02 230628 Why Do People Stay In Toxic Work Environments?
11:19PM Sep 20, 2023
Megan Goering Mellin
Today we are going to talk about a common question that many of us ask ourselves, which is why do people stay in toxic work environments anyway? So, yeah, I think again, it's no Go ahead. Question for the world. But I do I will admit like it is also the kind of question that we frequently ask ourselves is like, if this is actually not right for me, then why am I staying here? Maybe it's actually fine. So I think it's very important that we address the range of situations we've seen about why very valid reasons why people stay.
I think it also you see this in relationships, too, like, why did she, why didn't she leave him, if he's abusing her, any kind of abuse situations, it can seem really obvious to people on the outside, that it's easy to leave. But for people who are experiencing it, that is almost never the case, I think the statistics say that it takes about 16 times to leave any romantic partnership. And I think, like 16 times of leaving and going back breaking up and going back. And I think it's sort of a similar experience with jobs for a lot of people that you can try to leave, but then you go back, you can commit to yourself, you're going to this is the last time and then you go back. So I think we can talk about sort of the common dynamics that that we see in those situations.
I think that's great. And I think it's good to just remind ourselves that we need that the more we can embrace the idea of paradoxical thinking, which is that two challenging conflicting things, things can both be true at once. This, there could be both a quote unquote, good job for you, that also happens to be a toxic workplace environment, I think sometimes we fall into, especially under stress, that cognitive distortion of black white thinking, or like, either it's good, or it's bad. And when we, especially when we get into conversation with this things together, and we come back to like a more CO regulated place where you know, we have multiple friends around us who can help us hold the truth, we remember that both can be true at one time. So I think it would be great Meredith to have you share about some of the common types that you see some of the common themes, noting that a lot of these things can be happening all at one time. It might be like, you know, a little of this, and a lot of that, or a lot of this and a little of that happen in different gradations. But you've got some kind of interesting themes of the the tropes or archetypes of toxic workplaces that you see.
Yeah. And so I think the most obvious reasons that people say that they stay or because of money or because they love their work. And I think that those are not untrue. But I think a lot of times the dynamics are a lot more nuanced than just oh, I'm staying for money. And for outside observers, for friends who are watching a friend go through a toxic environment, or like for loved ones, watching someone, you think, well, you're brilliant, just go get a better job, of course, you'll get another job, of course, you'll make more money. And so we can logically also know that that's true that there are other jobs available. And I think that that is easier in a space where, for example, you're working at Burger King, and you can go work at McDonald's instead. Like if you have a job that sort of interchangeable if you're working at Lowe's, and you can go work at Home Depot around the corner like that is kind of an easier space. But I think that the actual dynamics that we see in the workplace are a little more like I say, nuanced than that. So I'm just gonna go over briefly the sort of common types of toxic work environments I see. And then we can go dive into them a little bit more in detail. So the most common types I see I categorize as the big happy family, the gaslighting passion project, one that I call brainwash factory, and the nine to five, and so a lot of times they're just common, like they're interchanged, like you say, like you can have both. These are sort of the common dynamics that I see. So in the big happy family, I think that that is probably one of the most common toxic workplace dynamics that really keep people engaged, because it's so rewarding. And I would say, my most healthy fun job and my worst most toxic job are commonly described as families. Have you ever had this experience or seen this? Yes,
yes. And also one of my favorite thinkers who does the kind of work I think we both love Is Deseret Attaway of the AdAway group, but does a lot of work on whiteness at work. And she is like, have we noticed that in workplaces we aspire to this thing of being a family. But in families, there are adults and children. It is not all adults. Like why aren't we more suspicious of that? Like, isn't that sketchy family, families of origin are the site of so much dysfunction, discontent dysregulation, invisible nation on unseeing? And yet we're not like, Hey, can we check this analogy? Like this actually presupposes that there are people who get to make the rules. And then there are other people who get punished about them without a say, like, why are we aspiring to this? So I a resume completely from where I sit now. But it does, it is one of those slippery things when you're in an environment and it's like, maybe you go to a new office, and there's like a really good sense of team bonding that you see at first, and they're like, Yeah, we work together, and we play together, you know, we're really tight knit, like, everyone here really belongs and you're like, cool, I definitely want to be a part of that, then slowly, like the the more nefarious side, or just like shadows, or, you know, the sketchy toll of what is allowed inside of this family that is actually non negotiable starts to appear?
Yeah, I think it is. Like, I think it can feel I think the wonderful side of the family dynamic at work is that we really are in our jobs for the majority of our day, if if you feel alienated from the people around you, then you're gonna experience a lot of loneliness it throughout your day. But I don't think that the alternative is to have these dynamics where it is like, I am so committed to the people in my workplace because of our interpersonal relationship, that I'm going to ignore dysfunction. That happens that's not productive in the workplace. And so I think on the dark side of the happy family, you see a similar dynamic to what you see in families of don't talk about what dad did last night. Just move on, right to the
Yeah. And exactly what you said, you have certain people who set the narrative of what reality is, and if other people's reality doesn't conform to that, then they're wrong, and they're kicked out of the family. And a lot of times you also see a dynamic that's similar in to families of scapegoating of the person who just doesn't fit in the black sheep of the family, who is alienated to in order to contrast the bonds that the other people have, which can also be racism, sexism, ableism, ageism. ageism. Yeah, I
mean, Jerry, from Parks and Rec, like, that's like one of the oldest gags, right? It's like, Oh, not again, Jerry. It's like the whole thing. It's Jerry. Right. Right. That sounds right. It's like, and it's in that situation, we get to smile about it, because Jerry is the senior White man. And so it's like a little bit of like a spoof on it. But like, the the scapegoat goat as in a bad family habits also gets kept around so that everybody has this gag. And that is different than constructive kinship, and a high functioning team environment. That is the dark side of family systems.
Toby in the office is another example of where it's like we're a team, we're a family. And that means you do what I say. I think that there can also be in crowd out crowd in the family, like there's the mom and dad and they know everything, but the kids don't, aren't involved. So there can be secrecy, there can be a sense of like spiritual bypass, which is typically meant to be like, just focus on the positive and move on from any problems. If you just focus on the positive things will magically resolve. And then yeah, protecting the people in power, but blaming people who are not in power. And that's not to say, if anyone feels a sense of family, camaraderie of sisterhood, or brotherhood, or whatever in the workplace, that that's wrong. It just is a dynamic, where it can be tricky to be accomplishing your tasks and excelling as yourself and growing into the full potential of who you are. While you're trying to manage an interpersonal relationship that's very entangled, I guess, emotionally.
And that's why you can be crazy making because it's not like this isn't why, but I guess what we're talking about is why people stay, but it's like we stay because it's a family. But because that image is so strong, it can almost like overpower all these other like, pinches, right? It's starts as a pinch of paper cut. But then often, maybe we didn't learn what those dynamics were in our family. So we don't actually have words for it. Like, I know, in my experience, I had a colleague who reminded me very closely with my brother. And I always felt this brotherly feeling toward him, which for me, I had associated with so much like with kinship, and also with comfort, and like being able to be comfortable. And after a very long time, I started to realize like, it wasn't pure, brotherly feelings, it also just actually has a lot of traits that my brother has. And like our relationship, there's a lot of those traits, some of which are functional and work environments, some of which are very dysfunctional, and a working environment. So because so many of us are taught that families are where we have loyalty no matter what, and you don't leave your family ever. Oh, that would be tears, you know, leave you all alone in the world, which is another scarcity mindset thing, right? It's like we can unconsciously end up so loyal to the image of a workplace family, that we ended up accidentally gaslighting ourselves or having no language to fill out the cons side of the pro cons chart and say, where we're compromising.
Yeah, compromises. Yeah, and when it's time to leave, because sometimes you anyone's allowed to leave any work environment. Because of the Tuesday you don't have to have it. A good reason you don't have to have it be just
pause or something, right, just get to the second
one. And this is another very common one, I think, is the gaslighting passion project. And I see this the most commonly in nonprofits in the nonprofit space and all this what
you mean by gaslighting passion project I love.
This is like, the mission is so much more important than anything you're experiencing today that you should not talk about your problems, because you might hurt these very vulnerable people that we're trying to save, you might hurt this very crucial mission that deserves all of our sacrifice. So your reality, your problems are less important than the mission that we're doing. Because the mission is so crucial. And so the the issue with that isn't that the mission is bad, it can be true that the mission is more important than our individual problems. But there's not a it's not a binary system, it's not your problem or the mission. Sometimes there are people in our workplaces that are a canary in the coal mine that are sensitive to issues that are going to infect a mission. And if we don't listen to those people and say, Your problem is welcome here, thank you for alerting us to this, this is going to impact everybody, then we're not serving the mission. But so that's why I say it's the gaslighting passion project because we're saying, Don't focus on reality, just focus on the passion, that can be very difficult to leave and very difficult to confront.
Because there's so much identity that gets wrapped up in it. And such a good person bad person, or like team work, you know, Team Player versus selfish, needy person, right thing, which matches all of the regressive ways of thinking that we know about. I feel like this is also where we see people talk rightly about the nonprofit industrial complex, where it's like, yeah, we're churning out healing for some people. And we are literally churning out burnout and disrepair elsewhere and saving the world. By leaving a trail of disempowered people behind whose lives have been the cost of a transformation is actually not usually what systems change is going to look like when we're trying to re humanize our systems,
it's not the most impactful way you can do it. The other thing that you see in these dynamics, where there is the passion there is the mission is that self sacrifice becomes the value. And so a lot of times people at the top value their self sacrifice over the actual mission. And so they will say like, and a lot of times, like and obviously we're privileged white lady. So I say this in the know, like a lot of times it is white ladies who have a certain amount of privilege, but also who have been taught that our self sacrifice and our suffering is going to bring somebody's good. And so then we say, well, I'm suffering so much you can't tell me about your problem, because you're not acknowledging my suffering. And we can all just suffer together towards accomplishing our mission, which doesn't work.
So that aids the mission instead of actually makes it more brittle and fragile, and is asking people to subscribe to loyalty for some external thing while disbelieving and discounting themselves. It does not set us up to do great work with actual people because it involves not listening to our own bodies, which is not a good habit,
right? So me, I see that this situation just breaks my heart because I see it with these organization like I have this organization come to me once because one of the employees, a few of the employees were having a discrimination experience around coming out based on their gender identity, and sharing their gender identity with their transgender identities with the organization, and the organization supported youth with related to gender identity. So they had a increased level of knowledge. But that was not played out among the staff. And so the staff members came to me and said, Hey, can we do a mediation? Can we do some education, but the leadership was so fragile around this process, that it ended up with people leaving, and they refused to hire me because it was too much of a threat to do the mediation process, they hired somebody else instead, who was not successful. And then you see all these people leaving because they are, they essentially had to choose between themselves and the mission. And that is never how it should be. And always a tragedy when that happens.
And it relies on shame. I think that's the bottom line is like, we stay in the gaslighting passion project, because we want to, we want to show our loyalty, and we want to be connected to the cause and we want to make a real impact and that is and we are willing, we want to be people who are willing to not just be fairweather, right skitters, however, some of the dark side of it is that the shame and the disconnect and the unacceptability of having needs and having your own individuality of it ends up becoming a major liability. And yeah, and
I mean, I think in all of these, the other really important point is that somebody who's experiencing harm, shouldn't be the person who has to leave like that, that's never ideal in any of these situations. And that's another legitimate reason not to leave. But if we're staying for reasons that compromise our own integrity, or our own Being Human hood, yeah, then that's not healthy. So the next one, I call is the brainwash factory. And this I see a lot of times in the, in the public sector, like government jobs, or like big corporations, and that's the space where it says, you do this, because that's how we've always done it, don't make waves Don't be the problem, just get in line, this is the system don't have your own thoughts. And then that space, I think that space is like a little easier to leave, if you don't have your own scarcity. But it's, it happens in a lot of places where people have the job, because they care about the insurance, they care about the stable income, they have a family to support, there are a lot of reasons that they want the stability of the job, but then the toxicity of the job is just come form, you just need to conform your ideas, your inspiration to our system, and not ever tried to change it.
Meaning that there is a lot of power that that kind of an environment gets by telling you how normal it is, you actually have to make these compromises. We were on a camping trip this last weekend with a couple of friends, one of whom works for an Elon Musk run company, and the other works for an aeroplane manufacturer. And the first was like, Yeah, you know, it's been a lot of weekends. It's like, you know, 90 and 100 hour weeks and the other ones like well, you know, we never used to get paid for overtime, but they need so much overtime now that they offered pay for it. But it's kind of normalizing us working on weekends. And it's like, everybody's sort of like, you know, normalized cog bureaucracy habits, sort of tend to like have everybody else starting to think, Wow, maybe I should be grateful for this, like tiny bit of peace that I have. And it can end up being a race to the bottom. Another example is I have a couple of friends who have spent part of their careers in China, and who grew up in China. And there is a really common working environment trend right now called 996, which is working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, and like corporate tech sector, and that is a lot. And it is normalized. And the very beginning of my career was in consulting and we had this very interesting managing director who would sort of storm around the office. This was in 2008, the financial collapse, and we finally got enough projects that you could build hours but it was like now that there were hours to build, you need to build as many hours as humanly possible because that's just the business model. And this guy Lumi talk got given over a coffee mug undoubtedly also half filled with vodka that was like the 40 hour work week as a socialist myth. That was never the reality. We want you work now you hit the code. And we just kind of sat there looking at each other, like, Is this real life? Is this actually happening? But those environments do get their staying power with people off of the perpetuation of the myth that this is all there is.
And then it's normal,
that it's normal. And it reinforces what you're speaking to about scarcity, which is there's like, there is like, the meritocracy of scarcity. We're like we're doing brilliant person. Of course, there are a million fish in the sea. But it can overlook that brilliant, incredible people. It is Vic, please. All brilliant, incredible people listen to me and try to believe me on this one, test aware and experienced, but like you can experience functional or experiential scarcity, even if you are magnificent, and everyone's like, well, you should have a ton of options like, shouldn't you feel more free to leave? And you're like,
I don't feel free to don't feel that though. Yeah, I
feel and that is real. I think that is one of the things that is common underneath these that keeps us there. And once we name it, we can begin to do something different. But those are very, very normal reasons, people.
And I think, like I even started TIG talk about this today, but law firms are the cloud, the other classic space of brainwash factory, like, they just, we've always done it this way. So we're always going to do it this way. And you're not going to succeed. If you try a new way, like you must stay. And you've already invested so much money in to your law degree, you better stay you better get in line and serve your term.
And if you do, you can get ahead Meredith, have you heard that that's how the Managing Directors got ahead. So the quicker you learn to beat this model, the more we can promote you. And then you can earn a better work life balance. But also there's a bell curve and also promotions work exactly how promotions work, and there are a lot of things out of your control. And it isn't a healthy business model for people in the medium run and exceptionalism doesn't actually save people from long term harm. You have one more type, I think,
yeah, so the last one is the nine to five. And that kind of leads into the experiences that that we'll talk about, where I see people really considering whether to leave or to stay like the really two experiences I see people have in, in having toxic work environments. So the nine to five is basically the idea of work is just work. Good enough job. It's good enough, right? It's just it stays in its box, I go home at night, I get it's just a paycheck. And I think that one can, some people want to choose to have that thinking. And I think that that's fair. And none of this is to criticize anybody for staying in work environments, or criticize anybody for leaving work environments. I think that's everybody's choice. The nine to five to me, says, I know I could do more, I know I could bring more of myself in the world. But I'm, I'm not going to for one reason or another. And we say Oh, it's just a nine to five, it's just a paycheck, to justify, I'm seeing things that I don't love in this space. I'm outside of my authenticity or my integrity, but I'm willing to make that compromise for the trade off. So in that, like with that one in mind, I want to talk about these two experiences that I see people have when they're encountering some when they're coming to me, basically. And they're saying, I'm in a toxic work environment, what should I do? And I basically have categorized it into a type one experience and a type two experience, because nobody knows where they fall.
That's part of the problem, right? It's like, we're like, Well, how about is it is a tolerable shade? Tough it out. Last thing when it really isn't real? Should I will it go away? Yeah, those are the spaces we're in. And I want to add on the nine to five that there is just having a nine to five, and it's kind of boring, but you get paid really well and the benefits are fine, and it's tolerable. But that can also become another issue for people with spouses with certain kinds of expectations or different vulnerabilities. People with family, the nine to five can be like pretty, like surprisingly hard to leave. immigration status is a really big one we see in the tech sector all the time, because it's like if it's good enough to rock the boat. But then if you're not rocking the boat and stuff starts to get a little sketchy, you don't have a framework for speaking up. And then the other one I see a lot of is people with caregiver responsibilities that we don't tend to normalize or talk about either caring for aging parents, or sending money back home to support a sibling. There are a lot of people in my career who have had really important financial responsibilities for siblings with disabilities, and it just becomes sketchier to try and weigh how to How do I matter against that? So Right? Your typology kind of helps people go, alright, where should I, I can't say I'm not, I'm the thoughts of should I go are not going away, right? This is for people who are like, God, I wish I could just frame this decision for myself in a way where I didn't feel nuts for not being happy about this. And so you kind of have this two types of people who end up in these situations looking at whether to leave their job or not.
Right. And I think with all of these, some of these are legitimate reasons to decide to stay if we're going to do that from an empowered place. So like, connections at work, that's the family thing, connections, people we love, community we love, that could be a legitimate reason to stay. Passion, and the mission could be a legitimate reason to stay. Like just being able to be in a system, pay off your debt, like, go through learn a system that you haven't learned before. That can
be industry or business knowledge, right,
a paycheck could be a legitimate reason to stay. And yet, but then what are the compromises on the other side, so when I'm looking at the situations, the type one experience, I think of as me, this is a person who's in over their head and a new job. They're, they're excited about the work, they love the work, they're passionate about it, they are like barely learning it, because they're just like, keeping head above water, trying to get what it is. And then they encounter an abuser, they encounter discrimination, they encounter something that they know, they do not want to tolerate in the workplace, but it feels like they're going to need to leave the work that they love, if they are going to stop the harassment, discrimination, the toxic, abusive experience. The second type of person I see, as someone who has topped out or maxed out in their role, they've sort of mastered the work part of their job. And they don't have they don't feel like they have permission to leave, unless things are bad enough. And so then that person starts to see bad things in the workplace. And they might also encounter an abuser. And these can be interchangeable situations. But the the essential difference is are you in over your head and work that you love? Or are you like you just passionate in the work? And then you've encountered a user? Or have you maxed out in your role and you're a little bit bored? It's a little too easy in your work? And then you're kind of like, is it bad enough to leave yet? Is it bad enough to leave yet? For the first person? I think that the essential transformation that they can make questions that they can ask themselves are how can I show up bigger as myself in the workplace? And how can I embrace that people don't have to like me, in order for me to be successful in my job, that doesn't mean that we show up as jerks or we are rude to people or that we're abusive. But we don't have to handle and protect the feelings of an abuser or the discomfort of our supervisors in order to show up and be good in our work. That's the type one person transformation. I think, for the type two person what I see is they're experiencing an invitation to grow into a new version of themselves. And that might mean leaving a job. But the thing that they need to think about and I think the transformation available for them, is that if they continue to ask, is it bad enough to leave, their brain is going to look for what is bad in the workplace look, and confirmation bias is just going to find bad and that bad and worse things and you're going to continue to have a worst experience. For them. I think the universe is inviting them to have permission that you can leave for any reason. But the the available option is to leave out of inspiration, if you're going to leave, leave because you're so inspired and you found an amazing new thing to jump into. Not because things are bad enough to leave because they do not have to be bad in order to leave.
Yeah, one trick that you've come up with that I really love for that type two person is to ask about your current job. Is this inspiring enough? I think that can lead to two things. I think it can lead you to be like, Well, no, it's not. And now I'm gonna make a new plan and go find myself other options and start pursuing them so that that functional and experiential scarcity kind of shifts because then actually you're spending time cultivating new options. Or if you're like, is this inspiring enough, your brain might start to send you new insights about what could make it more inspiring, and you can run those as small experiments but letting yourself be somebody who asks your work environment to bring you inspiration, I think be a really healthy thing for folks who do feel like they have capped out or maxed out. Above all, Meredith, what is kind of like the bottom line that you would like to have people take away in terms of when we find ourselves in this question of like, why am I staying? If it's so bad? Like, what do you want them to? What do you want people to leave with?
I mean, I think that the, the thing that I see a lot is people come to me and they say, I think I'm going to quit, so I don't get fired, because I'm really afraid I'm gonna get fired, or is it bad enough for me to quit yet? And those two orientations, I think, that we've been taught to have, and that enable abusers, I think we've been taught to have those orientations by abusers, and that it enables abuse in the workplace, a lot of fear, a lot of fear and a lot of burden on ourselves. So I'm going to take myself out of this ahead of time, so that you don't have to make the extra effort of firing me for an illegal reason. And I think that there's the invitation there to come back to ourselves, rather than focusing on controlling or managing the or even protecting abusers in our violent environment, come back to ourselves and say, What do I need? What is going to be inspiring? For me in this space, how do I give myself permission, sometimes permission looks like leaving and sometimes it looks like staying and being more of ourselves being more inspired, being more authentic and, and maybe even being more scary to people in our workspace, because we're being honest. And because we're being in integrity, I think that we're mostly taught that in order to be successful at work. Our bosses have to like us, people around us have to like us. And I, I don't think it's bad for people to like us. And I think we should be respectful, be kind. But I think it doesn't hurt if somebody is a little afraid of us because they know that we're going to show up fully as ourselves. And if that person is going to be afraid of that, it may mean that they are a predator and abuser.
We create respect for ourselves. And in doing so we are creating respect in our environments around us as well. Thank you so much. I'm so glad that we got to have this awesome conversation today. And I just can't wait for what's going to be possible as we continue to unfold this. Around here we have these conversations with support, so that nobody has to face them alone. So if you are listening to this episode, if you have a story to share, or you have an experience or more questions on this topic, you can actually write in and let us know your experience. And even though we wish nobody faced these issues, and it is never anybody's fault, we really care to show up to this topic with a sense of mutuality and with a culture of creating that kind of respect. So it wasn't yours. You didn't cause it, but it is important to us that we are not facing these situations alone. So how can people write in if they have a story to share or a question people
can go to Aris resolution er ay s resolution.com/story.
Awesome. Thank you so much for being here today. Meredith, thank you so much for joining us, everyone. And we'll see you next time on Empower communication