“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” Steve Jobs
Before I was a therapist, I spent over a decade working in the nonprofit sector. During this time, discovered a lot about the complexities of office politics. Now, coupled with my training as a psychotherapist, I have been able to help many of my patients navigate challenging and toxic workplace environments and find jobs that fit into the lives they desire.
The bottom line is that workplace dynamics are a microcosm of larger social dynamics and relationships. Unexamined expectations, personal beliefs, and old patterns can greatly impact how people show up at work, and what gets evoked, played out, and triggered. This all impacts how satisfying the work can be. Reverberations of larger structural injustices can often take place in the microcosm of the workplace. As with any group dynamic, some of these reverberations can be structural, such as a common nonprofit top-down “charity mindset” where programming may be based on funding rather than community need; and sometimes interpersonal, through microagressions and other enactments, bullying, denial, and even withholding of important logistical information. People can end up feeling confused and unsure of their roles within the system and in their day-to-day work. Learning how to address these issues both interpersonally and within the company at large, coupled with ongoing attention and company-wide intervention, is key to preventing and mending a toxic workplace environment.
Unfortunately, this is not always possible. So if these issues have been consistently happening without sufficient acknowledgment, and it's interfering with your job satisfaction and quality of life on a regular basis, it may be time to consider a change. Before you do, here are a few things I suggest you consider.
1. Identify your feelings
What exactly do you feel? Angry? Sad? Defensive? Hurt? Frustrated? Drained? Make sure you can identify how you feel, so that you don’t risk getting caught in projecting your feelings onto someone else. Taking ownership of how you actually feel can put you in a position to actually get what you need, even if it's not from your workplace or colleagues.
2. Trace your feelings back
When did you start feeling this way? Was it when your coworker or supervisor said something about your lunch, your hair, or your performance? Was it a series of things, including conversations you overheard, your manager being late for a meeting, or someone asking you to say later than you are able to? Were you feeling some of these feelings before you headed to work today? Microagressions have a cumulative effect, and each one may seem small but can carry a big sting.
3. Get some outside input
Talk with your therapist about what you’re experiencing at work so that she can help you can think about your feelings and understand on a deeper level what may be happening. It can feel overwhelming to be stuck in the middle of it all, and having some trusted outside input can help you decide what to do next. Your therapist can also help you explore the ways this workplace environment may emulate old family dynamics or other experiences, to help you unpack what you’re going through and help you make informed choices about your next steps.
4. Address the issue with a colleague
Is there someone in your company whom you trust? Maybe they feel the same way you do, and would appreciate the commiseration. A coalition can be more supportive and powerful, both in terms of solidarity and feeling valued as well as in getting attention to the issues, than individual complaints.
5. Explore with a supervisor
If you’re on good terms with your supervisor, check in with her. She might be able to take your request to a higher level of attention. If you get the sense that your supervisor is able to really hear you, you can use your relationship together to help address the issue with care.
6. Speak with the person directly
If you’re experiencing an interpersonal issue, depending on how safe you feel, it can be helpful to talk directly with the person to see whether there has been a misunderstanding. Sometimes, when someone has offended or hurt you, it has to do with whatever the other person is preoccupied by. This does not mean that their actions or words are not their responsibility, or that your feelings are off-base simply because your colleague “didn’t mean it,” but maybe a talk can help them become more aware of how their words and behaviors land with others.
7. Suggest company-wide attention, including staff trainings
During a supervisor meeting, you may be able to bring up this suggestion as a way to address the office culture at large. If your office has staff-wide meetings, your supervisor may be able to ask the person setting the agenda to leave room for a larger conversation about office culture.
8. Pay attention to pushback.
If you’re ever met with pushback, it’s likely a “growing edge” for the person or the company. It’s not your responsibility to help them grow, unless you’re in a supervisory position; if you receive too much pushback this can help you as you decide whether to explore other work options (see #9). You will have to weigh for yourself the pros and cons of staying in a workplace where you don't feel heard.
9. Explore other options
Start looking for other jobs. Think of a person or company you would like to work for, and request an informational interview. Think of where you would like to be over the next several years, and begin exploring directly with those companies to see what they have to offer.
10. Let yourself dream.
If you let your vision for your life become subsumed by current office politics, it will be harder to make decisions that are in line with your dream. This is your life, no one else’s. While you may have responsibilities to others, such as children or a home, it’s important that you take into account your own vision as you find creative ways to fulfill your responsibilities to others, and to yourself.
Office politics are complicated, and can evoke old patterns in anyone. Paying attention to your feelings, your needs, and how you impact other people can go a long way toward helping you decide whether it's worth staying, better to leave, and how best to approach either option.