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It's Not You. It's Your Dysfunctional Workplace.


As the child of alcoholics, I grew up intimately acquainted with dysfunctional family dynamics and their impacts on me. I've spent a lifetime trying to overcome these effects, as a matter of fact. 

The other day, I was talking with a friend about her dysfunctional workplace and for some reason I was reminded of how I felt in my family. It hit me how, even as adults, we can be pulled into the dysfunction of the workplace as surely as we may have felt it in our families. 

One of the most insidious features of family dysfunction is what I call "The Emperor Has No Clothes" syndrome. In my family, I was notorious for this. I would hear my parents say one thing, but see them doing another. When I called them out on this inconsistency, they would tell me that what I was seeing wasn't really true. In other words, they were denying reality. 

This goes on in workplaces all the time. We are told that a company values teamwork or learning or "creative thinking," but then all the policies, procedures, rewards, systems and interactions with colleagues belie this message. We are being told one thing, but being treated in an entirely different way. 

When you are raised in a family that consistently employs this kind of behavor, it distorts your own sense of reality. You begin to question what you see. 

This dynamic also keeps you questioning yourself. You learn that you can't rely on your own observations and intuition to tell you the "truth" of the matter. This does a number on your self-esteem that's hard to imagine, especially when you're in the middle of it. 

I've observed when the workplace distorts reality in this way, it can have the same impacts on us as family dysfunction. After all, we spend as much time at work as we do with our families. A huge amount of our identity is tied up in work and, if we really NEED that job, our sense of security is found through work as well. So it's not surprising that dysfunctional work would have similar impacts on us. 

Here's the thing.

When you are a truthteller in a system that insists on telling lies, they will always try to marginalize you.

 They will challenge your reality and try to make you feel as though there is something wrong with YOU, rather than with their system of doublespeak.

Do not let them win.

Hold fast to your truth because it is only by knowing reality that we can build something better.

We must know and tell the truth of our situation in order to move from that to a vision of something new. If we allow the system to deny what we know to be true, then we are colluding in our own oppression. This is not the way forward. 

Remember. It's not you. It's your dysfunctional workplace. . . 




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Thanks for this powerful post! I can relate to the experience of a dysfunctional workplace that suffered from "The Emperor Has No Clothes" syndrome (an excellent analogy) and agree: it does do a number on your self-esteem and confidence in your gut feelings of truth and lies, right and wrong. I experienced my dysfunctional workplace as an abusive relationship: I wanted to make it work so badly because I believed passionately in the organization's mission that I wouldn't listen to my gut or my friends who said the "relationship" was bad news. I would find excuses for my boss and co-workers' behavior and accept half-hearted apologies only to be heartbroken again. It was one of the hardest things I did, leaving that workplace. And it started by reconnecting with my sense of self and fortifying my self-esteem - believing that I deserved better.

Marisol, you are describing something I think so many people have experienced! Maybe the worst part of it is the sense that somehow we are at fault, rather than the idea that we are in an "abusive relationship" as you so eloquently put it!

So many of us put so much of ourselves into the work that we do. The process you described for reconnecting with yourself is so important! It's one of the reasons why I think that we need to make regular time in our lives to really reflect on the reality of what we are experiencing so we can make different decisions that work better for us. It's very easy to get lost in the "abuse."

Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

Well said. I have been in a workplace that felt like an abusive relationship and though a usually resilient person, I felt slammed in my sense of reality and took a hit in my self esteem. The best thing I did was to leave that job and sick organization, but it took a long time to recover my confidence. I must say I look at work's place in my quite life differently.

Thanks, Paula. There is something really demoralizing about dysfunctional workplaces and I think it's easy for us to get caught up in some bad dynamics, particularly in the kind of economic climate we're living in. Leaving is often the best option if you can do it. And I always suggest getting out as quickly as possible.

Hi Michele,
I just discovered your blog today. I've read many helpful posts, but this one really hit me. It actually relates not to my professional situation, but my residential one.

My apartment complex had me sign a lease that outlines policies/rules that I am agreeing to practice and they are agreeing to enforce (example, no dogs allowed on premises, no smoking). I respect management by following these rules, but everyone else living here walks around with their giant dogs and they smoke and litter the building with cigarette butts--a big "screw you" to management. I feel like I have become the BAD GUY because I speak up and demand that management enforce their own rules, but they make me feel like I AM the trouble-maker, the one with the problem! Everyone else around here are the true troublemakers, the ones who break the contract that they signed. Is this crazy or what???

When I read what you wrote, "When you are a truthteller in a system that insists on telling lies, they will always try to marginalize you," and "hold fast to your truth," I teared up, because I know that I am RIGHT. They lied to me when they promised that this community would offer a certain lifestyle.

I could move out of this place, but then what? There will always be problems no matter where you go, so I feel that it's better to deal with it and stand up for what is right instead of just running away from one problem only to encounter another.

I'm printing your post and putting it on my fridge as a daily reminder to keep fighting for what I believe is right, even if the majority is against me.

Jessica, I'm so glad that this post had such meaning for you. You're right to point out that we have systems everywhere that distort reality--not just at work. As a society, I think we are really beginning to grapple with this and that the only way to do it is if we are able to stand up for what's actually going on, rather than pretending that things are one way when they are in fact another way. We need to be truthtellers in all parts of our lives. It's the only way we can build toward what we want. Good luck with your apartment complex--hopefully it all works out!


This is one of the most insightful pieces I've read about toxicity - and very relatable on a couple levels. I grew-up in the middle of dysfunction in my family life; and have bumped into it more than once in the workplace.

Currently, I work for a boss that 'changes his story' routinely. On the one hand I'm told I'm of higher capability and given responsibilities above my level. I've worked my 'rear' off for seven years, becoming one of the best in our department and have cultivated positive work relationships and earned respect. (It seems, with everyone except key people in my own department, despite my efforts.)

I've been told I'm management level promotion material; but it hasn't materialized. Whenever I ask for an update on my career, etc., work mysteriously is taken from me and I'm blocked from activities, meetings. Clients who request my assistance on projects are told I’m not available. You get the picture.

Actually to expand further, I WAS given a promotion; but they now claim I wasn't, and won't clarify about why I have a higher (senior) title if I wasn't promoted.

I'm not certain if I'm explaining it well. It's confusing, contradictory, and downright odd. I also basically feel I'm being punished for being competent at my job and a high achiever. I lastly feel I often walk on eggshells; a feeling I'm acquainted with and don't care for.

I frankly wonder if I've woken up in a Kafta novel many days. I'm a spunky and strong woman; but I have to *fight* to hang on my self esteem in the midst of sabotage and dirty politics... Yes, at the core, it's them, and not me, even if they tell me it is. Thank for you for helping me view this job situation for what it is.

PS - At this point I'm looking into whether there are transfer opportunities or other companies in my industry that are hiring... However, in this hiring-freeze economic climate, I don't exactly feel confident an immediate move can occur.

M, I think you described the situation very well--especially in this: "It's confusing, contradictory, and downright odd." That's how it goes in this kind of situation--you find that you have difficulty explaining it to others because that's part of the dysfunction that's seeped in. While an immediate move may not be possible, there are things you can do to protect and take care of yourself in this environment. The post I wrote on 6 Positive Professional Development Strategies for the Toxic Workplace ( includes a link to dealing with the toxic workplace that might be helpful.

You are also going to have to do some work to help yourself get back that "spunky, strong woman," because I've found what when you've been in a Kafka-esque place, the impacts can follow you in ways you don't realize until you start trying to interview.

Even if there are no openings right now, one of the best things you can do is to start meeting with and talking with people from all over, developing your network and developing a sense of new possibilities. This can also help you raise your spirits and feel more in control of things. And consider maybe taking your skills to other industries. I don't know your background, but it might be that you can find something that is a good match for you.

Good luck and I'm glad this post helped!

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