Corporate life can be fulfilling yet frustrating; inspiring yet puzzling; refreshing yet exhausting. Much of the time, the ups and downs are not actually caused by the content of the work, but by the people that we work with. Sometimes, we feel like we are going up against a bunch of people who seemingly take it upon themselves to make our jobs more difficult. At other times, we may be confident that we have achieved rock star status at work, but are inexplicably the first ones on the chopping block when things turn south.
One thing is for sure: toxic corporate cultures can defy logic and be quite pervasive across industries. In addition, they can be difficult to recognize without ample work experience in toxic environments. Even top psychology professionals will often struggle to tell us why people do blatantly destructive things. However, a couple of back-of-the-envelope theories might help shed light on quirky behavior at work:
People are inherently insecure. Human beings are easily threatened. We need hugs and kisses. We like to be told everything is gonna be ok. We want to know we can afford the same (or more) things next week as we did this week. We want to sleep at night knowing we’ve been validated by others. In a corporate environment where conversations are often sugarcoated (and euphemized during bad times), we can’t get a straight read on what we crave most: job security. We second-guess, seek gossip, and, most of all, want to know that we’re not the first ones on the chopping block.
People are domesticated by money. It’s probably no secret that the more money and/or status on the line, the more cutthroat and less secure is the job. And whether we’re aware of it or not, our moral and ethical principles, show of respect for others, and general human decency are put to the test constantly when challenges to our livelihoods (jobs) arise. This is not to say domestication by money is a bad thing. It probably keeps us from fighting like wild animals and makes us more civil on net, but it likely jolts our moods and fight-or-flight calculus more than we are aware of. To quote one of the best Creed Bratton lines from The Office: “The only difference between me and a homeless man is this job. I will do whatever it takes to survive. Like I did when I was a homeless man.”
With these theories in mind, below are 5 common toxic corporate cultural phenomena in ascending order of toxicity. Gaining awareness of these behaviors can help salvage our jobs or increase our chances of a career rebound elsewhere.
Level 1: Work and Credit Theft
Staking claims on our work by stealing all or partial credit is probably the most pervasive yet ‘benign’ form of toxic work culture. Note that this doesn’t necessarily involve proactively stifling our career growth to benefit their own, but it certainly involves freeloading, riding of coattails, and likely some deceleration of our career growth at the very least. Said another way, if we aren’t able to take ownership of our value-adding output due to someone else’s strong desire but inability to justify their own existence, then we are very likely getting our intellectual property and future income stolen even if it may not seem obvious at first.
It is also important to note that Level 1 does not necessarily involve judgment about good and evil. It is meant to also capture events that don’t necessarily originate with malign intent. In fact, the offender’s survival instincts may render such actions subconscious. For instance, they may believe that their contributions to an end product are bigger than they are in reality. After all, managing the perceptions of superiors or the public is deemed an important tool for achieving career success, and in this context the line between subpar collaboration and work theft can be quite blurry. Finally, the same person can be a victim in one case but an offender in another. For example, theft may be done ‘in kind’ (i.e. mimicry of senior manager behaviors, retaliation for some earlier slight, etc).
Level 2: Gaslighting
In basic terms, gaslighting is a technique that undermines our entire perception of reality. While gaslighting is actually quite common and instances can range from relatively minor to severe, this is a higher level of toxicity because of a generally more devious intent to actively manipulate us. The goal is to make us second-guess ourselves and believe that there’s truly something wrong with us. Gaslighting in a work setting is generally done to a victim of equal or lower standing, and can be a weapon of abuse used by those leveraging their position of power.
As to the motivation for this type of psychological warfare, the offender may be feeling threatened by us. Interestingly, those who suffer from imposter syndrome are probably more prone to gaslighting or stealing credit. In many cases, insecure employees gaslight to protect their own positions while trying to manipulate us into producing good work on their behalf. The trick behind gaslighting is that purposeful discrediting or distraction can make the best and calmest of us commit a mishap. If we’re successfully manipulated, offenders will have won the battle by tightening control over us and in turn creating an alternate reality that reflects well on themselves. Here are some examples of gaslighting:
- “Your use of Arial font defies our company culture.”
- “Your vacation day cost us $1 billion of business.”
- “You did not meet your revenue targets. The Johnson account was managed by me all along, so that should be part of my P&L.”
- “It’s not my fault. You should have anticipated the client’s sticking points beforehand. You need to take responsibility for losing this account.”
- “Don’t overreact! I was just joking.”
In the most severe case where the offenders are trying to create a false narrative to seek termination (e.g. using performance improvement plans), recognizing the use of gaslighting will at least allow us to retain more confidence and time to focus on the next career move, rather than wasting energy on fixing a dead-end position.
A quick note on why gaslighting is difficult to defend against. It can be hard to distinguish between assertions that are intended to gaslight and ones that are simply due to the offenders being misinformed. In some cases, the gaslighters may even be unaware that they’re being gaslighted themselves.
Level 3: Targeted Discrimination
Discrimination for our purposes here involves ignoring or outright freezing out of those deserving of credit or projects, or assigning a disproportionate amount of blame to those who do not deserve such treatment, simply due to external factors. Here’s an example: a manager makes decisions with the perception that a Black employee is too passionate and rash and that an Asian employee is too dispassionate and prone to nervous breakdowns. Then the offender confirms this perception with work examples that are actually highly ambiguous. The underlying motivations for discriminating can vary and may be subconscious. Here’s another example: when presented with multiple qualified candidates for a project, the decision maker favors the candidate who is most similar to themselves.
Though Level 2 can be as bad as Level 3, Level 3 has the potential to be much more severe. For one, while gaslighting is often a result of manipulators playing defense, discrimination crosses over to playing offense (frequently in legally questionable ways) against a targeted individual or group (usually people of a protected class). Furthermore, this tends to be a tactic that separates us from the herd and impacts the perception of others around us to diminish our job security, whereas gaslighting is less frequently a precursor to termination and might be more contained to just us and the offender.
Moreover, while gaslighting may not succeed against those of us who are highly secure in our abilities, proving discriminatory actions due to factors such as race, sex, age, religious beliefs, pregnancy, etc. is extremely difficult in general. The dark truth is that even when we have evidence or a ‘smoking gun’ that discrimination is taking place, corporations typically will get away with admitting no guilt given the greater amount of resources at their disposal. In other words, the current legal system makes it so difficult for plaintiffs to achieve justice that it practically enables discriminatory behavior, as countless high-profile cases against corporations have shown. Oftentimes, the least painful resolution for us is to just mentally regroup and try to succeed elsewhere (aka channel our energies into winning at life).
Level 4: Indiscriminate Bullying
Bullying sounds an awful lot like discrimination, but the key difference here is that whereas Level 3 refers to acting on heuristics that might have become somewhat ingrained, Level 4 is meant to capture more widespread and indiscriminate bullying (i.e. ‘equal opportunity’ bullying). Moreover, Level 4 usually involves more proactive and public forms of bullying. Examples include undermining, intimidating, mocking, threatening, harassing, and humiliating someone either bilaterally or in front of a group in order to retaliate and/or establish dominance. The #metoo movement has made several cases of workplace bullying public. Some of these instances are undoubtedly much more graphic and physically/mentally traumatizing than the above tactics of passive aggression and exclusion.
Importantly, this tactic can be used not only by superiors, but also by subordinates and peers. For example, a threatened or cutthroat individual may create deceptions and distractions to undermine their bosses by: 1) spreading false rumors, 2) refusing to adhere to deadlines, 3) belittling their contributions to a project, 4) painting them as incompetent, or 5) resorting to false accusations of bullying to trigger all kinds of HR madness (I call it bullying-squared).
While Levels 1 to 3 are arguably manageable if certain precautions are taken, it is very tough to argue for staying in a workplace that enables bullying. The ‘360’ nature of this tactic and the inherent difficulty in defining bullying make the interpretations of such cases highly confusing and complicated.
Level 5: Assassination
No, this is not referring to death. This refers to an all-out effort to identify and expose our vulnerabilities in order to bully us into feeling miserable for the sole purpose of trying to off-ramp us (i.e. the most sinister form of discrimination and bullying). I tend to think of offenders in this category as enacting a combination of all 4 levels of toxicity above. This tactic is undoubtedly nefarious, akin to elimination by torture rather than by euthanasia. So the question is why and how. Here’s a sample of characteristics that could lead to Level 5 toxicity:
- They may have somehow advanced to a position that is way over their heads. (L1)
- They might be highly insecure and easily threatened given their perceived and/or actual inability to fulfill their job responsibilities. (L1, L2)
- They have trouble identifying with anyone who is different and are tone deaf to cultural and behavioral differences. (L3)
- They might be narcissistic (with extreme beliefs of superiority and grandiosity), somewhat sociopathic, or vengeful for whatever reason(s) — e.g. unresolved trauma from being in toxic environments previously. (L3, L4)
- They had experienced repeated success from various forms of bullying in the past (perhaps even in childhood). (L4)
There are endless ways to employ assassination tactics. Character assassination is a popular occurrence, but this level of toxicity is not limited to just attacks of our character, intellect, and credibility. Another phenomenon is narcissist blame-shifting, which amounts to a more severe form of gaslighting because offenders constantly shift blame from their own failures and actions onto us due to their fundamental inability to recognize that they may also have significant flaws. By blame-shifting and in turn making themselves the victims, the offenders absolve themselves from needing to take responsibility for their actions as a way to maintain mental peace (or job security) and ego. On the other side, we suffer from the impact to our reputation at work, and over time we may even feel responsible for indefensible decisions that we had little to do with in the first place.
Another element to Level 5 is that offenders also aim to exploit our greatest weaknesses when we’re most defenseless. Here are some examples:
- A pregnant employee may suddenly be handed more work-related fire drills during her lunch breaks.
- Someone who lives far from the office and has important household duties suddenly finds important meetings and events scheduled very early or late in the day.
- Employer does not create space to accommodate mothers who breast pump.
- An exceptionally tall employee is given the smallest office chair.
- Word spreads that an employee who was previously involved in a lawsuit against a former employer is ‘not to be trusted’ with any important work.
- Managers keep canceling status update meetings with a subordinate they know is currently on medication for anxiety.
- An employee returning from extended leave finds that she/he’s been made the owner of more money-losing reclamation projects.
Note that any one of these examples individually might not be obvious attacks that target our vulnerabilities. That said, our ability to pick up patterns and assess our bosses’ intentions will go a long way in helping us identify potentially highly toxic situations before it’s too late.