In my line of work, I talk to a lot of people who are either dealing with very bad work situations, or who have recently left very bad work situations and are trying to figure out what to do next. In an ideal world, I would tell these clients to quit their jobs, go on a three-week vacation, and then come back to talk to me about how to avoid similar situations in the future. But alas, no one I know has this luxury. And “toxic” workplaces are everywhere.
Although we probably have some sense of what a toxic workplace is like, this book identifies them as having a culture that “allow personal agendas and other priorities to crowd out what they declare in print.” Because no organization, even in 2019, is going to have a mission like “let’s fuck everyone over to make a profit, IDGAF anymore.” No, instead you have a mission like “don’t be evil,” and then…maybe you act a little evil? But from an employee perspective, the danger is in not being able to trust the organization and what the monolith says. By lying, essentially, the organization becomes emotionally abusive.
This may sound a little histrionic. I admit that I have a lot of skepticism around how easily words like “toxic” are thrown around. But also, I’ve been in workplaces that have made me seriously sick. After all, we’re in this environment for at least 1/3 of our lives, we depend on the income, and usually we depend on the sense of identity that work gives us. So the language can be dramatic, but it can also feel accurate.
As would surprise no one who works in nonprofits, the authors dedicate a whole chapter to nonprofits’ and churches’ ability to be totally awful. Mostly this had to do with emotional manipulation – a leader who sent messages about how much they “cared” and then acted as if they didn’t; using guilt to persuade people to do someone’s bidding; even covering up the unethical behavior of pillars of the community.
I think the most important message this book can give you is that “maybe you’re not the problem.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know you, so you might be the problem with your workplace. You could be a total asshole. But if you come home from work every day completely emotionally exhausted, if the messages you get from work are that you are useless (but you get the opposite from everyone else in your life), if bad stuff happens all the time but no one takes responsibility, just consider that it might be that there’s a shitty set-up at work. This book can offer you a few signposts as you realize what’s going on, but honestly, if you’re in this situation, I’d suggest that you go to therapy. Work is a relationship like any other, and in order to deal with an emotionally unstable relationship, you need outside help to support you as you find a way out.
- How bad has a work situation gotten for you? If you had to do it over again, what would you identify as the warning signs?
- In what ways have you been able to manage in a toxic workplace? What helped you weather the storm?
- Have you ever seen a workplace become toxic (or detoxed itself)? What did that look like?
Moment of appreciation: “People with dysfunctional patterns have difficulty living within the rules of reality—most notably, with the relationship between choice, responsibility, and consequences” (page 139). Holy hell, I might this get tattooed on me.