Trapped in a Toxic Workplace?

I lived with my toxic boss. He had almost total control. I had almost none.

Александр Македонский / Pexels

The Squall.

From a distance of three miles, the nighttime weather front looked like a solid obsidian wall that stretched the length of the horizon.

As our small Coast Guard ship approached the wall, I found it increasingly difficult to believe it wasn’t solid — that we weren’t going to collide with it, sending the ship and it’s 60 crew to our deaths miles beneath the lonely Pacific Ocean.

Instead of colliding with a rock wall, we entered a maelstrom — it had been calm and dry. Suddenly winds increased to more than 50 mph. Then our wind speed indicator broke and blew off into oblivion. Calm water became a caldron. As a bona-fide landlubber, I wasn’t sure what was worse, the terror of being virtually alone in the Pacific (in the early 1990s — before the widespread use of GPS and equipped with nothing more than a Marconi era communication system) during this squall — where it would be days before the Coast Guard (my own employer) knew that one of its own ships had disappeared OR having to continue to work for the tyrant.

We made our way through the squall and many others — real and figurative. I was a newly minted Coast Guard officer, fresh out of officer training and a follow up course at the U.S. Navy’s Dive School. I had ‘orders’ to report to a small (180’) ship stationed in Guam. The ship was currently near Seattle undergoing maintenance…so upon completion of Navy Dive School I drove to Seattle to meet the ship, the Captain (henceforth known as “Queeq”) and begin the adventure of a lifetime: A Pacific Ocean crossing and two years working as the ship’s lead SCUBA diver in Micronesia.

It was ominous from the beginning.

Queeg had virtually dropped out of sight during the lengthy maintenance period. So instead of meeting the Commanding Officer, I met the #2 — the Executive Officer, and a talented, but largely unled crew.

All were holed up in a cheap motel — waiting for the project’s completion so we could board the ship, head down the West coast to San Francisco, from there to Hawaii, and eventually an additional 3303 miles to Guam (I remember the 3303 miles — despite my trip planning experience being 30 years ago — because I was thrashed by Queeg when I had to look at my notes to tell him the mileage).

The first really dark signs indicating an abusive and toxic environment emerged during an incident that occurred several hundred miles west of San Francisco.

It was clear that something was caught on the ship’s propeller. My dive team was assigned to investigate and remove whatever it was. The team — new to me and rusty as hell after 6 months of no diving due to the maintenance period — was in no shape to conduct an open ocean investigation of the ship’s propeller in dubious weather — choppy 6-foot seas.

Frankly I lacked the judgement and the morale courage to tell Queeg it was unsafe and to refuse to deploy my dive team.

Having nothing better to do, the entire crew gathered around me, my small team, and Queeg. My guys wanted to go — but weren’t practiced.

Nevertheless, Queeg looked right at me — pointed, and said — loudly enough for the entire crew to hear — “you can refuse to dive, but if anything happens to my ship as a result, and I go down [careerwise], I will take you down with me.”

Not exactly leadership 101.

We did dive, found and resolved the problem, but the tone set did not bode well.

By the time of the squall, we had passed through Hawaii — picked up an old station wagon for Queeg, loaded it on our deck (really) and I spent each mid-watch (12–4 AM) watching it rock back and forth on its tie down chains wondering what I’d do if it came loose and went over the side. I actually considered simply jumping overboard and drifting to the bottom of the Pacific with it.

The situation continued to degrade — all of the new officers felt the wrath of Queeg daily — yet after a year we became quietly hopeful that Queeg’s transfer out would result in a new Commanding Officer who at least had some basic leadership skill and self-awareness.

We were disappointed.

The new guy — Queeg 2 — was, from my perspective a bona-fide sociopath. He shaved his head, walked around with a parakeet on his shoulder, shoved junior officers, screamed at us over things like his favorite salad dressing not being on the table, threatened to end our careers etc…

It was miserable. I — by choice — never went to sea again during my 25-year career.

Thus, I am familiar with a toxic work environment.

My aversion to such an environment is epic. My days on the ship started in a state of anxiety and ended in a state of anxiety. It made what could have been a wonderful 2 years in Micronesia a nightmare of anxiety and dysfunction.

I was young and inexperienced — I assume that this was just what all new officers had to endure. I felt trapped, but was resigned to what I thought was my fate.

Reflecting back on it though — it was not my fate. Nobody should have to endure such a work environment — yet I know many of you do.

Unfortunately, some who read this may not be able to change their circumstances — they need the work to survive. I feel for you.

Is Your Workplace Toxic?

Here are some indicators based on my personal experience:

1. Kind of like porn — you know it when you see it…or feel it.

2. Do you have a boss or bosses who ‘lead’ through fear?

3. Do you have a company culture that condones, or just permits these people to ‘lead’ this way — in other words, out of touch management or worse, management supportive of people who can deliver short term results regardless of cost.

4. Is there high turnover?

5. Is there low morale?

Work in America — by dint of our ‘always on’ culture — is rarely fun. But you should be able to find a degree of contentment and you absolutely should not be in a constant state of anxiety.

If you are really fortunate, you work in a company with a great culture — that is a culture that indicates management is aware that high levels of employee satisfaction and morale yield excellent long-term results, lower turnover and ultimately are a great indicator of potential company success.

These companies reward employees not just monetarily, but importantly, by respecting them.

Many companies may fail to meet this bar.

It’s unfortunate, because it’s just common sense. However, it is still possible to find some fulfillment at such a company — as long as the culture does not condone abusive behavior.

For those who can afford to move on, my advice if you find yourself in an abusive and toxic work environment is this:

1. It is NOT a rite of passage that you have to endure. It is dysfunctional and harmful. Never feel like I did — that it’s what everyone has to endure to advance.

It is not — if it is part of the culture where you work, you are at the wrong company.

2. Get Out! As soon as you can. There are many places to work with good healthy cultures. Your gut will tell you when it’s wrong and when it’s right.

3. Learn. The only upside to my experience — I learned how NOT to treat people. Pay attention, try not to internalize the abuse (it’s not your problem, it’s the abuser’s problem) and do not forget how de-motivating the abuse was. Never treat your future subordinates the way the abuser treated you. This takes a large dose of self-awareness — toxic bosses produce more toxic bosses. Use the experience to your advantage.

Toxic workplaces are not normal. Because the damaged people who lead through fear experienced it in their past does not mean it is somehow useful for you to experience it too. This makes no sense.

A 25 year Coast Guard officer — and currently a full-time Airstream nomad.

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