She Left a Toxic Workplace with her Dignity Intact

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There is a turning point in every career transition, and that is the time when an individual stops identifying with their fears—both rational and irrational—and chooses to identify more with their hopes.

I love this story because it is real and true and typical in so many ways. For the past year, I assisted a professional woman through a career transition. Bright and talented with two university degrees, she was stuck in a toxic work environment, but couldn’t let go.

This client had already made one career change in life, moving from the health sector to the financial sector. She was a rising star, often winning performance awards, and was being groomed for senior management. But she hated going to work each day.
In our initial session, she outlined the overwhelming pace and stress of the job in general. In workplaces organized around targets and quotas, there is a lot of pressure to make sacrifices for the team and do whatever it takes to succeed.

She also complained about abusive behavior from bosses and co-workers. For example, if she asked for an explanation, she was publicly yelled at and told to just do it without any explanation. In team meetings, she was afraid to raise some issues for fear of being censored by the rest of the team. This from a woman who was not timid, nor did she lack confidence or communications skills.

In addition, my client alluded to pressure from her family—some of whom also worked in the financial sector–to continue earning the same high income and enjoying the status that came with being an up-and-comer. These were direct messages from people she loved and respected about what she needed to do to be smart in this situation.

On the one hand, she would tearfully admit that she had lost her self in this job, that she had sold her soul in order to meet the corporation’s goals. She felt empty inside, more dead than alive. On the other hand, walking away from this career, even one she knew deep inside was all wrong for her, meant risking the esteem of those who loved her most.

There were other practical considerations too, of course, such as meeting her financial obligations, and exploring a tough job market. She had the same fear we all have, the fear of negative consequences, i.e. if I change my life, it will get worse not better. Better to stick with this pain than risk even more!

We don’t like reality because it often includes unpleasant things. She described a toxic workplace but for months she questioned her perceptions, and wondered if the problem was her, not the abusive behavior.

Why, she asked, am I falling to pieces, while everyone else seems okay? Everyone pays a price for tolerating pain. What was yours, I asked? She outlined sleeplessness, anxiety, smoking, drinking, and other ‘coping’ behaviours. Common behaviors shared by most of her colleagues, I’m sure.

Insisting that things are not what they are doesn’t make them change. So, we either use drugs and other strategies to deal with pain, or we remove ourselves—-physically or mentally–from the circumstances causing the pain.

Then she reached a point where she was truly tired of coping—It’s killing me!–and was ready to re-claim her life. She did my JobJoy exercise and wrote out her life story, which helped her to see her natural talents and motivations, and the different points in her life where her choices honored those strengths, and points where she disregarded them in favor of pleasing others or reacting to fear.

More importantly, this accurate and reliable picture of her in action, gave her hope. We reframed her career experience, so that she could see that there were many good options for her to move forward as a professional.

She set out to explore other career options, even as she continued to struggle with her toxic job. She stopped smoking. She took small steps to let go of “some things” in her life to create enough space to explore something new. She applied to another graduate program but decided not to proceed after visiting the campus. She looked at buying an existing business, as well as a franchise, but after crunching the numbers of both opportunities, she decided against it. She investigated an offer to cross the street and provide as an indepedent the same service she did for her institutional employer.

In the meantime, the abusive behavior in her workplace continued. It takes time and discipline to learn to see reality as it is. It takes skill, because we have been trained to think accordng to concepts, theories, speculations, beliefs, ideas, and so on. Much of our thinking has been reinforced by past experiences that we presume to be the same as what is going on in the present. In order to really see reality, we have to unlearn then relearn.

As my client explored other career options and met with other professionals, she was looking and observing reality in a new way, one that was not influenced by her experiences in her toxic workplace. However, observing reality is not the same thing as changing our reality.

Taking action requires some tolerance of uncertainty. There are no guarantees in life. But our minds hate not knowing the future, not knowing outcomes…and so, when we don’t actually know something, instead of looking to find out, our minds wants to fill the space with answers that pretend to know what we don’t know!

This is where are preconceived notions of reality sweep in—notions based on previous or current life expericnes : it’s hopeless; it’s never work; I can’t do it; there are no jobs; you’re throwing your life away; and so on.

If you are serious about change, about moving out of your pain into a better jobfit, then you must appreciate NOT knowing something until you find out. In other words, you need to acquire a taste for reality, and prefer it to the pain you know so well.

When my client got to this point, two strange but predictable phenomena occured. I had even warned her that it would happen because I’ve seen it happen almost every time a client makes a transition from one kind of work to another.

One,following my advice, she approached a previous business contact—a CEO of a mid-sized company–to outline the kind of work that she was looking for, and this person offered her a job on the spot, a job in which she had no direct experience. But the CEO knew a good and talented person when he saw one, a person who could add a lot of value to his company.

Two, she handed in her notice with her toxic employer, who immediately offered her a promotion and a significant raise. She thought about it, and realized that the offer was really an acknowledgement of how much pain she was willing to put up with for her previous salary, and now they were offering her more money to put up with more pain!

She admits, it wasn’t easy, but she declined that offer. In doing so, she took back the power over her life. She felt free! She still harbored doubts about her new job—what if it didn’t work out? What if the people there turned on her? What if she can’t do the job? Reality being what it is, not perfect, crap does happen. And she can’t know everything before she starts.

But she did start her new job, and sent me a hopeful message : Wow, what a different experience I am having – amazing – just in terms of a whole new focus on learning and development versus how to cope with stress and negativity.

She is free to choose what she wants. She has the power to decide what is best for her. She is choosing hope over fear!

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