Many of my coaching clients and former students face challenges in their work environment--conflicts with colleagues, intense pressure to succeed, various forms of dysfunction in the culture. But many of these people are leaders who have some ability to change that culture (and, in some cases, who bear responsibility for creating it). What if you're not in a position to change the culture? And what if it's not just a dysfunctional environment but a toxic one?
I've talked recently with several people in this situation--they're new to the organization, senior enough to interact with top leadership (for better and for worse), but junior enough that their ability to drive change is limited. Not all of their organizations are truly toxic, but they're all less-than-healthy environments. Some common themes from these conversations, work with past clients, and my own experience with dysfunctional cultures suggest a set of survival strategies:
1) Serenity Now!
Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer is a cliché because it's true, and the quickest way to burn out in a dysfunctional environment is to fail to recognize what can't be changed. A less quick, but equally certain, path to burnout is to passively accept all dysfunction and make no effort to bring about change. It's essential to chart a path between these unhealthy alternatives, and to do this we have to take some manageable risks to determine what we can and can't change: Start small and scale up.
In a truly toxic environment--one that's dysfunctional by design--meaningful change is nearly impossible because the dysfunction is working to someone's benefit. But even when we can't change a single thing in our environment, we can still control how we respond. I don't mean to compare a toxic workplace to a concentration camp, but I'm reminded that Viktor Frankl, who was in Auschwitz while Niebuhr was composing his prayer, wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves." [p 115]
One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional environment is its ability to trigger a threat response, and when we can't change the organization (or leave it), we need to develop the ability to remain calm in the face of these triggers, to regulate our negative emotions effectively when we're triggered, and to find healthy and efficient ways to de-escalate those emotions. (And coaching can help.)
2) Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
Dysfunctional organizations have a boundless appetite for employees' time and do nothing to encourage people to stop working. (Truly toxic cultures actively induce feelings of guilt at the mere suggestion that a healthy life might include activities other than work.)
The dilemma is that most professionals actively collude in these dynamics. I'm certainly a workaholic, albeit a happy one, and almost all of my clients are as well. We love our work--even when we struggle with our jobs--and the idea of "work/life balance" strikes us as undesirable even if it were attainable.
A solution lies in the power of boundaries--a concept I find much more useful and actionable than "balance." Because we're so driven to work--and because even the best organizations will exploit this drive--it's up to us to prevent work from taking over our lives, and good boundaries are the only way to make this possible. As my former colleague Michael Gilbert wrote in 2008,
Boundaries keep things in their place. Balance suggests the same amount of two things on either side of a scale. Boundaries keep one of those things from oozing past the edge of its platter and taking over the other side... Just as functional membranes (letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out) facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives. Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.
Good boundaries are even more important when we're working in a dysfunctional or toxic environment. We need physical boundaries that allow us to create distance between us and our work (which includes not only the office itself but also all our professional tools and artifacts--laptops, tablets, phones, papers, everything.)
We need temporal boundaries that allow us to spend time undisturbed by work obligations. Note that I'm talking not about balance but about boundaries; the amount of undisturbed time we can create for ourselves will vary--and may be quite small--but what matters is that we create and maintain a functional boundary around that time.
And we need psychic boundaries that allow us to stop thinking about work so that we can actually make effective use of the boundaries noted about. (I'm not suggesting this is easy--quite the contrary. As I've noted before, not thinking about something is difficult, particularly when we're stressed or distracted.)
3) Find Validation Elsewhere
A hallmark of a dysfunctional organization is a failure to fully recognize and validate peoples' contributions. (A truly toxic culture goes a step further and actively invalidates its members.) The challenge this poses for people like my clients and students (and for me) is that we're accustomed to performing well and being recognized for it, and when we find ourselves in an environment where this equation no longer holds, we can be slow to adapt. We assume that if we just work a little harder, do just a little better, we'll eventually be recognized for our efforts.
But this mindset is a trap--the dysfunctional organization isn't going to change, and the longer it takes us to accept this, the more we strive in vain for validation that won't be forthcoming. This dynamic can be particularly acute in elite institutions such as highly competitive schools or desirable companies. Membership in these institutions boosts our status, but our awareness that membership can be revoked creates a sense of status anxiety that makes us strive even harder.
The key is ensuring that we're being validated elsewhere in our lives. We need to be fully seen and acknowledged by people whose opinions matter to us and who are in a position to recognize our contributions. This involves not only cultivating those relationships, of course, but also being direct about asking for positive feedback--a step that many of us find daunting. And ultimately it means validating ourselves, recognizing that even when external validation is forthcoming it's inevitably insufficient as a sustainable source of happiness and fulfillment.
4) Adopt a Growth Mindset...
...and remember the fundamental attribution error. A dysfunctional organization views setbacks as the result of employees' inadequacies while failing to consider situational factors, resulting in a lack of safety and a paralyzing aversion to risk. (A truly toxic organization actively seeks to shift blame for setbacks from high-status leaders to lower-status employees, no matter who's truly at fault.)
Research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that a "growth mindset" is a critical source of strength and resilience:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They're wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
By adopting a growth mindset, we're better able to maintain a sense of equanimity in the face of mistakes and setbacks. This isn't to suggest that we ignore our failings; on the contrary, a growth mindset allows us to devote more attention to our mistakes and learn from them more thoroughly wihout becoming obsessed or paralyzed by them.
The challenge in a dysfunctional culture is that the organization won't accept blame for any setbacks, even--and especially--when the culture itself is a contributing factor. So it's essential not to collude in this process and to remember the fundamental attribution error, a widespread cognitive bias that I first learned in business school from the outstanding Roberto Fernandez as:
Ascribing causality to personal characteristics when causality actually lies with the situation.
While it's important to take responsibility for our own contributions to an organizational setback, it's equally important to recognize the situational factors at play. By integrating this perspective with a growth mindset, we can act accountably and with integrity without undermining ourselves.
5) Speak Up
Finally, when we're struggling in a dysfunctional culture, we need to talk about it with someone; we need to speak up. I'm fully aware that speaking up often involves some risk, but so does staying silent. And the benefits of speaking up are manifold. When we speak up to a colleague, we create a safe space for ourselves within the organization, even if it's just a temporary one, and we may identify a long-term ally.
And by speaking up to anyone at all, even someone outside the organization, we accomplish two key steps: First, we affirm our right to tell our story, even if it upsets the conventional narrative. Particularly when we're enmeshed in a dysfunctional culture in an elite institution, there can be a large gap between the way our life appears to others and the way it feels to us, and it's important not to let the image disconfirm our actual experience.
Second, by speaking up we remind ourselves that we have agency and choice, even if it may not feel like it at times, and taking the small step of telling our story encourages us to take larger, bolder steps from there. We might feel emboldened to make some changes within our sphere of influence. We might seek to expand our influence by talking more directly and candidly with those around us. We might even decide to exercise our choice to leave.
If you're working in a dysfunctional environment and you found this post helpful, you might want to explore my posts on self-coaching. They're not intended to replace the experience of working with a personal coach, but my hope is that they help people who are working with a coach get even more out of the experience and provide people who lack the opportunity to work with a coach with a framework for a self-directed experience. (Note that they're also very much a work-in-progress that I'll continue to update.)
Photo by John Morgan. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.