You can be happier and more successful when you learn to play the game of work. If you’re not currently satisfied in your career, it could be because you’re playing by the wrong rules.
In Winning the Game of Work, Terry Boyle McDougall shares the rules she learned from wise mentors and coaches, as well as the lessons she learned the hard way. She entered the workplace as an ambitious “go-getter” and was confused about why she wasn’t advancing at the pace she expected. She learned that being smart and working hard aren’t enough. The reward for developing a strategy for the game of work is success and happiness with less stress and duress.
Winning the Game of Work is the essential guidebook to help you develop your unique skills as a “player.” Now is the time to see the whole field, make the savvy moves and win the game of work on your own terms!
When You’re Dealt a Bad Hand: Coping with Toxic Work Situations
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Toxic Workplaces Are Common
Workplaces can become toxic when the work demands, culture, and/or coworkers cause serious disruptions in the rest of your life. According to a 2019 research report published by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), nearly two-thirds of working Americans have worked in a toxic work environment at some point in their career, and 26 percent have worked in more than one. That’s truly astounding!
We spend a lot of time working, and most of us are dependent on work for income and a sense of purpose. When work becomes toxic, it can have a devastating impact on both job and life satisfaction.
Here’s a story of a toxic work environment that I lived through back in the late 1990s and the lessons I came away with.
In Comes Shelly the Screamer
About four years into an otherwise great job, I had my first encounter with workplace toxicity. My department was restructured and the department leader who worked in another city hired a new director for our office. Shelly left a global consulting firm for this role and moved to the Southern city where the company was headquartered.
Within the department, Shelly made us wary. Her direct style clashed with the gracious and courteous culture of the organization. Admittedly, when I moved there a few years before, I quickly realized that small talk in this culture was a requirement if I wanted to develop productive relationships within the organization. Getting directly down to business, which had been the norm at my employer in DC, was considered rude there.
Shelly was fast moving and direct. And when she became upset, she tended to scream. (Yes, scream!) One day, I was unfortunate enough to hear her side of a phone conversation through the office wall I shared with her—at an incredibly high decibel, I heard her berate the dry cleaner in the building for allegedly losing the pants to a suit she’d dropped off for cleaning.
As time went on, I realized that this was not a one-time loss of composure on Shelly’s part. This type of unhinged behavior became shockingly common. I shook my head and could not believe this was my job and that she was my boss. I mean, who acts like that?
Shelly’s approach to management alternated between ingratiation, manipulation, and micromanagement of female subordinates and colleagues. With men, she also included flirtation, which I suppose is a form of manipulation.
Her frequent emotional outbursts tended to be confined to times when only subordinates on the marketing team were present, which meant that it took a while for her dysfunction to become apparent to her business partners, HR, and leadership.
Stress and Self-Medicating Behaviors
I began to dread going to work and encountered health issues such as insomnia, irritability, and anxiety. As much as I hate to admit it, I began drinking wine just about every night after work to relax and forget about the chaotic situation at work. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was dealing with a toxic boss in an otherwise supportive workplace.
I was experiencing some of the common responses: depression, anxiety, weight gain, self-medicating behavior, a drop in productivity, and reduced ability to focus. Other common responses include self-harming behaviors, workplace absence, increased illnesses, raised blood pressure, and other negative health effects.
The Dangers of a Toxic Environment
A toxic workplace can leave you feeling trapped. Most people work to earn money for material needs and enjoyment. Work can also contribute to self-esteem and a sense of purpose. When you are in a toxic workplace, you can feel like your existence is being threatened, and that can cause you to retreat into survival mode.
You may stop doing the things that you enjoy, which disrupts your ability to relax and recharge. Stress increases, and you may become fixated on how to “solve the problem” of work. In my case, initially I had a hard time seeing what was really going on as I redoubled my efforts to avoid, then please, my demanding boss.
Coping with a Toxic Work Situation
Whether or not your bad work situation rises to the level of “toxic” doesn’t really matter. If you’re finding that work has gone from enjoyable (or at least tolerable) to draining and dreadful, you can take three actions:
- Do nothing and continue to endure the situation as it is,
- Leave to find a better situation,
- Stay and try to improve the current situation (including making changes in your own behavior, discussing the issues with someone who has the authority to effect change, such as HR or a supervisor, or other actions).
To help you decide which path you should take, here are some questions to consider:
- How long has this been going on?
Is it related to a specific project or deadline? Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel? If it’s a relatively short-term situation, you may want to wait it out. The stressors may pass, and the environment may return to a state that you can tolerate or even go back to enjoying. If this is the “new normal,” you may be motivated to make a change.
- What caused the change in the environment?
Was it sudden or gradual? Did the situation change due to new leadership or organizational structure, new policies, or a change in market conditions? If you can pinpoint when and where the situation started, you may be able to understand whether you can potentially change or adapt to it.
There’s a big difference between lobbying for a change to a poorly conceived policy and arresting the effects of a tanking economy. Some things you have the power to change, and some you don’t. Understanding the root and magnitude of the issues at hand is a good start.
- What influence do you have over the situation?
Are those in leadership aware of the impact that the environment is having on you? How able are you to have a frank conversation about it with your boss or another person in a position of influence? Sometimes the issue is not with your boss. It could be coming from higher in the organization and your boss may have little influence on the expectations. Or it could be that your perception of what is expected is not aligned with your boss’s.
Getting clarity and bringing ideas to the table on how to do things better is often welcomed. After all, those in leadership may not fully understand the impact their decisions have on your day-to-day experience. Speaking up could result in positive changes. Give it a shot before deciding on more radical actions.
- Are others in your organization having similar experiences? How are they coping?
Sharing your experiences with coworkers may help you to feel less alone. You could learn tips on how to better “manage up,” or build a coalition to influence leaders to make changes. Building alliances with fellow employees can help ensure management doesn’t perceive you as a “problem employee” in case a true structural or management problem is at the root of the issue.
- Will opportunities at your organization allow you to leave the toxic work situation?
Is it your boss or department that is causing the situation, or is it a more systematic malady that exists throughout the entire organization? If the toxicity is confined to your specific department, you may decide to explore other opportunities to leverage your current organizational knowledge and network. If the toxicity is rampant throughout the organization, you may need to get out to save your health and sanity.
- Is the environment unique to your organization, or is it a reality of the industry?
Can you consult people in your network at other organizations to find out? Your skills and experience may be in demand at another employer that has a better culture or is in a more favorable position in the marketplace. Getting a view of what it’s like at other companies can give you information you need to decide if you should stay, go, or try something completely new.
- What does it cost you to remain in your current situation? Is your confidence waning?
How is the situation affecting your health and relationships? Sometimes people will stay in a situation for much longer than they should. It’s hard to consider leaving without another job, but sometimes it can be the best option before their relationships, health, or confidence are eroded to the point of not having the energy to look for another job.
Sometimes hanging in there can eventually lead to being fired by an unreasonable manager or pegged as the scapegoat for mistakes. Both of these scenarios can be hard to bounce back from. Though leaving a job without another job is not ideal, sometimes taking control of one’s destiny is preferable to continued suffering and abuse.
- How egregious is the situation? Has it risen to the level of illegality?
Does blatant abuse, harassment, or discrimination take place? Are you able to document it? If the abuse is significant, you may consider consulting an employment attorney to explore your options. Some companies may be open to a negotiated exit, which could include a severance package.
Some employment attorneys provide free consultations, and, even if you need to pay for an hour of their time, it could be well worth the investment. Experienced attorneys often know a lot about specific employers. They may know whether your employer would negotiate or if they’ve been accused of other employment law violations. At the very least, they can advise you of your rights.
- How much of this situation is based in reality and how much is your perception?
Sometimes people will label a situation “toxic” when it’s actually just uncomfortable because it requires them to develop new skills, adapt to a new structure, or learn new processes. Take a close look at yourself and ask whether your experience could be different if you responded differently.
If other people are not having issues with the situation, it could be that you need to learn some new skills to cope. It’s always helpful to get perspective on the situation. A mentor, coach, or experienced friend can sometimes help you see the bigger picture and help you decide what options you have.
What’s within Your Control?
Without going into too much detail about my role in the toxic dance with Shelly, suffice to say, initially I didn’t handle it well. As a manager, she sought to control me and I, in turn, tried to avoid her. Eventually, I realized that I would hurt myself if I didn’t begin to respect her position as my boss.
Because the department leader was in another city, he wasn’t witness to her worst behavior, and she was able to control the narrative with him. Any complaints to him from her direct reports were seen as the team getting used to the new structure.
Taking Control of What I Could
I finally woke up to the fact that I would need to proactively show my support for Shelly even if it meant I had to grit my teeth and paste a smile on my face when I checked in to say hello to her each morning. What I found was that she relaxed and actually began stopping by my office to get my opinion on things.
My job became easier, as I was no longer the target of her vitriol and frustration. Once I turned over this new leaf, I found acceptance of the situation took less energy than the resistant stance I’d previously taken. When I approached the situation differently, Shelly’s response to me changed. However, that didn’t mean she was reformed.
Shelly Finds a New Target
Unfortunately, a colleague soon became the new target for Shelly’s nitpicking and bullying. Though I knew nothing of it at the time, Shelly’s bullying of my coworker was the proverbial “last straw.” She had finally overstepped the boundaries between poor management and documented abuse (with witnesses) so that the HR department could take decisive action.
One evening as I sat in my office finishing up a project, the voicemail light on my phone suddenly blinked red. As the message played, I realized my fervent prayers had been answered. The departmental leader stated that effective immediately, Shelly was no longer employed by the organization. Shelly’s ten-month reign of chaos had ended.
Lasting Lessons from a Horrible Boss
As painful as that episode was, I am glad that I went through it. I realize that both despite and because of her poor management skills, I learned several important lessons that have served me well since then:
- If you want to lead change, you need to know where you’re starting from. It’s important to understand the situation you’re entering, communicate a vision, and gain buy-in before trying to lead a change. Shelly had been hired to lead a team that was already high-performing, close-knit, and collegial. She approached the team as if it were in need of a turnaround rather than a basic tune-up, and because she neglected those steps, she met resistance. More open dialogue would have gone a long way to gaining buy-in with the team.
- Regardless of the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of a supervisor, it’s imperative to respect the role. Avoiding interactions with my boss served no purpose for me or the organization, other than to make me insubordinate. It wasn’t my place to pass judgment on her effectiveness. I was also obliged to ask her for what I needed—such as reminding her to provide feedback on the projects she was reviewing so I could keep them on schedule. I needed to be fully responsible for my part of the projects, regardless of whether she was delivering on her side. Though her style was frustrating to me, I had no excuse not to keep up my work commitments or to respect her authority as my manager.
- Have a contingency plan. While it wasn’t my place to judge, it would have been wise of me to take note of her lack of effectiveness and document my own actions so I could explain project delays caused by her slow review and approval of project deliverables. If there had been an accounting for why projects were not being completed on time, the blame could have easily been placed on my shoulders, even though the delay was caused by her failure to provide timely feedback. Though documentation can be time-consuming, sometimes it’s a wise insurance policy if you foresee the situation taking a bad turn.
- Keep some perspective. Nothing is forever. During that time, I allowed myself to become highly stressed, and then suddenly one day, the cause of my stress (Shelly) was gone. At that moment, I realized that I’d been walking around loaded for bear, but suddenly the bear was gone. All at once, those big guns were heavy and unnecessary. At that moment, I realized that it had been my choice to be defensive and resentful. In fact, I was the cause of my own misery due to my beliefs and how I chose to respond to Shelly.
- Working through personnel issues can take some time in the corporate world. HR issues are confidential and only those who need to know will be privy to what’s going on. It may seem like the abusive employee is getting a free pass and that no one in authority is taking notice when, in fact, due process may be moving along behind closed doors. For several months, as Shelly continued to bully and cause mayhem, I believed that the HR department had left me and my coworkers at the mercy of a madwoman. That’s what it felt like. I later found out that the department leader was aware of the problem and was working on a resolution with HR.
- Beliefs create mind-sets, and we have control over our beliefs. This is the big takeaway—I was stressed and overwhelmed not because I had an ineffective boss but due to my own beliefs. I was capable of being happy. I could have chosen to leave work behind when I went home at the end of each day. Instead, I chose to bring the troubles home with me and whine about my situation over a few glasses of wine. When Shelly was gone in a wink, I realized I’d been resisting harder than necessary, and it felt strange when suddenly I had nothing to resist. A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders with that realization!
Working for Shelly wasn’t a pleasant time in my life, but I learned some extremely valuable lessons from her, for which I’ll be forever grateful. So, to Shelly, wherever you are, thank you for teaching me these lessons. And I hope you found your suit pants.
Terry Boyle McDougall is an executive coach, speaker and best-selling author of Winning the Game of Work: Career Happiness and Success on Your Own Terms. She works with managers, executives and professionals who want to draw upon their greatest, most authentic abilities to positively impact their organizations. She supports clients who are creating change, driving innovation, and navigating transitions.
Terry relies on both her formal training as a coach and firsthand experience as a corporate leader to support her clients as they work towards their goals. In coaching engagements, Terry serves her clients as a partner and encourager as they break new ground; as a sounding board, supporting them as an objective listener; as a scout, who sees the larger context, their possibilities and potential; and, as a catalyst, helping to spark their commitment and action.
After 30 years of corporate business experience, 15 of which were in senior managerial roles, Terry chose to become a coach to concentrate on helping leaders step fully into their potential to lead satisfying careers. Though the majority of Terry’s professional experience is in financial services and marketing, her work exposed her to a wide variety of industries, business climates and corporate transitions such as mergers, acquisitions, divestitures and restructures.
Areas of leadership skills development include: Goal setting Prioritization Staff management Delegation Strategic thinking Decision making Project management Facilitating meetings
Change management Effective communications Customer relations (internal/external) Onboarding & career transition
She has worked with clients from: AbbVie ACCO Brands BMO BMW Chubb Ernst & Young Four Square Hyatt
JLL JPMorganChase Kendra Scott MediaCom
Mindshare Motorola Newsela Nuveen
Univar Solutions USG Corporation Wells Fargo Zillow
EDUCATION CERTIFICATIONS University of Maryland, MBA College of William & Mary, BA, Economics iPEC, Coach Certification Training ICF, Professional Certified Coach iPEC, Master Practitioner, Energy Leadership Predictive Index, Talent Optimization Partner