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How were you able to be successful when your environment was toxic and dangerous?

I'm a student at Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in East Oakland, California. I aspire to be a software and/or agricultural engineer. #engineer

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Dexter’s Answer

Hi Oscar,

During my working career, I had a few managers who were terrible.

My first bad manager was one who did not communicate well, and it wasn’t the worst working for her, but during review, when I had done stellar work (was force to not take vacations because I had no backup, was the “lead” for a small team with managerial duties without the pay, was overseeing a bad employee who was on a performance improvement plan, etc), she told me that due to one meeting where I had drifted off for a bit and had asked the person asking the question to repeat the question, that I was not a high performer and that I was a good employee. I had always been a high performer in my career, and that made me question all that I gave to the company. I was able to find another role in a different team a few months after that, so I was able to move under a much better manager.

My second bad manager was one who just thought web development was for people who were failed software developers. He wanted “cool”, “trending” features on websites when they weren’t needed and felt that the development time needed for these features should be short, as they were “simple”. He also was someone who would come in hot and micromanage me (and my team) for a week while he was in town, then disappear for a month or two while he worked remotely. This was also very demoralizing, but after about a year and a half, I was moved under a different manager, who went to the VP and correctly guessed that my team’s moral was low due to bad management.

Lastly, a few years ago, I had a manager that was actually toxic. He was an aggressive personality who disliked most ideas that came up, and then the next day, would have a great idea that was the same (or very similar) to the previously dismissed idea. He also didn’t see people as people, but as replaceable parts. He did though, have few loyal lieutenants, who were loyal because he was really good at promoting people, even when they did not deserve it. Because of my tenure and reputation, I was able to meet my manger’s manger and work out a transfer to a different team over a period of six month. This did take a terrible toll on my team as after the transfer, that manager had it out for me. Although my team started off at six people, my team ended up being just two (he was successfully cutting off work for me as a way to layoff me and my team). Eventually, HR caught up with him and he was let go from the company (it turned out that there were dozens of issues filed against him).

Even with bad managers, however, I always led my team by example and always worked with my personal values (Honesty, Efficiency, Loyalty, and Compassion). Regardless of how much I didn’t want to give a care about my work, it would simply bother me too much to put in less than stellar work, but yet receive my pay check. It also helped that I had a team under all three of the bad managers, as I felt the need to protect my team, and that kept me going even when I really did want to give up. I mean, if I were to quit, what would my people have to go through with even less power than I had?

I really hope that you don’t meet bad managers in your future career, but even if you do, hold on to your personal values and even when things aren’t fair, do your best. Only if you do your best will management see enough value to help you. Another piece of advice is to make sure that other managers in different groups know what you are doing, so that if things get really, really bad, you can reach out to them and see if you can move roles.

Best of luck Oscar!

Thanks for the insightful advice Mr. Arver. I will make sure to persevere when times become unfair. Oscar A.

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Dana’s Answer

I've had toxic coworkers and horrible managers over the years and it took me forever to figure out how to coexist. Toxic is problematic but dangerous sounds like you should get out of that environment as soon as possible.

I worked on a direct marketing and ecommerce team that did a lot of mailings. We had to come up with campaign ideas and I had a coworker who stole my rejected work out of my garbage, re-purposed one and presented it to management. Her campaign was chosen over mine. She was also rewarded at a team meeting for working long hours on a project that won us a million dollar contract that I actually had to do because she couldn't miss her yoga classes. When I approached our VP about some of the issues, she basically told me it was my own fault and it was a "dog eat dog world".

My team and I were moved out from a great director to one who was an absolute micro-manager. She didn't like my management style from the beginning. During my mid year review she told me she was going to put me on an action plan which required immediate improvement over 30 days with the potential to be let go from the company. This after 10 years straight of having "highly successful" reviews. I was so blind sided that I had a panic attack during the meeting.

I had to completely conform to her style of management and enforce her style on my entire team of direct reports. Thankfully my team loved me and we were able to work through all of her crazy ideas for creating reports, interacting with different departments and gaining exposure to management to promote our results. Hardest lesson I ever learned. I won her over completely to the point that she thought we had a great relationship. Everyone knew what a tyrant she was, so I gained a lot of respect from my other coworkers for just surviving under her.

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Dan’s Answer

Hi Oscar,
A few things come to mind:

Always be learning. Don't settle into a narrow job, even if you are the best in the world at what you do, because that limits your possibilities. I have always been an over-achiever, and a few of my jobs over the past 20 years have been for terrible companies or terrible people. Because I was always learning new things I have always been able to move up or move to a new company.

Meet people at other companies. I think there are a bunch of meetups near you, and lots of good companies. Meet people, learn new tech, and don't limit yourself.

If the toxic environment is something other than a lousy boss then post more detail so that people can provide better more targeted advice. I hope you find a better environment. I stayed with a terrible company for twelve years because I was afraid to leave. When I finally decided to leave I found a wonderful group of people to work with. Don't waste twelve years!!

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Richard’s Answer

Hi Oscar-Hope you are well! I actually have had a recent experience with a co-worker who was toxic. This individual was constantly negative, created drama, talked behind my back, and refused to train me during my onboarding period as they believed I should figure things out myself. At first, I was aggravated by this as I never personally experienced anything like this. The approach I took to mediate this situation was to not show any reaction or feelings to this person. I always continued to come in every morning with a smile and said "Good Morning." The next step I took was to communicate quickly and directly to my leader as communication is key. My leader advised me that this was somewhat of a pattern with this particular individual and to not take anything personally and the issue was already being addressed. Knowing that management had my back was a confidence booster and gave me the support I needed.

Another tip that I took on personally was to network and find people and mentors that you trust so you can vent in confidentiality. Having people you can trust and know anything you say is safe with them is huge. For example, if you toxic co-worker has frustrated you, you can talk about it with your mentor and they may suggest a plan or action for you to take or just to listen.

My last words of advice are "Treat others how you want to be treated and more often than not, good things will happen."

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Brittany’s Answer

Hi Dexter,

Great question and one that will depend on a lot of follow up questions (e.g., exactly what do you define as "toxic"? Are you referring to leadership, your manager, coworkers, policies, the work environment?).

What I can share with you is my personal experience with a "toxic" coworker: to me, this meant always talking behind other backs and never having anything positive to say. I noticed myself being less positive the more I went to lunch with this coworker, and so I had to separate myself from the negativity. I hung around this coworker less and started to surround myself with more positive people, which really had helped me become more optimistic and overall a healthier being.

As Oprah has said, "Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher"!