Surviving a Toxic Work Environment

Photo: Getty

For eighteen years I worked for a company that valued Extroversion, Sensing and Thinking.  As an INFJ I sometimes felt like I was on a battlefield. Fortunately Judging skills were also considered important, which was the main reason I was able to succeed.

I suspect that this is a trap many INFJs get into – we’re hired for our skills at organizing, streamlining work processes and getting things done, only to find that we’ve ended up in a job that wreaks havoc with our sensitivity.

While it’s not ideal, we can survive in an workplace that’s not compatible with our types. 

Here are some tactics:

Recognize That You Are Different

Every company has its own personality and preferences.  If the company I worked for had been a person I think it would have been an ESTJ.  Social skills, data, analytical thinking and execution were highly prized, while reticence, a process-orientation and sensitivity were seen as weaknesses.  Which explains why I was most successful in positions where my “J” skills were emphasized.  And why I often felt that my feelings were trampled on. 

In this type of environment self-acceptance becomes especially important if you are an INFJ.  You need to realize that, yes, you are different, and that’s ok. And while you can learn many of the skills that ESTP/Js have there will be times you won’t be able to excel in the areas that your company values. You need to allow yourself to be who you are and don’t try to fit in with the corporate “type.”   

Accept the Results of Being Different

There was a point where my career seemed to top out – no matter what I did I couldn’t get promoted past a certain level. During that period the buzz word at my company was “leadership” which our management equated with the ability to make group presentations confidently (I kid you not – it didn’t take much more than an energetic speech and some flashy handouts to get ahead). While I was comfortable presenting material that I was passionate about to an interested group, I failed miserably at the “dog-and-pony” type presentations to large groups who were focused on critiquing my speaking style.  I’m convinced that this stunted my career. 

Which, looking back, is fine with me. 

The corporate philosophy that we should focus on our “improvement areas” implies that with enough work we can excel even where we don’t have aptitude. And while I probably could have eventually learned to be comfortable speaking in front of a hostile group if I’d worked hard enough, I didn’t really want to. I had no interest in learning to act like an ESTJ, I wanted to learn to be the best INFJ possible.  That meant that in my current career there were some areas where I simply would not excel. I had to accept the fact that I’d probably get a mediocre score or two on my performance review and that I wasn’t always going to be a star.

Part of staying in an environment where we’re not in our element is accepting that we’re not going to be able to achieve our fullest potential there. And that’s ok.  We don’t always need to get the “A”, a hard earned “B” or even “C” can sometimes be just as good.  And when we find ourselves in this position there is still much to be learned. We can take advantage of where we are to practice our “opposites” and learn new skills to help us succeed in our next job.

Figure Out What You Need to Be Successful and Ask For It

I used to work in a small group that had to sign off on the specifics for technical projects.  There were three of us and, as a group, it took us some time to process the details of the projects. However we’d always find ourselves in meetings being asked for approvals on the spot.  Our pattern was to approve whatever it was in the meeting, go back to our offices and discuss it, then come back to the group and un-approve it.  As you can imagine, this didn’t work out very well. 

Eventually I figured out that even though we were expected to come up with a decision at the meeting, this wasn’t practical.  I learned to push back and ask for more time, regardless of the pressure we were under to decide at that moment.  After that we were able to make thoughtful decisions that stuck. 

There are times when you don’t have to adjust yourself to fit your job.  You don’t always have to do things the way they’re always done, you don’t even have to do things the way others want them done. You are part of the process, if you need to make changes so that you can be effective, it’s up to you to make them. 

Create Your Own Environment

Many workplaces can seem hostile, but we create our own environment.  Whether you have an office, a cubicle or a desk, there is an area that you can make your own.  Music, small family pictures, even a screensaver of a favorite vacation spot can bring you back to center.

And get out as often as you can.  I used to take my lunch to a sunny park near my office and sit alone and read for an hour.  Often it was the high point of my day, even now I feel the rush of peace when I visit that park.   

Don’t Take Any of It Personally

I have had some terrible bosses over the years.  A couple were the meanest and most self-serving people I’d ever met, and one was so incompetent that he had me write emails for him.  And I won’t lie, I took it all personally.  I hated them, hated my job, hated my life.

But now that I’ve left it all behind I realize that all that emotion was simply junk, a bunch of turmoil over nothing.  Even the worst people you deal with are, at some level, aware of their limitations.  The bullies are mean out of fear, and even if they don’t seem to know it, those incompetent bosses and co-workers are aware, deep down inside, that they aren’t up to the job and live lives full of anxiety. 

And none of it is really about you.  All that bad behavior happens because of lack – your boss might lack skill, or awareness, or even humanity, but, bottom line, it’s about them. 

Balance Your Work Life with the Rest of Your Life  

You are not your job, and your job is not your life.  If you find yourself in a work environment that doesn’t support you, it’s especially important to make sure that the rest of your life is engaging and fulfilling.  This is the time to pick up that hobby you’ve been talking about, make time to play with the kids after work, or get busy on the book you’ve been writing in your head. 



7 thoughts on “Surviving a Toxic Work Environment

  1. My Story
    I can relate very strongly to all that you have described here. The main difference really is that the buzz word or “improvement area” that I’m meant to work at is “building relationships” rather than “leadership”. As an INFJ, I will build very strong, meaningful relationships with a few people, and of course, we do make excellent friends to those few people. However, in the work place, having to keep trying to forge relationships with people who are often so so opposite, e.g. Commercial Managers, Project Managers, who themselves seem unwilling to meet you halfway, and having to try and find that ES type of energy and visually obvious enthusiasm, is extremely difficult and draining, and something which my boss decides to focus on at every annual review, rather than acknowledge the more positive aspects of my work, which, yes, are planning, organising, efficiency, problem solving, judging, analytical thinking (I can be quite T as well). I am a scientist by training, and you could say that I managed to develop enough ES type skills to move up into a Managerial role, reporting into the operating board at this company.
    There have been costs for struggling in this role for 2.5 years, and I have had some very very low times, and visited some pretty dark places. Recently I’ve been forced to confront why things got so tough, and through a lot of reading, and therapy, I’ve only recently started to realise some of those reasons. Basically, I’ve never wanted to be who I am, and I’ve spent a lot of my life so far trying to be someone else, and in doing so, have became so detached from who I really am, that I just didn’t know who I really was any more. I have pushed and pushed myself, and until recently, have been on a continual achievement mission moving from one mountain to another, and actually, getting to the top of these mountains is an anticlimax, be it a PhD or a promotion. None of these achievements have made me happy. They have expanded my skill set, but they are not the key to happiness and certainly not the key to self acceptance.

    It’s Not All Bad!
    Recently, I have started to build in a better balance to my life, and get my creative outlets going again, which is very helpful and rewarding for me. In fact, I think choosing the path of a scientist, and burying my strong creative side has been quite damaging. I believe feeding your creative side is extremely important, either as your career, or as a hobby, be it music, art, poetry, going to concerts, jamming with friends, playing in a band, sculpture, photography, and this is something I certainly plan to do a lot more of again now, and highly recommend.

    Experiencing all that a wrong career choice, or a terrible boss, or a toxic environment brings, does further build our empathic and compassionate nature. Now, (finally) I am stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, creating a new one, gradually accepting who I am, what my strengths and weaknesses are, realising that actually life has unlimited possibilities, CHOOSING what I want to do now going forwards, and quite importantly (for me anyway), making a plan to make it happen whilst still trying to tolerate the so so toxic existing workplace in the mean time. I think having a plan, a positive endpoint or goal to focus on, can be a big help. Once you have that, I think you’ve overcome the psychological barrier of accepting that you need to make changes in your life. From then on things don’t look so bad. That’s my advice if you like, to anyone who thinks they’re in fundamentally in the wrong career, or wants to change direction, or make better use of their strengths. Of course, this doesn’t have to mean changing career, it could be what you build into your better work/life balance.

    Your advice Melinda for surviving a toxic workplace is very helpful thank-you, especially about not taking it personally, and making changes to be effective. I think it would do me a lot of good if I can accept that I’m just not in my element, and I’m never going to be an ES!! which actually, is fine with me too!

    Crushing Waves

  2. I think there’s a lot of wisdom to what you write, but I see these toxic work situations a little differently. I subscribe to the school of thought that believes that if you have to struggle with every fiber of your being to survive in a given situation, you’re already sunk because you’re in the wrong situation. Essentially, you’re playing a game you really can’t ever hope to win. Why should an INFJ, a rare type with some unique talents, squander those trying to sing someone else’s song? Why beat one’s head against the proverbial brick wall just to achieve mediocrity in your field?

    The key to work, as in the rest of life, is to find out what you do best and do that thing, and I believe this is absolutely ESSENTIAL for INFJs. I’ve had my share of bad bosses/work environments, and I found fulfillment only when I left those places for better situations. The inertia of life makes it easy to stay, and we can really shame ourselves into staying by calling ourselves “quitters” for wanting to bail. The simple fact is, though, that trying to force success in an unpromising situation is merely an act of stubbornness that has no satisfying outcome.

    There’s a whole world out there that needs the special skills that INFJs bring to the workplace. It’s up to us to find them, because if we don’t, if we just accept being the square peg, we’re doing everyone–primarily ourselves–a colossal disservice.

    1. Yes, you’re right. I have since writing my first response left that work place..but I am yet to figure out what the ‘right situation’ for me will be, or how to create that myself.

  3. Oh yes …

    For me it’s mostly about learning and boundaries. I have been busy with my own business ventures, but it’ll take time and more work to pick up. So while that unfolds, I went ahead to work as an accountant/civil servant, it just happened.

    Indeed, I can very strongly relate to being praised for the hard Judging skills while the softer humane/social skills barely have any value for the environment, even though the softer skills really improved the processes and communication in the place where people often weren’t heard and kept in the dark on how basic things were done. We INFJs really can tap potential! Just not force it.

    Now here’s some lessons I learned and would like to share:
    -BOUNDARIES. Period. At some point I had to realize the place was doing a number on me because I LET it. Because I longed to be elsewhere where my body wouldn’t feel awkward or restrained for “no visible reason” and I just escaped with my thoughts but didn´t take direct action. And real escapsim doesn’t solve anything either, chances are you land on a similar place/spot if you never learned boundaries. I admitted to myself that I WASN’T CUT FOR THAT POST. I just didn’t get it why some things didn’t go one way and why the atmosphere was always heavy.
    -Harsher realities. Since I’m a therapist and also have writing projects, I don’t deal too often with outside conditions. However, even in therapy it’s happened to me to have aggressive people and very unhelpful. I feel after some life school lessons I can handle some not-so-pretty situations a lot better and maturely than back then.
    -To accept yourself. Truly. These experiences out of our natural environment often test your fears of not hitting the mark, of disappointing others (and yourself deep down), of never being able to solve conflicts because the environment itself is permanently conflictive and so on. You also learn tons of self worth, of knowing what we do want.

    I even asked for less hours so I could focus on my actual work. I think the (healthy) pressure of having to make my ventures actually work is going to make me reach things I normally wouldn’t be able to! And without removing what was holding me back, to let go of the fear and to thank the place for everything it’s given me and how it comes to a close … It’s a new dawn, really!

    The quicker you realize it’s not right, the better too! The process will eventually unfold where you learn and destiny ends up leading you. You start by pointing the direction first though!

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