simplest test is to ask a good friend what they see about how you are with your work. They will see the things you can’t.
My suggestion is that periodically – maybe once a quarter – or if you suspect something, seek feedback on your relationship with your work. This could be from a colleague, but probably better coming from a longer-term independent friend. This can arm you with the knowledge to make decisions and if necessary act.
Have the Courage to “Fail”
This may just be me, but I tend to tough things out, I don’t like to fail in my own eyes as much as anybody else’s and my pride can cloud my judgement. Some situations are irretrievable, and even if they could be retrieved, the cost would be too high. These are times to cut your losses, take the experience and having learnt from it find a better work environment.
I don’t recall who said it, but I heard the quote; “in the battle between you and the world, I back the world”. Don’t let your pride prevent you from making good decisions for YOU.
Don’t Wait Too Long to Act
As I have said toxic environments are debilitating and the impact grows day by day. In the worst cases, they can lead to breakdowns and permanent damage to your health as well as your career.
In my experience these things never right themselves. Just ignoring them leaves them to fester. Despite all the popular focus on workplace practices and mental health, organisations look after themselves first and you second (if you are lucky). The only person you can rely on to put yourself first is you (and your loved ones). Thus the responsibility to act is yours and needs to happen before it is too late.
It is rarely worth accepting a toxic workplace – the price is almost always too high.