This week, I received a message from one of my LinkedIn followers in response to a recent episode I published of my Finding Brave podcast. While I don’t know this individual, she shared openly and emotionally about her situation about how she’d been terribly mistreated and, in fact, bullied in her latest job by her manager who was a Director, and also, later, by the head of HR, after she quit and gave a short notice.
In our interchange, she explained that this wasn’t the only job at which she’d been treated horribly—it was numerous previous jobs as well. And she shared a litany of unethical, abusive and even illegal behaviors that she experienced from toxic colleagues, HR staff and bosses.
This is not new news. I receive literally hundreds of these types of emails and LinkedIn messages each year from people—both men and women—sharing how they’ve been legitimately abused or mistreated in their work and in multiple jobs. And I take these messages to heart because for many years, on and off, I was on the receiving end of treatment at work (by colleagues and superiors) that was toxic, unethical, demeaning and sometimes emotionally abusive, and always confusing.
Approximately 20 years ago when I was at my unhappiest juncture in my corporate life, a dear friend was staying the weekend at my house. I remember this day like it was yesterday. We were sitting on my couch and I was sharing the gory details of what I was going through at work. This was not the first time I was having terrible problems with a boss—this was just the latest in a string of disasters.
My friend said something to me like this:
“Kathy, you know I love you and I’m a true supporter, but I’m wondering how can it be that so many of your bosses have been so bad. I’m just wondering if there’s not something else going on. Maybe therapy might help get to the bottom of it for you.”
Truthfully, I was deeply shocked and hurt that my friend could even think that the problem was related to my behavior (or at least, that’s how I took it). How could she think that it was something that I needed therapy about? But after thinking about our discussion for a few weeks, I decided that maybe she was onto something. Maybe there was something going on that I didn’t understand that was contributing to why I was so chronically unhappy at work and why my relationships with authority figures and colleagues were so often fraught with challenge and pain.
Turns out, she was right.
From that discussion with my friend, I engaged in two powerful years of therapy and learned so very much about why I struggled with my bosses, and why I attracted (and stayed far too long in) jobs and situations that weren’t good for me, and didn’t allow me to grow and express my true self in the way I needed and wanted to. In short, it amounted to my own poor boundaries, lack of confidence and self-esteem, inability to use my voice and say “STOP” in ways that were powerful, and my own inability to recognize a very bad work situation before I threw myself into it.
After a brutal layoff from that toxic job, I transformed my career and became a marriage and family therapist, which was a life-changing experience in countless ways. And I use that therapy training in every ounce of my career coaching, speaking, writing and research today.
What have I learned in these past 20 years about the top reasons so many of us experience continual and chronic mistreatment at work?
Before I share those reasons, I want to make a differentiation here between chronic mistreatment and a one-time situation, because they are different.
Yes, it’s very likely that in our years of working, we’ll experience at least traumatizing work situation that goes very badly and involves some type of legitimate mistreatment, abuse, sabotage and more. In fact, recent research has revealed that almost 75% of workers have reported being affected by bullying at work. That’s a huge number that represents a tremendous cost—to us as individuals, to our workforce and to our workplaces each year.
What I’d like to focus on here, however, is not the one-time experience, but when we’re chronically and continually mistreated at numerous jobs. I’ve found that what repeats over and over is not random—there’s something deeper going on. And when we can empower and strengthen ourselves in critical ways, we’re able to avoid or address mistreatment very differently.
In working with thousands of professionals who better, more successful careers and businesses, I’ve observed these 3 common reasons people continue to take and remain in toxic jobs that hurt them:
1: The core negative messages you learned in childhood are still with you
We’ve all been formed by our childhood experiences to a far greater degree than we have ever understood. In fact, I’m seeing that in our adult lives, we are behaving, feeling, and reacting in ways that directly stem from what we’ve learned to be as children in our specific families. If you haven’t examined (and addressed) the key messages and behaviors you adopted to be accepted by your family and your authority figures, to succeed in the ecosystem you were born into, then those behaviors and learnings are significantly influencing your career (and life) today.
It’s critical to understand that seemingly “happy” and intact families (and well-meaning parents) can generate wounds in you that are still interfering with your ability to be happy, confident and successful. Most professionals I coach and train who are not thriving at the highest level are still unconsciously trying to heal wounds and power gaps that were initially formed in their childhood, but most don’t recognize these as wounds or gaps. And most have no idea how their childhood coping behaviors and messages they received are holding them back today from the success and happiness they want.
The most common coping mechanisms and core message I see that professionals are carrying from their childhoods and are causing great damage are:
- “Perfectionistic overfunctioning” – doing more than is appropriate, healthy and necessary and desperately trying to get an A+ in all of it, or order to feel worthy of love and to be accepted.
- Not speaking up when necessary because it was extremely scary (or not allowed) to challenge your authority figures when you were a child, and you were in some way punished when you did it
- Stopping yourself from “shining” too brightly, feeling confident, and taking credit where credit is due because you were taught that it’s unseemly and wrong for a girl to brag
- Not asking for help when you need it or building a powerful support network because you were taught that asking for help shows weakness and vulnerability
- Not having the appropriate boundaries and knowing how to stand up for yourself, manage your emotions and make the right decisions because your boundaries were violated by parents who overstepped their bounds and never taught you how to think for yourself or believe in your own abilities
Tip: Think back to your childhood and write down all the messages and coping strategies that you learned – about yourself, the world, relationships, authority, power, independence, assertiveness, money, etc. Evaluate which of these messages and coping strategies are helping and which are hurting you today. Then get some outside help to shift those negative mindsets and behaviors once and for all.
#2: The role you play today at work is the role you played in your family
Today, in your adult life and career, you are playing the exact same role you played in your family and at school when you were a child trying to get love and acceptance or to serve in a way that kept the family functioning (unless you’ve done the internal and external work necessary to modify that).
I’ve learned that for the most part, we as adults are a living, fluid reaction to what our parents and authority figures and the ecosystem we grew up in, taught us to be. We’re still playing the role that we somehow (unconsciously) adopted to keep the family functioning in the way it had historically and the way it wants to continue. A family is a “system” and there are rules and structures that govern how the system operates. The family strives to attain a balance (even if that balance is unhealthy) and maintain homeostasis, and the roles that each member play are part of that balance.
I once ran a Facebook group with over 2,000 members who were adult children of narcissists, many who are over 40. Most still could not speak up to their parents and assert healthy boundaries. In short, they simply could not play a new role.
Sadly, we don’t just “grow up” and overcome these emotional and self-identity challenges from childhood. It takes internal work that many of us never do.
Just a few of the roles I see professionals playing out in their work-lives that they adopted in childhood are:
- The perfect one
- The responsible one
- The parentified child
- The black sheep
- The “loser”
- The scapegoat
- The mediator
- The caregiver
- The financial rock
And it’s fascinating to see that professionals are often attracted over and over to workplaces that demonstrate the same type of dysfunction that their families represented.
Tip: Think deeply about the role you adopted and played in your family to keep the family in status quo mode. Are you still playing that role in your work-life today?
#3: Your decisions keep failing you as to what jobs to take and remain in
For hundreds of professionals I talk to, they end up in jobs and work cultures they hate, and they recognize it was a bad move often within the first month of employment. (That was me in my last corporate job.)
Why is it that you’re having great troubling identifying up front a culture that will be damaging for you, and why don’t you act on your instincts not to take the job?
In short, it’s because your decision-making process is not what it needs to be. Here are the top three challenges people have in making the right decisions for themselves and staying away from toxic jobs and people.
1) Don’t support your intrinsic values
Your decisions will be bad ones for you if they go against what you value and respect. When you make a decision that ignores your values, it almost never comes to a good end, because you’ll either be on the receiving end of behavior that demoralizes you, or you’ll end up sabotaging the direction because it’s so out of alignment and painful, you can’t sustain it.
2) Come from a place of weakness and disempowerment
Decisions that come from weakness, fear, or running away from something, can’t move you forward in a positive way. When you accept or stay in a bad job, often it’s because you’re running away from something and are desperate to make this work. When you do that, you’ll inevitably turn a blind eye to what is wrong and toxic, and you’ll step right into it anyway.
3) Are about trying to prove something
Finally, your decisions are going to fail you if the jobs you take are about trying to “prove” something – to yourself or others. Many professionals take a new job to try to prove their former employer didn’t treat them well enough, pay them highly enough or promote them. But trying to prove something by taking the wrong job will hurt you even more.
If you’re angry at your boss or organization and want to prove your worth, the best way to do that is to build a strong, irrefutable case about why you deserve a promotion or raise, and have that discussion in an empowered way. But don’t act out in a childish way and jump to a new, unvetted (and bad) job to get them to say “I’m sorry.”
Tip: Without exception, always align your decisions with your core values. Every day, be brave enough to honor what you know to be true about who you are and what you want. Make decisions that let you live from your highest standards of integrity.
In the end, if you can heal the self-limiting messages you learned in childhood and take on a new, more positive and empowered role than the one you had to play in your childhood, your life and career will transform. And you will become even more vigilant and careful about the types of people, cultures and workplaces that you choose to support and connect with, so that your precious remaining years of working will be rewarding and fulfilling.