Toxic work environments are not exotic. They are in fact tragically common. Bullies and narcissists abound and go unchecked all of the time. I’ve coached people for well over a decade and I can think of no industry that’s exempt from toxicity. In fact, some industries even thrive on hazing and abuse. It happens at every level in every industry. To be sure, all work environments are not toxic, but unhealthy corporate cultures are far from rare. While there are positive, purpose driven ecosystems, it only takes one monster to wreak havoc. Monsters are expensive, destructive, and often unchallenged. And if you work for one, you need to understand the personal cost.
The first thing you need to know is that you are not special. Your monster is an abuser and will abuse at whim. It’s not something you’re doing or not doing. It’s not something you’re inviting or something you can control. Your monster is broken and wounded, but this is not your problem nor does it make the behavior acceptable, merely understandable.
People internalize abuse. It doesn’t matter how confident or competent you may be, working for a wounded person who diminishes you will diminish you! I often say that eating a little bit of poison everyday won’t kill you but it will make you very sick.
When people work for a monster they quickly start losing confidence and questioning their value. They don’t believe they can leave. They become anxious and depressed and dread going to work. Their monster takes up emotional and intellectual real estate so they’re never at peace. This is not a way to live and no one deserves to suffer this way just to earn a living.
You can’t change your monster. No amount of over delivering, contorting, contracting or kindness will make a sustained difference. Sure things can get better for a day or a week or even a month, but it won’t last. This is the most insidious part. You’ll think that things are better or that you’ve turned a corner, but this is an illusion. Your monster is fed by your uncertainty and thrives on your fear and anxiety. Make no mistake that you’re operating in a trauma inducing system that will rob you of your sleep, your joy, and your self-esteem.
Your monster might have the capacity for change but you can’t do that work. We are all responsible for our own growth. No one changes until they’re ready.
It’s also important to be aware of the toxic reward myths. It’s not a badge of honor to work for abusers. People will often brag about being able to endure abuse.It’s a trauma response. You aren’t made stronger or better by enduring abusive treatment. Bragging about answering e-mails while you were in labor or being available during your vacation doesn’t make you a badass. You don’t give birth that many times in your life. Do you really want to be responding to emails? You work 50 to 51 weeks out of the year, is it really impossible to take one week out of that year to unplug? When you exist in a sick environment, you often become so sick yourself that you perpetuate the destructive system just to survive.
Most people raise their tolerance. That’s the primary strategy for dealing with bullies and monsters of all kinds. You may wish to escalate the behavior to a higher level of leadership and if you’re in the right environment that might work. Sadly, it’s rare. The fact is that abusive people cannot exist for any significant length of time without systemic support. The leadership and culture help keep the monster nourished and protected. I’m not at all against erecting boundaries and reporting bad behavior. Just understand that you are very likely not your bully’s first victim. And in truth lots of terrible behavior isn’t even actionable, meaning that you don’t always have legal recourse. Some things are actionable but you might be surprised to learn how much is not.
I want to be clear that difficult people aren’t necessarily abusive. You might work for someone who is cold or indifferent or just difficult. This doesn’t rise to abuse. Monsters are another sort all together and exert power through harming others.
So what can you do if you’re working for a monster? Leave. I’m going to say this for the people in the back. LEAVE! You may love everything else about the job but if you’re being abused, that abuse comes at a high cost. In over a decade of coaching I don’t know of a single person who was made better by enduring abuse over an extended period of time. Not one person. More importantly, everyone who worked for an abuser paid a high personal and professional price for staying.
Leave before you forget how remarkable you are. Leave before it starts having an impact on your personal life and your mental and physical health. Leave before you find yourself crying in a bathroom or losing weight or gaining weight or medicating yourself. Quitting is not failure. Quitting is a radical act of self-love and self-respect. You deserve to be treated with decency and dignity. Lowering the bar never results in a higher outcome.
Gaslighting isn’t something that just exists in a personal context. I’ve seen plenty of gaslighting in corporate environments. If you don’t like the way you’re being treated, express your desire to be treated with dignity, escalate the toxic behavior if you have good leadership or simply leave. What you should never do is eat a little poison everyday and simply cross your fingers that it doesn’t kill you.
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