What leads us to these toxic work environments in the first place? And why do we choose to stay trapped in them? Are we masochists or is there something more subtle at work?
Nowadays it seems everyone’s had at least one bad boss—that lone supervisor who generally stands in the way of professional happiness and fulfillment.
I still remember my initial brush with one and the agonizing saga that ensued.
I was sitting at my desk one October morning in 2005 looking for story leads online and listening to the staticky chatter on the police scanner—two tasks common to all newspaper crime reporters, which is what I was at the time.
That’s when my former boss Holly—who was chief of the regional bureau where I worked—walked over, pointed to her office and lowly growled “Aimee, I need to see you for a moment.” The left corner of her lip curled. Her blue eyes were icy. Her pale, typically expressionless, face looked sinister.
My colleague in the neighboring cubicle—a fellow reporter who had spent the past two months showing me the ropes of the new bureau I had joined and venting about everything that was wrong with it—lowered her gaze, raised an eyebrow, and snickered as she shook her head in amusement. It was a cross between I’m glad I’m not you and I’m glad you’re going to get what you deserve.
Fire, brimstone, and an apocalyptic wrath fell upon me in that office minutes later—a tirade laced with professional belittlement and traces of conversations I’d had with that same snickering reporter who questioned Holly’s reign and the bureau pecking order every chance she could.
The snickering reporter with seniority wasn’t the one getting the flack though. I was. And all the accusations Holly spewed pinned the blame on me and made me seem like a renegade, rabble rouser—the kind of renegade, rabble rouser Holly wanted to fire on the spot.
When I walked out of Holly’s office, I went on my lunch break. But I didn’t eat anything. Instead, I drove to a nearby parking lot where I began to sob and cry wondering what I, at age 26, was going to do.
I thought back to all of the editors I had worked with at other newspapers who had considered me their resourceful, right-hand and had praised me for my reliability. I thought of the college journalism professors who told me I had the chops to make it to the New York Times someday—a thought I seriously doubted, but strove to achieve anyway. Having been made to feel as if I would never amount to anything at a job I thought I was passionate about really cut deep.
My story isn’t unique. And it certainly isn’t limited to newsprint. It’s a growing problem cropping up all over the place as more and more workers struggle to cope with toxic work environments that are riddled with Machiavellian co-workers and bad bosses.
I think it’s fair to say that a growing majority of people nowadays are miserable in the workplace. Google the phrase “bad boss” or “toxic work environment” and a plethora of sites pop up with advice columns or articles about this growing epidemic—evidence, perhaps, of a collective cry for help.
So what leads us to these toxic work environments in the first place? And why do we choose to stay trapped in them? Are we masochists or is there something more subtle at work?
From a systems perspective, I think there’s something more subtle toying with our thinking and it stems from our childhood. From a very early age, we’re told we can become anyone we want. That we can, in essence, closely control all elements of our lives—from the people we know, to the relationships we build, to the careers we choose, to the lives we lead.
But as we age we start to follow the dictates of others—mainly well-meaning influences who encourage us to follow certain paths. These paths make no sense to us years later when we’re hit with existential questions, like who am I, why am I here and where am I going.
Some folks are lucky. They fearlessly address these questions and, many times, veer off course to find the answers that they believe will lead them to happiness; however wacky it may seem to others.
A majority of us are too scared to ask ourselves what’s wrong. We’re too scared to disrupt our internal status quo. So we conform and, over time, trap ourselves in the toxicity that builds up around us from the discomfort we feel inside. That’s when folks like Holly and the snickering co-worker come along and rattle us to the core. They’re not trying to keep us down. They’re indirectly trying to help us fix what’s wrong so we can break free from our own faulty thinking.
I didn’t understand that at age 26. I was convinced I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and was willing to put up with toxicity for the sake of my career.
Beyond an intervention from Holly’s boss at my request, my employer did little else to remedy the problem. In order for this intervention to take place, I had to agree not to file a complaint with the human resources department.
Holly wasn’t commended for her spat with me or other reporters in that newsroom; she received a slap on the wrist that did little to remedy our problem because her behavior didn’t change much.
I can’t help but wonder if this practice—a sweep-it-under-the-rug—approach has become a custom in corporate America. Is our ability to properly understand and relate to one another as human beings less important than maintaining the status quo in order to boost productivity? It is a broader, systemic problem—a problem of cultural perception, perhaps—that is having detrimental effects on our personal and professional lives. I know what it did to me and it wasn’t pretty.
As the weeks and months passed, the verbal lashings I got from Holly became routine despite the outside intervention by Holly’s boss. My abilities were questioned and berated so much that I became extremely self-conscious about everything I did. I became depressed and sunk so low that being moved to another bureau did little to improve my morale—a symptom commonly experienced by many people in toxic work environments.
So I left the newspaper nine months later, returned to school, earned an MBA, and am now two semesters into my doctoral studies at Saybrook. When I left the newspaper (and journalism altogether), I had no clue where I was going or what I was going to do. It was scary. Today, not so much.
The future’s always uncertain. The path is always unclear. And that’s OK. New opportunities that are better suited for me pop up every day and define me as I go. Allowing life to happen at its pace rather than striving for hollow dreams built around the assumption of others has worked wonders.
I remember my last words to Holly on my final night at the bureau. She didn’t look me in the eye as I thanked her for working with me, then I delivered my closing line: “It was a learning experience.” In all honesty, that’s all it really was.
— Aimee C. Juarez is a doctoral student in organizational systems, Saybrook University