Surviving an uncivilized workplace

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Published on 9 March 2023 by Andrew Owen (4 minutes)

I’ve been fortunate in life to work for some companies that were genuinely great places to work. But I have also had the opposite experience. If you have financial obligations, it’s often the case that you have to tough out a bad situation until you’re able to find another job. If you don’t find ways to do that, you’re going to burn out. It was in just such circumstances that I first discovered Robert Sutton’s excellent book “The No Asshole Rule”.

Sutton’s thesis is that everybody is a jerk some of the time, but there are also career jerks. And it’s contagious. If you spend enough time around career jerks, you risk becoming one of them. He makes a strong case that successful business should implement the rule if they want to prosper and expands on this in his followup book “Good Boss, Bad Boss”.

There are outliers like Steve Jobs, whose success some may attribute to their jerk behavior. Sutton initially acknowledged that there might be some virtue in this kind of boss. But he changed his mind. In “The Asshole Survival Guide”, Sutton notes that Jobs was kicked out of Apple and suffered setbacks at NeXT and Pixar. He shared a conversation with Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull who worked with Jobs for 25 years:

In the course of working through and understanding these failures, and then succeeding at Pixar, Jobs changed; he became more empathetic, a better listener, a better leader, a better partner.

Catmull sees the revival of Apple’s fortunes on Jobs return as a direct consequence of this change in character. My takeaway from this is that there is hope; people can change. But it’s unlikely that your boss is going to change their behavior while you’re in your current role.

I’ve worked in companies that are vastly different in scale and reach, from small regional startups to global mega corporations, and at every level I’ve experienced great places to work. But I’ve noticed a trend. Companies that were fun to work at when they were startups, risk becoming awful places to work when they transition to medium-sized companies or if they are acquired by companies with radically different cultures.

At the time of writing, the jobs market in tech is volatile. As such, if you still have a job, it may be time to hunker down, even if you’re not in an ideal situation. So what can you do to protect yourself from a hostile work environment until you’re able to move on? It turns out that there are a lot of small changes you can make that will make your life more bearable, although some of them may seem counterintuitive. I’ve shamelessly lifted these headings from Sutton and summarized his advice. If you find it useful, buy one of his books.

Change how you see things

Remember that the situation is temporary and not your fault. When unfair criticism is directed at you, don’t take it personally: it’s not a reflection on you. you’re under no obligation to place any value on the opinions of people who don’t treat you with respect.

Hope for the best but expect the worst

Happiness is the difference between what you expect and what you get. Set realistic expectations. When things go better than expected, savor the moment. Remind yourself that whatever happens, you’ll be fine.

Develop emotional detachment

Prioritize indifference over passion. You can do your job conscientiously without having to care about it. Do what you have to do to get through the workday. But when the workday ends, focus on something else.

Look for small wins

Feeling in control is good for your wellbeing. Identify where you have agency in the workplace. Establish rituals outside of work, such as going for a daily walk.

Limit your exposure

Have as little to do with the jerks as possible. If you have to meet with them, make the meetings short. If you have to meet in person, try to do it in a room with no chairs. Turn your camera off on video calls and don’t look at the jerks.

Build pockets of safety

Band together with other people who feel the same way you do. But use those groups to support each other, not to complain about the situation. Find physical spaces where you can go and not be bothered.

Pick your battles

Aim to win the small battles. If you can keep calm when someone else is yelling, you’ve won. Repay anger with kindness. Gently re-educate the ignorant.

Don’t stay too long

One risk of getting good at coping with a bad situation is that staying may come to feel like an easier choice than leaving. When an opportunity presents itself, make the leap. If it doesn’t work out, you’ve already developed the survival skills that will get you through it until the next opportunity arises. In my view, the worst advice is “never give up” and the best is “know when to quit”. If you’re in a situation that’s harming you and there is no reasonable prospect of change, now is the time to go.