The Dysfunctional Work Environment

by Mitch Meyerson and Laurie Ashner

It took Beth, a bright, motivated, 30-something manufacturer’s rep months to figure out that what she was feeling wasn’t paranoia. “I had to sell out of the showroom five times a month. I’d be with a customer and glance over at my boss. He’d be whispering to the vice-president. His hand was cupped over their mouths. I stared straight at them, and they kept whispering. It was totally unnerving. How can you function with your boss walking around whispering about you when you’re trying to work?

You can’t. By some strange serendipity Beth met a woman at an industry function who had dated her boss. They became fast friends. “You’re not imagining things,” the woman said. “He once told me that the only reliable management technique is fear. One night he got totally drunk and passed out on my couch. Before he went down he told me that his goal in life was to rip off every person who walked into his showroom.”

Welcome to the dysfunctional work environment–DWE, for short. Beth’s experience may sound extreme, but she is hardly alone.

Kevin spent nine years in another DWE. When he didn’t get a memo and an agenda for the usual Tuesday morning meeting, he didn’t worry. The department head was new. Maybe the weekly meeting was going to be a thing of the past. He spent the morning sifting through papers that had been on his desk for weeks. He was feeling good about himself when he looked into the hallway and saw his colleagues coming back from what had obviously been the weekly meeting. It became clear that he wasn’t invited.

“Why wasn’t I included in the meeting?” I asked my boss after a week of trying to get a moment alone with him.

“To teach you a lesson.” he said.

“A lesson? What lesson?” I wanted to know.

“If you don’t know I’m not going to tell you.” He stood there grinning like the cat who had swallowed the canary. I felt like I was twelve years old and had left my new bicycle out in the rain.

“You hear about these dysfunctional families where parents emotionally abuse their children with their rages, unrealistic expectations, and addictions. Where do you think these people are from nine to five? A good number of them are in my office.”

Claudia Black, in her best seller, It Can’t Happen to Me spelled out the rules of the alcoholic, dysfunctional family: Don’t talk, Don’t trust, Don’t feel. She might just as well been speaking out about dysfunctional work environments. People who toil in them day in and day out know those rules well.

In the DWE, employees pilfer paper clips pens, and legal pads and whatever else they need to stock their home offices. They call in sick, come in late, make long distance phone calls on the company phone and Xerox a hundred personal copies when the boss is in the John. Why? To reward themselves in an unrewarding environment.

In the DWE, you’re not supposed to trust. Don’t trust that you’ll keep your job, no matter how hard you work. As one man told us, “They make a big deal about the fact that we signed a statement that we are employees-at-will when we took our jobs here. You’ll have little grounds on which to sue us if we abuse you is the take-home lesson. I came back from a business trip, and my boss had moved my office into what used to be a closet.”

Don’t talk, either. Don’t talk about anything that might possibly be an issue. Don’t talk about employees who quit and why they quit. “They send a memo to the shareholders about every change, every hiring and firing, all the news about the bottom line and what’s really going on. But employees never see that memo. If you keep in contact with someone who left the company and got another job, you’re digging your own grave.”

Perhaps the most galling thing about the DWE is working with people who seem to thrive in it. Certain employees capture the administration’s heart. They progress no matter how arduous the corporate ladder becomes. The strange thing is no one else sees much redeeming value in the daily work of these pets.

“There’s some people here who always seem to take it all in stride, no matter how ridiculous things get,” one woman complained. “I used to resent them. But now I realize these people have the same success the physically or emotionally abused spouse has who is able to live in unbearable circumstances, if you can call that success. They get hit hard, but then they won’t press charges and make excuses. Some people know how to duck the rages and take the punches when they come. It’s peace at an enormous price.”

Clients often dig in their heels when we suggest they leave their Dysfunctional Work Environments. They have kids in private school, a stack of bills to pay, a career in a field that is over-staffed. But sometimes something much deeper is at play. There’s a need to win over the disapproving person, a continuation of the childhood struggle to overcome disapproving, emotionally unavailable parents.

Add to that the fact that the DWE thrives on the sketchy self-esteem of its employees. Just as the abusing spouse tells his or her partner, “No one will ever love you if you leave me; you’re too ugly and disgusting,” the DWE encourages employees to feel that if they can’t make it here it’s because they just aren’t savvy enough for the job. These environments keep their workers by preying on the normal self-doubt all of us experience when trying to reach a goal. They try to convince you that if you don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel, you’ll excel, no matter how inept at your job you might be. It can take several hours of counseling with an unbiased person to bring you back to yourself.

To think that you can’t find a better job is nonsense. David is a case in point. “The salon I worked for was part of a worldwide chain known for its innovation. Whatever haircut I did was never good enough, even if the client jumped out of the chair and hugged you. To them, I could always do more. I did some serious acting out in those days. I worked hard all day and got drunk every night to escape the anger I felt. I didn’t realize it was part of the script I’d been playing all my life. My father was never satisfied. I always had to do it again, and do it better. It was never enough. I escaped him by hiding in my room. This job fit right in.”

“I told my story to a therapist who said, “Your boss sounds controlling, manipulative and unhappy.” I wanted to hug him. You really lose yourself under these circumstances. I needed an unbiased person, who could see the truth and bring me back to myself. I was so enmeshed in the whole environment that I didn’t trust my own instincts anymore.”

David bonded with several other employees and they left that salon to start one of their own. It wasn’t as hard as he’d been taught to imagine. His salon is successful to this day, ten years later.

You can survive a dysfunctional work environment–but don’t expect to thrive in it. It isn’t easy, and the rules are never clear. Borrowing a platitude from the twelve step programs, one needs to realize this: You didn’t create it and you can’t fix it. In other words, the only person you can change is yourself.

Not feeling, not trusting and not talking is the antithesis of creativity and personal growth. Twelve step programs teach that the only way out is through. It’s true. The way out of dysfunctional work environment is through — through the door.

Mitch Meyerson is one of the top Business and Personal Coaches in the industry. If you’re tired of existing in a dysfunctional work environment, set up a consultation with Mitch to strategize your way through the door, or if you want to share your Dysfunctional Work Environment story. We can change the names to protect the innocent! Just don’t email it from work they may be watching :)