How do I get through the next 4 months in a dysfunctional workplace
April 29, 2016 2:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking at exiting my job (in a HIGHLY dysfunctional, but famous, organization) after a big event in 4 months that its important for me to see through. Help me figure out how to get through it, with many snowflakes inside.

I have been unhappy at my job for a long time and, after going through about 16 months of unhappiness; asking for clarity, management changes, relocation, and as many other constructive things I could think of from my boss; an intense period of depression and crying at work, at home, at the grocery store, I've finally decided to move on and I think I have something lined up (more academic job and writing, and possible book deal) for later in the year. I work in a small (but very high-profile) industry and it would be a lot easier to do what I want to do next if I'm in my organization's good graces and hopefully keep them as collaborators. So, I am not putting in notice right away, but rather feel bound to see out our big yearly project, an annual symposium that's happening in 4 months. But the things that have been driving me crazy, while lessened, are not gone, and lately I'm not sure how I'm going to make it that long.

I have been working for the organization for about 2 years, collaborating with them for 2 years before that while I was doing my PhD. I nominally work for a small (4-employee) nonprofit attached to a for-profit company (though much of my work is more for the for-profit than for the nonprofit), with most of the board for the nonprofit being some of the owners and executive people at the for-profit. This, I know, is super sketchy, but I include it to paint a picture of the dysfunction is more or less baked in to my workplace.

The for-profit is one of the most famous and influential entities in its category, with our leader/boss appearing on magazine covers even outside the trade, documentaries have been made about us, its a big deal. The nonprofit runs the most important conference in the trade. Mostly when people quit their jobs here they give something like a year's or 6 month's notice. It's not an option for me to give notice right now, I pretty much have to stay for another 4 months and make sure the conference gets pulled off OK, and I haven't told any of my managers I'm planning on quitting yet- I am hoping to have firmer plans in place when I do that.

I'm basically the most technical person working with a bunch of very creative people at the for-profit, with my colleagues at the nonprofit being a mix of nice, mostly masters-degreed but not very useful random liberal arts types. One of them, X, has mostly back-channeled/sycophanted his way into being a semipermanent interim manager at the nonprofit and project manager on way more projects than he can handle at the for-profit, mostly because our executive director is also overwhelmed with tasks and mostly doesn't want to have to think about our day-to-day. X is disorganized, insecure, an intentional information bottleneck, terrible at communicating, petty, and a master buck-passer. He's also manipulative and says things like "I am really hurt and disturbed by your lack of trust right now" to reasonable criticisms, manipulates through fake apologies, lies about passing information up the chain, and likes to assign people large tasks in emails with vague hand-waving about what the big boss would like one of us to do. Pretty much everyone at the manager (non-executive) level knows this and complains about it more or less constantly, and almost all of us have talked to our and X's mutual boss Y about these problems, to no avail, with the standard answer being "He's inexperienced, he's doing the best he can, we're too short-staffed and can't change anything until we can hire a real person to manage the nonprofit [which has supposed to be happening for over a year]". HR doesn't exist, the norm in the creative side of the industry is a complete dictatorial top-down unquestioning system and 100-hour weeks, and a sort of reality distortion field/cult of personality. X isn't the only reason I'm leaving, just my biggest annoyance right now.

So X and I have had our share of aggressive and passive-aggressive email chains, shouting, etc, but he believes, somehow, that we are good friends. He is nominally project manager on our conference, but has literally no idea how to plan it (and will often ask ME what he should do), will ghost from vital meetings in which he needs to make a decision so we can move forward with work to take phone calls about other projects, will flip-flop about plans and pretend he didn't make agreements that he did actually make. I am picking up so much slack, and I've come to peace with the fact that I won't get any credit for it, but it takes up so much mental energy. Nothing is going to change in the next 4 months; I have had some therapy and am doing somewhat better with saying no and drawing boundaries, but I come home every night frustrated and exhausted. I would like to be working on a book proposal that is going to be part of my post-job parachute, but even after "only" an 8- or 10-hour day I'm completely drained. I know many responses will be "Quit Now" or "File More Complaints at Work" but I feel like I need to stay in the game and lay low as much as I can. Is there anyone out there who's been in a similar situation? What can I do to preserve my sanity over the next 4 months in a terrible professional work environment?
posted by socktastic to Work & Money (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The only thing you can really do is something to give yourself some sense of control over your life. Either scale back to a slightly shorter work week (maybe 32 hours instead of 40), or start taking time off. Plan a vacation or a couple of long weekends during this 4 month period; something to look forward to but more importantly time that will give you a mental break. The work is going to be there whether you take time off or not.
posted by vignettist at 2:27 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

He thinks you're his friend! That's great!!

Stop gossiping about him. Immediately. Say nothing and walk away unobtrusively when others bad mouth him. You are leaving so you don't care and he's a backstabber so you don't want to start getting blamed...

...uh, about that conference...

If you leave tomorrow they have 4 whole months to get the conference on track. If you stick around it sounds like the conference will go poorly and your "friend" will throw you and everyone else under the bus, do I have that correctly?

I think you are defeated because this is a defeat. This conference will undermine your future career plans more than suddenly having to quit. You have to think of a plausible reason to jump clear. Can you go on safari? To a buddhist retreat? I'm serious. Run.

OTOH you could emotionally disengage since you are not staying and just do this guy's work for him. Have some boundaries. Train him not to cross those boundaries. This alone will be exhausting, though.

Maybe you have super compelling reasons not walk away from this disaster? I don't see one from the outside, but you know your industry better than I do!

Emotionally divest. This is not your concern, your concern is YOU. That's my best advice given the narrow parameters you have set up.
posted by jbenben at 2:30 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are a couple things that I (and also a friend) have done to lower the problems associated with this type of work place, although TBH leaving was the best solution and it sounds like you know this. These might be obvious, apologize if so:

-For things that he is hoisting onto you (not making decisions) and you are doing sans credit, a friend of mine was able to rid of this type of stuff by telling a coworker who had a history of getting people to do work for her by asking for the entire project/how to do it be shown step by step something along the lines of : "I am sorry you hare having a hard time. I wish I could help you. I only have the bandwidth to do my projects. Now if you don't think you can do it, talk to management, and if they assign my that entire project to me (meaning she would get the glory), then I can do it for you." The person stopped asking, but put really strong limits, especially if they are basically getting you to do their work.

-One small thing that I've done to get people to at least fess up that they haven't done X, or to put in more accountability is take notes during a meeting and send a bulletted summary post meeting with an invitation for feedback in the next 24 hours (is this agreed this what everyone stated?). Everyone sees the distributed emails - all participants have read them. Then next meeting, start the email by referring to the list and saying - okay, Bob, you took on this task. Where are we now? Or you can refer to the notes during the meeting if people start to say - We agreed to that? What? Who? I know that it might mean a small amount of extra work for you, but the goal is to NOT deal with months and months of whatever this other guy is doing.

One small thing that helped me keep my sanity for crazy jobs that I decided to stay at until a certain date? Big calendar with numbers...60 days left. Next day, at end of day, mark it off. I know it sounds odd and childish, but hey, it worked for me. Along with sick days that I sometimes rationalized as "mental health days" - hey a day in the museum or in the park did make me healthier.
posted by Wolfster at 2:42 PM on April 29, 2016 [10 favorites]

It might be good for you to do a realistic evaluation of just how bad it would be if you did give notice now, and how bad it could be if X continues to be himself – he won't change – and affects the conference badly... and puts blame on you. I gotta agree that is a distinct and highly likely possibility.

You would be very surprised just how quickly your mental health can go downhill when there is a big goal that's important to you, that is not important for the same reasons to someone who can directly impact both the goal and your effectiveness towards reaching it. Honestly, I do not recommend staying. I have worked with this sort of X person before, in a very similar context, and the project in question? Quickly gained a statistically-based reputation for being the one with the highest sick rate in the entire 5-digit-employees company. Everyone spoke factually and with written proof about how the management assigned unrealistic goals, punished people for reaching them (you read that correctly), also punished them for not reaching other goals which had never been set, oh and the management in question were a group who had sycophanted their way into things, supported each other, and scapegoated everyone else. They're. Still. Managers. They're still making people sick. I have yet to see anyone successfully handle them. Their project is now staffed by interns and fresh new hires. No one with any seniority to speak of will touch it with a ten-foot pole.

There is a reason for it. It's toxic. In your shoes, I would bite the bullet. Colleagues worth your trust will continue to hold you in consideration. Don't sacrifice your health – burnout is a real thing and when it hits, it hits fast and hard.
posted by fraula at 3:08 PM on April 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'd start running out of fucks to give

Don't do anything that's not specifically assigned to you. DON'T pick up the slack. Tell the boy-blunder, "Xavier, I'm totally slammed with the Frammistannie project so I can't help anymore with the Conference."

If for some reason you're on the committee for the conference, start up with the passive aggressive shit that I absolutely love, to provide people rope with which to hang themselves. So for example, if he doesn't show up to a meeting, make a decision and let him know retroactively. "Xavier, we missed you at the status meeting this afternoon. The following things were decided upon: Programs will be confirmed and sent to the printers by 7/31, a DJ rather than a live band with a confirmed vendor by 8/15, and the running order of the opening meeting is attached." A Fait Accompli is what you're aiming for on this stuff.

When you get one of those vague emails, shoot one off confirming your understanding of what is being asked:

"Xavier, based on your email, I'll meet with Julie to set up the breakout sessions and room assignments with 15 minute intervals between sessions. We're meeting at 2:00 this afternoon and should have a rough of this by Thursday, close of business." Let him tell you if you're not understanding what he asked for.

You get the drift. The idea is to foist off as much scut work as you can back to X, and to move forward as much as you can without involving him.

Arrive at 9:00, leave at 5:00 and if you can't get it all done, speak to one of your managers and tell them, "I've been doing A, B, C for the Conference and it's not leaving me enough time to do my daily duties. I'd like to scale back. Xavier might have some ideas for folks to add onto the project, maybe some of the juniors who'd like an opportunity to take on some additional responsibility."

Mark the days off on the calendar.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:27 PM on April 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've seen friends just get progressively more miserable sticking around lousy work environments out of (what I consider) a misplaced sense of loyalty.

IMO, you do *not* have to stay and make sure the conference gets pulled off. You can leave at any time. The conference is the organization's problem, not yours. And four months is a long time. A graceful exit is very doable. You don't have to give reasons. You can just say to your boss "Hi, I wanted to let you know that I'll be moving on and {date two weeks from now} will be my last day." If pressed for reasons, you don't have to answer. You can simply say something like there are other things that need your attention or whatever.

If you *do* choose to stay, then your go-to would be radical acceptance. You know this job makes you miserable, so know that you're going to be miserable, and you've chosen to endure that. You can pretend you're a robot. You can go the way cold-turkey quitting smoking goes and take things one second at a time. When something makes you unhappy, just say to yourself "I only have to endure this for the next 1 second", and when the next one second comes, you're either doing something else or saying the same thing again.

The notes above about scaling back where possible, marking dates on a calendar, etc, are great. You know exactly what to expect and you can celebrate each second you get closer to your quite date.

Or you can quit tomorrow, which (again, in my experience) is probably the best thing to do.
posted by colin_l at 4:24 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I came to suggest a count down calendar. They are popular in the military when people get short (ie have very little time left and are looking forward to getting the hell out).
posted by Michele in California at 4:27 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

it would be a lot easier to do what I want to do next if I'm in my organization's good graces and hopefully keep them as collaborators.

Are you in the organization's good graces now? Was it a pain to collaborate with the organization when before you became an employee? Can a trusted person help you do a reality check to make sure that your beliefs about the importance of staying on are based in reality and not wishful thinking?

He is nominally project manager on our conference, but has literally no idea how to plan it (and will often ask ME what he should do)

This guy is screwing you over now and he will keep screwing you over. If you are determined to stay, let him be the actual project manager if that's his title and stop giving him answers. Stop supporting this guy who is throwing you under the bus now and will keep doing it. And so is your manager. If you are staying because you need the money, I get that. But if you are staying because you think you will get credit for the conference, hmm. Will you really? Did you do lots of work on it last year? Get kudos for it? And then get repaid for your hard work by having Mr. X become the project manager?

It's not actually your responsibility to fix the conference issue and you cannot fix the organization. All you can do is save yourself. And if you insist on seeing through the conference, then I hope you can work out a deal with your boss or somebody to give you a glowing recommendation or future contract work or something else in exchange for staying at that hellhole another 4 months. If you would prefer to leave immediately and can afford to leave immediately, that might give you some leverage to get something back in return for staying through the conference.

And it might get you fired. So ignore me and go read Ask a Manager instead. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 5:03 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sorry, forgot the Ask a Manager link.
posted by Bella Donna at 5:13 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

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