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. 

 

 

Embrace Your Whole Life

Dad and daughter
Image by Peter Werkman via Flickr

How would it be to open your arms and embrace your whole life, to take a fresh peek in every corner, explore every dream, pay attention to everyone and everything that matters to you.  What would it be like to expand your focus to all segments of your life, not just the few areas that feel important to you right now?

It’s so easy for life to get lopsided.  As we struggle to accomplish what we want – get that degree, move up the corporate ladder, raise our children – we can get so caught up in what we’re focusing on that we ignore other meaningful areas of our lives.  We end up missing out on the richness of life, the dessert of life that comes after the meat and potatoes of day-to-day living.

A great way to expand your vision is to use what I call The Whole Life Inventory.  The inventory provides a snapshot of all aspects of your life, giving you information on how satisfied you really are.

Create An Action Plan

Here’s how:

  1. On a piece of paper list the following eight life areas:  Career, Health, Money, Friends and Family, Fun and Recreation, Physical Environment (your house, town, etc), Significant Other/Romance, Personal Growth (includes spirituality).
  2. Rate each area of a scale of 1 – 10 with 1 being unfulfilled, and 10 being very fulfilled.  This reflects how satisfied you are with each area in your life.  Write the scores next to each area.
  3. Next, rank each area by how important it is to you, giving the most important area a 1, the next most important area a 2 and down to the least important area which would get an 8.  Write the ranking next to the scores.
  4. Take a look at your inventory, what do you notice?  Are there any areas that scored high in importance and low in satisfaction?  These are the areas that you may be neglecting, areas that you know are important but can’t seem to find time for.
  5. For those areas that scored high in importance and low in satisfaction, ask yourself “What would make this area fulfilled, what would make it a “10”?  For example, if “Family and Friends” is important to you, but you have a low satisfaction score, examples of things that might make the area a “10” could be to seek out friends with interests similar to yours, spend more time with your children, or schedule more frequent visits with relatives.
  6. Now it’s time to act!  Identify one action step for each area you identified in step 5 and schedule time for the activities in the next few weeks. Some people may feel overloaded at this point, so keep the steps as small as necessary and give yourself enough time.  Just remember that as long as you’re working on one action step you’re making progress!

It’s refreshing and invigorating to step back and look at your whole life.  If you’re like most of us, there are things you love that you’ve been neglecting.  Spending more time with loved ones, exploring a hobby that invigorates you, creating a plan to improve your career or earn extra money – this is the most direct route to adding richness and depth to your life.

Letting Go

I’ve lived a life that was very different than the life I’m living now.  I worked for a major corporation and earned a six-figure salary. I owned a convertible and my vacation souvenirs were diamond jewelry.

Then I was laid off.  Even though my co-workers and I had been warned that there were going to be layoffs, I somehow assumed that my assortment of skills and reputation for high quality work would protect me.  It didn’t.

As I write this its several years later.  By now I’ve been joined by many, if not most, of my friends in this world of layoffs.  Although we all talked about the possibility, none of us truly expected it.  And when it hit it was devastating.

When I consider my friends’ and my reaction to the loss of our jobs from a broader perspective, I realize that our pain isn’t just a result of what we lost, it’s also a reflection of our attachment to what we had.  The reality is that most of us live day-to-day with the unconscious assumption that things will never change, that what we have now is somehow permanent, ours to own.

The end of the assumption of “forever” eventually comes to all of us in some form, whether it’s the loss of a job, or a loved one, a relationship, a lifestyle, a home – the list goes on and on.  After we lose what we thought we would always have we recognize that nothing is forever.  And, because we’re human, our first reaction to this new reality is fear.

What drives this fear is the belief that if we lose what we have now there will be nothing to replace it.  We cling to the present not because we love it, but because it’s what we know.  In reality, I had come to hate the job I lost. I was no longer growing and learning – by the time I was laid off the only skill I was still sharpening was tolerance.  But when I walked out the door for the last time I still felt as though I’d been gutted.

Trying to lock down today into forever is futile, frustrating, and foolish.  The desire to hold on to an ending career, relationship, or lifestyle doesn’t serve anyone, not you or the people who are in the game with you – your co-workers, employers, partners, family members or friends.  By focusing on what was, we close ourselves off to what could be. We never get to experience the rich world of possibility that exists outside the limits of our present life.

Now, my life is almost the opposite of what it was five years ago.  I don’t have nearly as much money but I’m rich with new friends and experiences.  Starting my own business has increased my self-confidence and I’ve discovered a love for writing that feeds my soul.

I won’t lie, sometimes I look back and miss those fat pay checks.  But most days I’m deeply grateful for the freedom I now have and for all that I’ve been able to explore and accomplish in the last few years.  With this love for my new life comes a new awareness that things won’t be like this forever and the knowledge that I need to enjoy them while they’re here.

 

Networking for Introverts – Mixers & Meetings

I am an introvert. And, until I started my own business, I usually avoided groups of people I didn’t know. That changed, however, when I realized that the best place to make new contacts is networking meetings and mixers. I found that all it took was a shift in my perspective to make networking events not only easy but fun (yes, fun!).

To make the most of networking events:

#1    Relax
Most people are at networking meetings and mixers for the same reason you are – to make new contacts and build their business. Unlike parties, where people often cluster in groups that can be intimidating to break into, at networking functions people tend to mix and chat in smaller groups. Still, walking into a room of strangers can be intimidating.

Some key things to remember :

  • Keep things in perspective – you have nothing to lose. At worst you’ll waste a couple of hours, but you could end up meeting someone who’ll contribute to your success.
  • No one is focused on you, and no one will notice if you stand alone for a few minutes. And if you do stand alone and look pleasant, it’s very likely that someone will come up and talk to you.
  • It doesn’t really matter if there’s someone you don’t click with. We sometimes worry that others won’t like us, but if they don’t, so what? Just move on and find someone you have more in common with.
  • And, finally, remember, you can leave any time you want!

#2  Focus on connecting with people rather than selling them
I’ve met people at networking functions who instantly launched into an obviously memorized long-winded sales pitch for their product or service. Not only was I turned off, but I also didn’t want to recommend them to anyone else and subject others to their pitch.The best use of networking meetings is to connect with other business people who can refer potential clients to you. I’m not saying that you can’t gain clients from these functions, but I am saying that you’ll only get clients if people feel a connection to you, and for that to happen they have to get to know you a bit, and not just hear about your product. Plus, it’s a lot more fun!

#3  Be prepared
Create a short (2-3 sentence) introduction that summarizes the benefits of your service and practice it until it’s easy to remember. At informal events you can use your introduction to describe your business as you meet people. At more structured groups you may be expected to stand up and introduce yourself – if you’re prepared it’s quick and painless. It’s also helpful to write up a list of the benefits of your product and practice saying them before the meeting.

#4  Avoid overwhelm
At the first few networking meetings I went to I felt that every two minutes I was getting information I needed to act on or invitations to participate in other events, classes, or groups. I would get so overwhelmed that I was exhausted by the end of the event, and my automatic answer for all invitations became “No”.

To head off overwhelm, plan to “unpack” the event in a day or two when you have more time. At the event simply tuck business cards and brochures into your bag or folder and make notes about items you want to follow up on. This takes the immediate pressure off and gives you time to recover before trying to process everything.  I also make it a rule to never accept or refuse an invitation at a networking event. I simply respond with a pleasant “May I get back to you in the next couple of days?”   This gives me time to consider the invitation outside of the pressure of the meeting.

Networking events are great place to practice extroverting, and the more I attended the easier and more enjoyable they got.  The trick is to take the pressure off yourself and don’t worry about impressing or selling, just connect with others and enjoy yourself.