Previous job's toxic work environment has infected me, help me reprogram and get healthy and happy
October 18, 2010 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting a new job and my previous job has a terrible, toxic work environment. I tried to avoid getting infected, but it has effected me and I need help re-programming myself to be a happy, healthy, positive, collaborative co-worker.

I took a job about 3 years ago that I ended up severely regretting; after a few weeks on the job, I discovered a very toxic work environment filled with jealousy, distrust, passive aggressiveness and kiss up--kick down culture. Co-workers and upper management stole ideas, claimed them as their own and gave no credit advancing on the shoulders of others. They'd criticize, back-stab, mock and generally be nasty behind closed doors -- and this went from the top tier of the organization, all the way to the lower levels. It was miserable.

While I was in there, I tried to just keep myself out of it and focus on my work until I could get free. I read the "No Asshole Rule" multiple times a year and referred to it frequently to try and avoid infection. I tried to find consolation with outside friends and distance myself from my job as much as possible. Due to the unstable economy and collapsed job market, I stayed a few years longer than I should have.

Now that I'm out and at a new job, I'm finding the toxic environment did infect me somewhat so I really need to reprogram myself.

Specific issues I'm having trouble with that I don't remember having before the previous job:
* Trusting people again and being open to sharing ideas, especially at brainstorming meetings
* I feel hyper-competitive, as if even my co-workers and managers are competitors
* Getting credit for ideas seems to be a much bigger personal issue than I thought it was before... I know this is wrong and I don't remember this being a big personal issue before the toxic work environment, but now I feel like a really big need for people to give me credit for successful ideas I bring to the table. (In general though, I'm horrible at asking for credit or tooting my own horn.)

Any techniques, coping mechanisms, blog posts, books, anything that can help, I'd really, really appreciate. I don't want to work and live like this. :(
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I had a similar experience, in that I worked for a crazy boss who had favorites, treated women disparately, and generally nurtured a sexist, unproductively "competitive" environment. Even when I got out of his department, the company was dysfunctional and I still had to deal with him. Once I left that company, I had a real problem dealing with the phone ringing and I was always under the impression I was about to be fired. This was pretty much totally pervasive, and a cause of constant low-level anxiety. This is what I did:

1) My new boss was great and I knew it. So I told her that some things sort of freaked me out unreasonably, like super vague meeting requests. (Old ambush-style boss loved those.) In some ways just telling her that set off what I acknowledged as totally crazypants alarms helped because it wasn't festering in the dark anymore, and she basically told me, you're nuts, you know we love you here. YMMV, but it was awesome just to hear something approximating, "I'm on your side."

2) Don't let stuff run you over without examining it. In that moment where you're like, BUT NO THAT WAS ME ME ME, stop. Stop yourself, think about what is happening and stick the anxiety monster back in its little box and, if you can, decide to think rationally about what is happening instead of emotionally. It takes practice. If you have trouble doing it on your own, I will say the most favorite word in all of AskMe, which is "therapy."

3) Have a friend or an SO to whom you can talk about your anxiety surrounding these issues. It's different now that it's anxiety and not actual hardcore horrible job. It's a different conversation.

Good luck. I know it's really hard, but leaving such a place is so worth it, and you can overcome it and make the most of your new opportunity.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:45 AM on October 18, 2010

Be patient with yourself. Before you speak, consider if you will be able to say something and accept what happens or if you will regret it (either because of how it is received or because of bad memories). If not, say it anyway - then compare what happens to what you thought would happen. You learned something at your old job, now learn something else. Find a way to re-direct the power of those bad habits into productive efforts. Possible example: stay competitive, maybe more so, but direct it at other companies or old-you vs new-you. Share these concerns anonymously here or with a therapist but there's no way to come out ahead saying what you said to co-workers. 'I'm a jerk because' is still I'm a jerk. 'My old co-workers sucked' is always 'what does he say about us now?' Fake it until you make it. Avoid primary personal fulfillment in the workplace. Work is a good #2 but a bad #1. Have a relationship or do charitable work as primary. Work is work, stop getting all bent up about it. Good luck.
posted by eccnineten at 6:50 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've worked in similar environments, and honestly, the place I'm working now is getting back on its feet after a boss that was like that (but who has now left the organization). One of the biggest things for me was support and praise from my boss. Like Medieval Maven, being able to say to her "look, I know this is my baggage to deal with, but..." and know that she was listening made a huge difference. Would your boss be similarly supportive?

With reference to your specific issues, note that they all boil down to one thing: your self-esteem. Toxic environments, whether at work or elsewhere, affect you by wearing down your self-esteem. They make you think that you are an insignificant part of a much larger machine, imminently replaceable and whose contribution therefore is worth little. NOTHING COULD BE FARTHER FROM THE TRUTH. You need to acknowledge that the toxic work environment fed you an insidious lie that worked its way into the cracks, not affording you the ability to examine it critically and rebut it for the load of claptrap it really is. So my advice to you: sit down and really examine these issues. Write down your thoughts on them, if it will help clarify things. Then set them aside and go to bed. In the morning, when you're fresh, look at them again, and force yourself to come up with the opposing argument. You may think, "I can't trust anybody". As yourself if that is really the case; is there really no-one you can trust?

I hope this helps, and feel free to memail me.
posted by LN at 7:04 AM on October 18, 2010

Seconding eccnineten. I also moved from a toxic job/work place three years ago, and it took me over a year to "let go and move on" so to speak. Still have the occasional worry when the boss wants to talk with me (but it's always all good, wants to brainstorm new projects and stuff).
posted by Old'n'Busted at 8:00 AM on October 18, 2010

"Getting credit for ideas seems to be a much bigger personal issue than I thought it was before... I know this is wrong"

It's not wrong. Brainstorming is highly overrated as a way to generate good ideas.

Being competitive isn't wrong, either. The problem comes when someone spends more time making him or herself look good at the expense of the project or task at hand. (To be fair, so many work related tasks are stupid, and it's hard to take them seriously.)

I think that you might have actually learned more about how the work world functions from your unpleasant place of employment than most people do at a nice place. Rather than tell yourself you're wrong, wrong, wrong, I think you might take a look at what you gained and how that might make you more effective.

Learning to take credit gracefully is a skill. (And owning up to a bum idea without self-flagellation is the flip side of this, too.) But follow-through is more important that just having ideas.

Trust is good, but randomly trusting everyone is naive.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2010

When I left a toxic work environment, I found that even a little bit of contact with old coworkers - either those still in the environment or those who similarly got out - brought back all of the same feelings and memories. All we ever did was bitch about the environment, it brought us closer together as coworkers, but after I had left the last thing I wanted to do was consume myself with hatred for our boss. So I highly recommend cutting all ties from that workplace, even if you had bonded with one of your coworkers. I didn't realize how much of that toxicity had consumed me until after I had left and all we had to talk about was how shitty the job was.
posted by rhapsodie at 9:24 AM on October 18, 2010

"Getting credit for ideas seems to be a much bigger personal issue than I thought it was before... I know this is wrong"

Seconding ideefixe above: get over this! Wanting credit and taking credit for your work is a matter of CONFIDENCE. If no one knows you are doing a good job, if you don't put your mark on your work, you'll end up consistently being a stepping stone for those who do take credit for their part of the project and worse for those who don't deserve it.

In general though, I'm horrible at asking for credit or tooting my own horn.

Are you a woman? RESEARCH SHOWS that women are often afraid to do this in the workplace, and it really ends up fucking us over. I can say "get over it" but how? When you see your coworkers doing something you think of as ballsy, and it works, store it for later. One thing that has really worked for me is to start thinking "what's the worst that can happen?" and it usually isn't that bad. I also prep the "daring" requests in email, and then go in for a chat about them later.

If you want to read some of that research, you might look up Deborah Tannen. She has done a lot of research on how man and women communicate differently and particularly in the workplace. Though she has been working for a long time, the world has a lot more change to make and even the older texts can still be representative.
posted by whatzit at 10:10 AM on October 18, 2010

If you're female (or even if you're not), the book "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office" has a good discussion of how women can sabotage themselves at work, even in an environment that's well-intentioned and not populated by weasels and backstabbers.

It has plenty of good strategies for standing up for yourself in an ethical fashion, and I guess that if you were more comfortable doing that you'd be less worried about being stood on.
posted by emilyw at 11:29 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Related to learning to take credit, don't apologize in situations where you didn't actually screw up. If you did screw up, apologize once, earnestly and briefly, and move onto how you're going to fix things.

I have a coworker who reflexively apologizes, and it causes people to not trust her.
posted by momus_window at 3:10 PM on October 18, 2010

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