You're Poisoning Yourself in that Toxic Work Environment
I believe in working through challenges, communicating clearly with those we don't get along with, and taking control of our careers. And yet, some situations can't be fixed.
Welcome to the Scarlet Ink newsletter. I'm Dave Anderson, an ex-Amazon Tech Director and GM. Each week I write a newsletter article on tech industry careers, and specific leadership advice.
You don’t like your job. That’s ok, many people don’t. I mean, there are ways to improve things, but when it comes down to it, you don’t need to love-
Oh. Sorry. I didn’t understand. It’s not just a light ‘I wish I was fishing’? You’re saying your job is terrible? It’s a gigantic source of stress in your life? That’s horrible!
There’s a stark difference between an actual toxic work environment, and one which is just vaguely unpleasant.
But if you dread going to work, if the thought of waking up on Monday fills your stomach with knots — that’s not ok. That type of stress will literally lead to a shorter life. Which is particularly dreadful, as you’re spending your shortened life doing something you hate.
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What is a toxic environment?
A toxic environment is one which is personally poisonous. It’s one in which stress is generated by your manager, co-workers, and / or work environment decreases your happiness.
There is no objective measurement of a toxic environment because your definition of a toxic environment will be different from mine. What might make your work horrible might not bother me at all. And vice versa.
There’s no need for you to verify that your workplace is toxic, or find co-workers who agree with you. It’s toxic if it makes your work life unbearable.
I’ve been on teams where my co-workers said they were overworked, and I wasn’t. They had the same workload. This doesn’t mean that I was better, and they were worse. It doesn’t mean that I put up with a toxic environment, or they imagined one. It was toxic for them, and not for me.
I say this to emphasize that the world will tell you that you’re wrong. This place isn’t toxic. This manager isn’t rude. Other people’s opinions are irrelevant. If you’re unhappy, your unhappiness is a fact. The end.
Kenton knocked on my door. “Hey Dave, do you have a few moments to chat?”
Kenton had worked on a few projects with my teams, although he wasn’t in my organization. It was interesting to see him show up at my office door. I immediately wondered if he was interested in transferring into our team. I do like recruiting.
“Sure thing Kenton, happy to chat, come on in.” I said.
Kenton came in, and sat in a chair. I hopped up, and slid my door closed to give us some privacy. Our doors at Amazon slid open and shut like barn doors. Very cool.
“I wanted some advice, and it needed to be someone outside my organization.” he said. “Can you keep this discussion private?”
Hrm, the tone of the meeting doesn’t sound like a recruiting meeting.
“Of course. What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m having issues on my team and with my manager, and I wanted to have a gut check to make certain I’m not blowing things out of proportion.” he said.
“My manager asks for updates on my tasks multiple times a day. I’ll rarely have more than an hour or two of work before he asks to see my work. I’ve never heard something nice from him.”
He continued to explain an environment where his manager didn’t trust him, yet also didn’t provide constructive feedback. His manager would belittle him, and criticise him for almost every act he took.
“Am I making too big a deal out of this? I hate coming to work each day. I mean, just seeing him walk down the hallway makes me sick to my stomach. How can I fix my relationship with my manager so that this job isn’t so terrible?”
I thought about this for a bit.
“Honestly Kenton, here’s my thoughts. Your relationship with your manager is not slightly bad, it sounds horrible. You have zero positive thoughts about him, and it sounds like he has zero positive thoughts about you.”
Kenton nodded in agreement.
“If you drastically improved this situation, you’d only be mildly miserable. I think you should switch teams. Like immediately. And because we’re close to your organization, you shouldn’t come here. You should consider a team further away in the org chart, so that you don’t need to work with that manager ever again.”
Your mental and physical health comes first. If things are miserable, it’s unlikely they’ll become great. And life is too short.
Before we get carried away, I will also caveat that not every annoying work situation is a toxic situation.
What are a few things which might trick you into thinking a situation is toxic?
Being tired. If we’re tired, we’ll blow up small events into big ones. What normally would be a small thing will feel like a disaster. I don’t have the stats, but I’d be willing to bet that parents of young kids more frequently identify their workplace as toxic. Because they’re sleep-deprived.
Different communication styles. What you might view as a harsh attack, your manager may view as polite, clear feedback. Due to the way we’re raised / the culture we’re from, we all have different communication styles. This YouTube video (I found thanks to a LinkedIn recommendation) summarizes this nicely.
Our fear. Imagine you feel that you were hired into a role you’re not suited for. You desperately need the job, but you feel that at any moment, you’ll be found. You have massive imposter syndrome. And then someone critiques you for something. How do you feel? I imagine you blow their feedback way out of proportion, because of your internal struggles.
Those things being put to the side, I’m going to continue with the assumption that you’re not facing some temporary setback. No, you’re in a serious, toxic work situation.
Stuck in a toxic environment? Three things you need.
Are you in a toxic environment? Feeling stressed? Below are three major things you need to address. I’ll get into the details a bit later in this article.
One — Less stress now.
You can’t carefully plan your next steps if your mind is in fight or flight mode. None of us can rationally plan when we’re stuck in a stressful situation. This is why the first requirement is to temporarily decrease stress as soon as possible.
Two — Improved financial safety.
There’s one common element in everyone who is stuck in a stressful, toxic work situation. If they had enough money to retire or stop working for an extended period of time, they would have quit already.
This means that metaphorical handcuffs locking you into a toxic environment are that you don’t have financial safety.
Three — A new job.
Assuming you don’t have enough to retire (see point two above), you’ll need an income. Once you’ve reduced your stress, it’s time to hunt for a new job.
I’ll go into those three things shortly. But first, let’s walk through a few excuses.