Though I was well aware of toxic abuse in the workplace, I only really began to understand it when I was subjected to it. By sharing my story I hope to spark reflections and discussions that will contribute to create a healthier workplace in our industry.
The Ceaseless Rumination Of The Troubled Mind
I was greatly affected by my situation at work, which had been developing for about a year. I complained many times to my boss in private. In return, reality was constantly being reframed to me, as if I was looking at things all wrong. They would tell me time and time again to accommodate all the aggravations, ball-dropping, spite, accusations… in other words, all the abuse. Failure to do so was regarded as being a bad team player and a difficult person to work with.
The cognitive dissonance between what I perceived things to be and what I was told they really were fuelled my ceaseless rumination. Eventually, I could not get it out of my head. It would be the first thing to come into my mind when waking up and my last thought before falling asleep. At its worst, it would literally take every waking moment of my day.
It is embarrassing to admit that I was such a mess inside, despite my year-long experience in meditation, therapy work, and healing practices. I failed to follow every directive from my teachers. I despised myself for that, too.
The Toll Of Emotional Stress
It took a lot out of me to deal with the toxicity. At times, I felt like a pressure cooker on high heat with no possibility of blowing off steam. For the better part of that year I had been developing symptoms related to the stress and the constant repression of my emotions. I thought I could weather the storm by just focusing on my work. I was wrong.
I refused to fully acknowledge the insomnia, the mounting anxiety, the physical symptoms. They crept in slowly and I would justify them to myself as temporary results of the stress. I did not know how much I was affected by the whole situation until much later. When you are deep in the situation, it is hard to keep perspective.
The only time the company management took swift and decisive action was when I reported my medical symptoms. That is when I was pulled from the team.
With A Little Help From My Friends
I kept this from my friends for way too long. When I told them, I was overwhelmed by the loving support and care that they showed me. It really saved me to feel supported by people that would not judge me and would show me such kindness.
I learnt that far from being a sign of weakness, talking about my difficulties made me more human in their eyes. They shared their stories with me too, some of which I was only partially aware of. Some of them had given up career paths or significantly lowered their professional ambitions due to toxic behaviour they encountered. This stuff is real and it happens every day. All it takes is one unchecked toxic element and the stage is set.
A Bright Beginning
I was an iOS developer at an agile team in a well-known middle-sized company. Our product had thousands of daily users and was well established in the market. I was brought in at a time of expansion and great transformation.
This team was very immature in many respects. We all had a lot to learn, myself included. Together, we introduced a new branching system, automated unit and UI tests, continuous integration, code review, and lots of best practices at the source code level. This meant a lot of transformation for all of us. Despite the challenges, the team managed admirably well and I considered the camaraderie to be high.
Shortly after joining, a member of higher management shook everybody’s hand to compliment the team for a particularly challenging release. When he shook my hand I said, “thanks, but I did not do anything.” He answered, “never mind, you are now part of the team, too.” That little gesture impressed me beyond words. Life was good.
The First Impression Is One To Last
I was not very smart during my first months at this place. I made a mess about the project reporting, which I found to be excessively micromanaged. I escalated my complaints about the tracking, which I found excessive. I still stand by what I said, but my feedback was poorly timed. None of it served anything. It only created a reputation of me as being an insufferable know-it-all. I must have been the person that makes people uncomfortable just by walking into the room.
In one appraisal, my boss told me that I had criticised other people’s work without having proper context. The comments turned out to be related to an email from some 18 months ago. I learnt that once you are pigeonholed into a certain character, some people will never see you differently.
A Relationship Gone Sour
The problems started when a team member with no leadership over me called me to a private meeting to tell me everything she did not like about me. My input in the agile meetings was not appreciated and my participation in an upcoming hackathon, in which all devs had been encouraged to take part by higher management, was seen as a failure to serve the team’s looming deadlines. She intimidated me, lashing out against aspects of my personality she did not appreciate. At the following retrospective, I was humiliated in front of the whole team for interfering with the team’s operations.
I felt like run over by a truck. In my 14 years of professional experience in 4 different countries, I had never encountered such level of animosity directed towards me on a personal level.
After that I tried to avoid her as much as I could. I felt so hurt that it would be uncomfortable for me just to be around her. I waited for an apology for months. It would have taken 2 seconds and it would have meant the world to me. It never came.
From Bad To Worse
Over time, I realized that agreeability was the highest principle governing the team. My ideas were systematically dismissed, often repeated and embraced when suggested by others. Everything I treasured in my profession was routinely stepped on. Thorough analysis was looked at with suspicion. Innovation was stifled from the root. Anything that sounded technical was immediately dismissed as lacking user value. Collaboration happened around personal agendas of the different roles and their one-sided view about what their competencies were.
I was coming from a scientific research background and it was unbelievable to me that hard facts and well-known references were dismissed without proper arguments. I was totally unprepared to deal with decision-making in such an environment. I struggled repeatedly.
I had been told to be patient, to wait for more success stories to accumulate and the atmosphere would naturally improve. The team was delivering on budget and with top quality. Stability was excellent, release after release. In the process, we were consistently upping the engineering practices of the team. Despite all those markers, the team dynamics were going from bad to worse.
My burn-out point occurred when an abusive team member planned to thwart a 2-day family reunion, with no pretence of project-related reasons. Somehow this seemed okay to both the team and management because they never made any indication to the contrary. When you are living in a foreign country and you only get to see your family 3-4 times year, this feels particularly nasty. I could not reconcile that someone on my team hated me so much that they wanted to attack me where it hurt the most.
Toxicity Spreads When Not Curbed
I struggled to deal with the toxic element. I experienced her like a mad rash: it itches a lot but you know it is better not to scratch it. Answering to any of her taunts would only make her go on and on. My mood was lifted when she was away, and it would sink again when she was back. I pulled away from social activities in the team, just for the sake of having as little interaction with her as possible. That prevented me from having more contact with people that I appreciated.
After my story went public, a colleague from another team wanted to meet me. This person had also been abused by the same toxic element. This was comforting for both of us. We were not alone! We were not imagining things. I cannot tell how reassuring it was to finally find some of the external validation I had been so badly missing.
My colleague had chosen not to escalate the issue and I cannot blame that. It was very stressful for me to come public with my story and it got me a lot of exposure in ways that I never wished. I wanted to be known by my engineering skills, not for being the sick guy that was gone overnight. I went public because I believed I had to. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
It Is Hard To Fix A Problem You Do Not Have
Thrashing other people’s work for personal gain is toxic. Intimidating and humiliating is toxic. Ruining the reputation of other professionals is toxic.
We need to start calling problems by their name, otherwise there is no hope to fix them. Studies have shown that feeling safe at the workplace is a predictor of success. The benefits revert to both the people and the business.
We could say that appreciation and kindness towards fellow team members is not a job requirement, but I cannot think of a cheaper and more effective way to build trust and resilience into a team.
I would have exchanged all the free beer (and there were lots of it!) for an apology, for another handshake, this time deserved, for anything that showed me that I mattered as a person, that I was more than a disposable resource. I never knew that appreciation was so important to me until I was so deprived of it.
I was deeply frustrated by the level of impunity that abusers had at this place. I understand people deserve a second chance, maybe even a third or fourth. It is important to give toxic elements a dignified way out of their behaviour. But meanwhile, what about the chances of those abused? Who will protect them?
Funnily enough, this happened at a place where I believe most people were competent professionals and generally kind-hearted. I really do. They were simply thoroughly unequipped to deal with conflict. I think this is partly human nature. We do not like to think bad about our fellow human beings. It is easier to reframe the facts than to admit there is inadequate behaviour.
A Word Of Support
To you who are suffering from toxic abuse, do not let anyone tell you that what you are going through is not real and just in your imagination. Trust your own best judgement, based in your observations and experience. They do not have the right to gaslight you.
It is OK to be affected by it. Look for support from the people that care about you. They will help you find the courage to do what is right for the situation. Finally, it is not a weakness to look for professional help. Do not hesitate to get a therapist and learn some tools to manage the situation.
Whatever you do, do not keep it to yourself. There is people out there willing to help. You are not alone. Good luck and all the best.
Cover photo by Florian Pérennès on Unsplash.