How to deal with an abusive work situation
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Anna’s attempts to seek help from her manager in dealing with an abusive colleague proved futile. “My boss just told me, ‘He’s an idiot — wait until he screws up’”.
Being relatively new in her job, she lacked allies to give her perspective at the marketing company she had joined. Feeling wretched and alone, she contacted me for psychological coaching to try to find a way to deal with her situation.
Like Anna, many people struggle to find the clarity and confidence required to extract oneself from abusive circumstances at work. Instead, they tend to think, “What have I done wrong?”
In a highly volatile situation, it is all too easy to overestimate your part in what has happened when it may well be a product of the dysfunctional organisation, or simply down to individual behaviour: a bullying boss or a toxic colleague. Often the culprit is successful and charismatic and this only adds to the confusion.
Furthermore, if your impressive work is igniting envy, then attempts to right matters by enhancing your performance may only make things worse. Similarly, if attempts to defend yourself are interpreted as questioning the culprit’s competence, then you are unlikely to get your point across. Expressing your feelings to a co-worker who is making your life miserable is only sensible if they can control their emotions.
Anna, who is an American in her early thirties, feared for her job when the aggressive colleague intruded into her work, attacked her character, complained about her and threatened to get her fired. Matters were made worse because the situation triggered traumatic memories of bullying she experienced as a child.
She explains: “I had a view of how one behaves and he began to call that into question, which made me wonder: ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ And because I didn’t have a sense of where the calibration was, it created a huge degree of fear and constant dread.”
I explained how her colleague’s behaviour was almost certainly designed to make Anna feel bad in order not to feel inadequate himself. It also seemed clear the colleague was not going to depart and that the company was unlikely to take any action. Once Anna could face these realities she was able to let herself off the hook and plan her exit.
She says: “What was useful in our conversations was to unpack the organisation’s culture, its psychology, its DNA — it was clear that the organisation didn’t care. There is a CEO who is very controlling and it views everyone else as utterly replaceable and of zero value.”
Transforming her perspective not only lessened her fears, but her confidence also returned. She no longer allowed herself to be a target for her colleague’s unfair projections. With this insight, she could respond to what was actually happening, rather than reliving childhood traumas.
“I don’t like dealing with the yelling and ‘BS’, but I [now] realise that it is just unpleasant in the way that getting caught in the rain is unpleasant. It doesn’t mean anything about me, it just means I get wet.”
At work, there is rarely the time, expertise or motivation to solve entrenched psychological problems. It is often easier to absorb negative projections from others than accept that your organisation is neither interested in you nor protecting you from harm.
Yet the risk of a serious blow to one’s self-esteem, burnout or depression are high. Such states of mind cloud thinking and diminish concentration, causing one’s self-belief and performance to decline. The optimal aim, therefore, should be to protect oneself. Practise damage limitation by not challenging them where possible, moving to another position in the company or looking for another job.
While the prospect of leaving might be daunting to some, especially if their confidence has plummeted, it is far easier to leave a toxic situation than to recover from its damaging long-term effects.
Michael, 35, a communications officer for a manufacturing company, also initially assumed responsibility for a conflict with his manager. But in reality, his boss was envious of Michael’s exuberant personality and imaginative ideas. When he did well, his boss lashed out.
“I felt deeply demoralised,” Michael says. “There’s a certain madness — I began to think there must be a sort of private language or way of doing things that I hadn’t read and for which none of my skills were relevant.
“I now realise it wasn’t down to me. My manager was deeply insecure and projected his own anxieties on to his team.”
Michael’s psychological make-up was such that he was forever striving to accommodate and work harder when things got tough, but this only aggravated matters. The learning curve for him was recognising that regardless of his commitment, drive and integrity, he was never going to thrive in this particular organisation. Eventually, he was able to walk away knowing the failure was not his.
“For years I assumed work was there to validate you, but there I found that no matter how hard I worked that validation didn’t come. That was a sobering experience, it certainly matured me.”
The realisation that not everything is solvable can be frustrating, but equally it is a relief to know that not everything is down to you.
“I had a significantly overinflated sense of my own ability to shape organisations,” Michael says. “Like an abusive relationship, it is difficult to pluck up the courage to leave — in the end it was the best thing I did.”
If you find yourself demoralised, depressed or burnt out at work because of an abusive relationship or toxic culture, find a trusted person — a former mentor, close colleague or coach with psychological experience — to give you perspective. They may be able to interrupt the self-destructive monologue in your mind and offer more realistic explanations and solutions to consider.
Ask yourself also if the circumstances are just difficult and need working through or if they are symptomatic of a difficult individual or a larger cultural issue that is unlikely to change.
Walking away from a poisonous environment is strengthening and almost always a relief. Making sense of the experience allows you to not only leave the bad job behind, but the bad feelings as well. The ultimate aim is to depart with your self-worth intact.
The writer is a business consultant and psychotherapist. She is author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Job for His Life’.
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