Anna’s attempts to seek help from her manager in dealing with an abusive co-worker proved unsuccessful. “My boss just said to me, ‘He’s an idiot—wait until he fails. “
Being relatively new to her job, she lacked allies to give her perspective on the marketing company she joined. Feeling miserable and lonely, she called me to get myself trained to try and find a way to deal with her situation.
Like Anna, many people struggle to find the clarity and confidence needed to extricate themselves from abusive conditions at work. Instead, they tend to think, “What did I do wrong?”
In highly volatile situations, it is all too easy to overestimate your role in what has happened when it is caused by a dysfunctional organization, or simply by individual behavior: a bossy boss or a toxic colleague. Often the offender is successful and attractive and this adds to the confusion.
Moreover, if your impressive work sparks envy, attempts to make things right by improving your performance may only make matters worse. Likewise, if attempts to defend yourself are interpreted as questioning the offender’s competence, you are unlikely to express your point of view. Expressing your feelings to a coworker who makes your life miserable only makes sense if he can control his emotions.
Anna, an American in her early thirties, feared for her job when an aggressive co-worker broke into her work and attacked her character, complained and threatened to fire her. Things got worse because the situation triggered painful memories of the bullying she experienced as a child.
She explains, “I had an opinion on how one acted and began to question it. Which made me wonder, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ And because I didn’t feel where the calibration was, it created an enormous degree of continual fear and dread.”
She explained how her classmate’s behavior was almost certainly designed to make Anna feel bad so that she would not feel inadequate. It also seemed clear that the colleague was not leaving and that no action was likely to be taken by the company. Once Anna faced these facts, she was able to let herself off the hook and plan her exit.
“What was helpful in our conversations,” she says, “was deconstructing the organization’s culture, its psychology, its DNA — it was clear that the organization didn’t care. There’s a CEO who is very controlling and sees everyone else as completely replaceable and worthless.”
Not only did her change of perspective reduce her fears, but her confidence returned as well. She no longer allows herself to be the target of her colleague’s unfair expectations. With this insight, I was able to respond to what was actually happening, rather than relive my childhood traumas.
“I don’t like dealing with yelling and ‘BS’, but I [now] I realize it’s quite annoying because getting caught in the rain is annoying. It doesn’t mean anything about me, it just means I got wet.”
At work, there is rarely the time, experience, or motivation to solve well-established psychological problems. It is often easier to come to terms with negative expectations from others than to accept that your organization does not care about you and does not protect you from harm.
However, the risk of experiencing a serious blow to self-esteem, burnout, or depression is high. Such states of mind cloud thinking and reduce focus, leading to a decline in self-confidence and performance. Therefore, the optimal goal should be self-protection. Practice harm reduction by not challenging them as much as possible, moving to another job at the company or looking for another job.
While the prospect of leaving can be frightening for some, especially if their confidence wanes, it is much easier to let go of a toxic situation than to recover from its long-term harmful effects.
Michael, 35, a communications officer at a manufacturing company, also initially took charge of a dispute with his manager. But in fact, his boss was jealous of Michael’s exuberant personality and imaginative ideas. When he did a good job, he criticized his boss.
“I was so frustrated,” Michael says. “There’s a certain kind of madness—I’m starting to think there must be some kind of special language or way of doing things that I haven’t read that none of my skills are relevant to.
“I now realize it wasn’t for me. My manager was very insecure and projected his concerns onto his team.”
The psychological make-up of Michael was that he was forever striving to adapt and work harder when things got tough, but that only made things worse. The learning curve for him was the realization that no matter his commitment, leadership, and integrity, he would never thrive in this particular organization. In the end, he was able to walk away knowing that failure was not his failure.
“For years I assumed the work was out there to validate what you have, but there I found that no matter how hard I worked, validation never came. That was a real-world experience, it definitely matured.”
Realizing that not everything is solvable can be frustrating, but it is also comforting to know that not everything is up to you.
“I had a wildly exaggerated sense of my ability to shape organizations,” Michael says. “Like an abusive relationship, it’s hard to have the courage to leave – in the end it was the best thing I did.”
If you find yourself frustrated, depressed, or exhausted at work due to an abusive relationship or a toxic culture, find a trusted person — a former mentor, close colleague, or coach with psychological experience — to give you a point. They may be able to interrupt the self-destructive monologue in your mind and offer more realistic explanations and solutions for consideration.
Also ask yourself if the conditions are difficult and need to be addressed or if they are a symptom of a difficult individual or a larger cultural problem that is unlikely to change.
Staying away from a toxic environment strengthens and is always a relief. Understanding the experience not only allows you to leave the bad job behind, but also the bad feelings. The ultimate goal is to leave without compromising your self-worth.
The writer is a business consultant and psychotherapist. She is the author of the soon-to-be-released book, The Man Who Mistaken His Job for His Life.