dealing with low-level toxicity in work environments
June 23, 2019 5:25 PM   Subscribe

What techniques and strategies can I use to not let toxic people at work bother me?

I am caught in a cycle of getting a job, getting targeted (it feels like) by whomever decides I don't belong there, getting depressed about it, not working on what is important to me in my free time meaning I don't develop the skills I need to succeed in a field I actually like, eventually leaving the job for another one, finding another tiresome toxic person who zeros in on me like a shark on a dangling pair of legs, getting depressed again, repeat.

I want to break this cycle but first I have to learn to let go of all the frustration and anger I feel towards people at work decide I don't belong there.

How do I do that?

Recently my supervisor, who never speaks to me if he can help it, and who scowled at me the first day I set foot in the door, plunked himself next to me and unsubtly suggested that I apply for this new opening in another department, that I should go for it before it was gone, that it was a "better fit" for my skills to date (this is a job in an industry in which I have no prior experience, so I am not as quick as others to get things done) and verbally poked at me to get me to reveal my plans to him, on which I was vague because I didn't want to be forced to make up my mind on the spot. Not getting a firm promise out of me that I would apply for transfer, he repeated all this about three times before the phones started ringing and the conversation was mercifully cut off. I think what's going on here is that there was a person in my position before me who held it for many years, who fit in perfectly with the atmosphere of the place, who remains friends with everybody there, who was super extroverted, and compared to that I am very boring and (to them) disturbingly private about my personal life. This is a company that has zero understanding of introverts, and treats them like aliens, either mocking them or being patronizingly "nice" to them. It is also a very clique-oriented environment, very big on the chit chat about who is dating whom, whose dog barfed on the new rug, the quantity and quality of the drinks consumed at the restaurant last night, etc. I have no interest in this sort of thing and they have no interest in what I'm interested in, which, again, seems to be an extroverts vs introverts vibe going on here. I knew I wasn't the greatest fit. Nevertheless, things seemed to be going okay. So I was very upset by this clear indication by the manager that not only was I not satisfactory in terms of job performance, he can't wait to get rid of me and the sooner the better. I applied for the transfer because now whenever I go to work all I can think of is how unpleasant it is to feel so unwelcome there. I know this is not a very resilient attitude. The problem is I never seem to have a very resilient attitude towards this kind of animosity, which I imagine everyone experiences at one point or another.

Now, while this example is pretty overt and I don't feel I am unreasonable to be upset by this, there is a pattern that I have in that I always get very upset when that one person at whatever job decides to target me or dislike me for whatever reason, even when they do not have authority over me, even when it really doesn't matter all that much in terms of the work I am trying to get done. This negatively impacts my life all around and my mental health so I don't want to do anything at home but eat and go to sleep. Some of my prior workplaces were outright dysfunctional (think sick systems) while others were not. Nevertheless, every workplace I've been in has at least one person who behaves in a targeting or toxic way. This cycle in not helpful in that it prevents me from just doing the job to pay the bills, ignoring the bullshit and focusing on the things I want to do in my not-at-work time.

tl;dr My questions are,

What tools and strategies can I develop that have worked for you, the reader, to minimize the impact toxic people have on your psyche?

How can I learn to leave work at work and focus on what matters to me in my free time, until I can move on to something I actually want to do?

(Please note that I cannot just leave this job and go get another, I have to get another job first before I quit this, and even if I do get another job, this is a cycle and this problem will probably follow me into the next job. The point of this question is not to hear the answer "just go get another job" it is to learn how to deal with the job that I currently have and the jobs I will hold in the future. As for therapy, therapists are expensive and the jobs I've held, oh irony, mean I can't afford one. I want to get one eventually. I've been on medication but it didn't help much without therapy, just sort-of-but-not-really numbed me to the problem. )
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Some thoughts, which may or may not be on point.

1) While bailing out and getting another job isn't what you want to hear, I think that this case is special because the person who put the target on your back is your manager. That's a tough hand to beat. Whatever ideas that you get from this thread may be best deployed along with a fresh start.

2) Often, the best answer to people not wanting you around is to produce as well as you can. Being good at the mechanical aspects of your job, or at least being good at making the numbers by which productivity is measured for what you do, makes a strong argument to most managers for you to have a place in the company, without you having to say a word to anyone.

3) You might consider reading a few books on navigating office politics. Most of them are actually kind of rubbish, but they can help show you what an office looks like from the extrovert POV, which you wouldn't normally see. From there, maybe you can cook up some defensive mechanisms for coping with Joe Rando who isn't your boss, but who doesn't like the color of your hair or whatever. Unfortunately, most of the techniques that are written on the subject, when they have solutions to propose, require you to act like an extrovert.

4) Focus hard on making your time your own. When you're at home, I'd recommend that you split your time between managing your stress level, and working on improving yourself in tangible ways. It's hard to not think about work when things aren't going well for you there. But, the more you can do it, the better you'll be able to cope.

5) Actively work on your email communication skills. Often, people can sour on you in an office because they perceive you as not communicating properly, or enough. It's not fair, and people may not even realize that's what's at play. But, by making sure that you're communicating through email as effectively as possible, you can be perceived as being more communicative without being face-to-face with everyone all the time. Keeping an eye on this, and effectively saving your socialization energy for where it's most effective, can keep your office reputation in the green. No one cares whether you're an introvert, but they do care if they get what they want from you. Which, in many cases, can be communication.

Hope this helps!
posted by Citrus at 5:54 PM on June 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

I used to lament this to my Dad, who said, "never quit your old job before you have a new one, but if a job is affecting your self esteem that badly, you have to leave to preserve yourself. I've done it too, so do what you have to do for yourself."

That said, I have stayed in jobs like this for far too long, and what I would do in your place is go on Twitter or FB and Indeed and look up what companies have good reviews for treating their employees well.

Case in point: my husband worked for 6-7 years at a supposedly great company, who said on paper that they treated their employees well. But then they went public, and all the nice benefits and monthly bonuses were replaced by supervisors cracking the whip. He felt really, really uncomfortable there, he was called out by his supervisor more than once, and it was getting bad for him.

I knew a guy from a company in another town, and I trusted him, and he worked for this big and growing company that has an excellent rep for treating employees well. I encouraged my husband to apply there, and he got a job right away. He loves it there, it is low stress, and everyone is nice to him.

He recently had an illness that required hospitalization for a few days, as well as 2 weeks off from work. They said no problem, we have short-term disability. He tried going back to work on week 3, got tired, and his supervisor said, "go home and rest another week, it's okay, take care of yourself." And he did, and he was fine this last week.

I think the short term solution is to play along and see where it takes you. The longterm solution is to suss out what companies in your area are good worker employees, and apply to them. I've never been able to sustain working in toxic work places for very long, 1-2 years, max, and the time spent doing that was never worth it, in the long run.

Dad was right.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:58 PM on June 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

It sounds like the people around you who happen to have toxic tendencies are picking up on something in your demeanour that says "victim!" and then latching on. It may be that the only way to counter this in the long term is to work on developing your own sense of confidence in your self. One thing that I've found really helpful in this direction (and am still in the process of going through) is understanding and owning my own introversion, which I had generally seen as something that was wrong with me. I read "Quiet" by Susan Cain a few months ago and it has really changed my perspective on introversion. So if you want a concrete suggestion, there's one.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:04 PM on June 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

who scowled at me the first day I set foot in the door

one person at whatever job decides to target me or dislike me for whatever reason,

ok but you're still actively remembering, and holding a grudge for, the expression he had on his face the first time you met him.

to begin to break the cycle -- generally, not to just fix one bad relationship, there's no certain way to do that unilaterally if the other person won't cooperate -- but generally, you have to apply to other people whatever standards of judgment and forgiveness you think should in fairness be applied to you. without expectation that it will make them them be more decent to you; it isn't to do with that.

I am not telling you you're wrong about the way people treat you. I can't, I don't know. but there's just so much dislike and resentment you're expressing, towards so many people. it may all be reactive on your end, and justified. but it's strong. you say they treat introverts like aliens here; can you treat them like aliens in return? I mean: like aliens whose motives you don't understand and don't need to worry about, instead of like 'toxic' poison people.

which, again, seems to be an extroverts vs introverts vibe going on here.

introversion may determine whether you'd rather silently think about these other people or talk to them. it has nothing at all to do with the particular subjects that are of interest to you or to them.

or being patronizingly "nice" to them.

if you think that these people's niceness is fake or patronizing, just let them be nice in their own inadequate, inept, incompetent way. if it doesn't mean they sincerely like you, then it still means they want you to think well of them. that's good.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:38 PM on June 23, 2019 [24 favorites]

*Is* the transfer opportunity a better fit for you? I suspect that some of your issues may very well be internal, but some of them very well may be that the work you're in is not a good fit with your skillset. I worked in an introvert-heavy position in an extrovert-heavy company (copywriter for a company dominated by its sales team) and while I was praised for my work, I was also constantly nudged to be more open, more friendly, more talkative, more spontaneous. I've switched to an introvert-heavy industry (therapy), and now I'm regularly praised for my reserve, my diplomacy, my listening skills, and my thoughtfulness. I still have to deal with toxic/mean people (co-workers I mean, not clients!), so I have had to develop skills to manage that aspect of work, but it's so much easier now that I'm doing work in an environment that doesn't judge me negatively just for being who I am.
posted by lazuli at 7:05 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe one of these resources would be helpful?

Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule

The Workplace Bullying Institute
posted by JaneEyre at 7:30 PM on June 23, 2019

I commend you for clarifying in your question that you are not seeking advice "to just leave this job and get another". Even if it was possible, I don't that will fix your reoccurring problems, and it looks like you can see that and are trying to make some changes, which is great!

I'm going to take a different path in responding here, and I am not trying to attack you, but point out that the common denominator in these situations is you. There are plenty of sick systems out there but from my experiences in many, many jobs from ranging from minimum wage to top companies, your account of things comes across as skewed and unreliable.

A lot of things that you write about as upsetting or in a hostile manner seem pretty standard to me (an extreme introvert, fwiw) in most workplaces:

My supervisor, who never speaks to me if he can help it There is pretty hostile word choice for this statement. Have you communicated to your supervisor that you need more of his time? Most supervisors are pretty busy and he may not be aware that you need more attention.

Scowled at me the first day I set foot in the door, This is one facial expression in one meeting.

Suggested that I apply for this new opening in another department... I am not as quick as others to get things done) I'm confused. You are aware that you perform poorly compared to your peers. Why would your manager want to keep you on his team when he can (presumably) find someone else who is more efficient?

being patronizingly "nice" to them OK, this one baffles me. In all likelihood, in reality this is not patronizing, it's called being professional. Everyone has coworkers they do not like and would not choose be friendly toward, but you act nice (or at least polite) and chat about the weather for 20 seconds and be done with it.

It is also a very clique-oriented environment, very big on the chit chat It's human nature for people talk about things and form relationships. I really don't see how you can avoid this in many modern work places. Perhaps a call center or data warehouse, but these types of relationships form there as well.

I know that you mentioned that you do not have the finances or inclination for therapy, but I think it could be very helpful for you to talk to a mental health professional or social worker. You need to get another opinion on what is going here and learn how you can make real change to improve your experiences in the work place. Many social works do payments on an income-based sliding scale. It sounds like you have not found the right one yet, but I would encourage you to try again. It sounds like your work places are making you very unhappy. Good luck!
posted by seesom at 7:46 PM on June 23, 2019 [10 favorites]

The great thing about CBT is that it's so formulaic that you can find free workbooks online or even therapy bot smartphone apps to walk you through it.

You recognize you are new to the industry so you aren't very efficient, and yet your supervisor suggesting a transfer is interpreted by you as being targeted. Such a scenario could have a variety of different interpretations. This is what CBT helps you learn.

1. Feelings are not facts.
2. The way I perceive this is just that, my perception.
3. I may be making assumptions that could be challenged to also modify my emotions.

So I would say your interpretation of these scenarios is probably adding more negativity and stress than necessary and probably making it harder for you to connect the way you want so then perhaps you create the thing you don't want.

Here are some places to get access for cheap or free to the skill-building that can help you think differently.
posted by crunchy potato at 8:22 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

The standard advice in these situations is to try and view the toxic co-worker as someone who is ill. They are to be pitied, and your challenge is to treat them with compassion and empathy.
posted by xammerboy at 12:20 AM on June 24, 2019

who scowled at me the first day I set foot in the door
How could you know if someone you barely know is scowling at anyone?

unsubtly suggested that I apply for this new opening in another department, that I should go for it before it was gone, that it was a "better fit" for my skills to date ... So I was very upset by this clear indication by the manager that not only was I not satisfactory in terms of job performance, he can't wait to get rid of me and the sooner the better.

This is an incredibly negative framing. A supervisor suggesting that another job might be a good fit for you could also be read as someone who recognizes that you have skills that your current position doesn't take advantage of. This could be read as a supervisor who is looking out for you, who has your best interest in mind.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:06 PM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

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