update: can this dysfunctional organization be saved?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Back in 2014, I printed a letter from someone who had been hired to help change a terribly dysfunctional organization — including a horribly unhappy staff, a CEO who wouldn’t manage, and an HR person who gasped at the thought of a hypothetical firing. I said the letter-writer couldn’t salvage this. Here’s the update.

I wrote you in 2014 about my new fundraising job at the overwhelmingly broken non-profit organization. Your advice was that I couldn’t change things, because the leadership had no intention of changing. I was in my optimistic/delusional honeymoon phase when I got your response, and I decided that I would invest my whole being into making it work. I stuck it out for a little over 4 years, and holy cow were you right and was I ever wrong – in basically every way – that there was nothing I could do to change the intrinsic organizational culture.

It was the most puzzling, mind-blowingly confusing and broken place I had ever worked. The lack of self awareness from the folks in charge was epic. I learned over time that folks who were smart and capable self-selected out, which left a whole bevy of questionable hires in charge of whole departments. It all went to the top of the org, the CEO – and his only motivation was to protect his job.

That being said, I had some incredibly valuable experiences at this job. I got to research some pet projects, present at some national conferences, and as a result I was asked to fly across the country a few times to speak at various sister nonprofits! I was so thrilled that people would pay me to travel just to hear what I had to say – it was incredible. I made some deep friendships with the folks doing the work on the ground, too. They helped me stay sane – that and reading your blog every day, which was like a window into how sane managers and business *should* think.

About three years in to my tenure at the big org, I interviewed for a job with another organization. I was one of two finalists, and after a very long process, they offered the job to someone else. My first instinct was to get angry and write them off entirely, but I made a decision to handle it differently. Based on everything I learned from you and your awesome blog, I took the news incredibly professionally: I wrote follow-up thank you notes to each interview team member, enthusiastically congratulating them on making the hire and excited to see what their organization could achieve in the coming years. I emphasized that if another opportunity came up that I would be thrilled to be considered. I kept in touch with one member of the hiring committee, having coffee every few months to discuss sector trends, workplace challenges, and remain connected. I focused on keeping our interactions professional, positive and supportive. I volunteered at a few of their events and knocked it out of the park every time.

A year after I was turned down for the job, the person they hired gave notice, and they called me that afternoon and offered it to me if I was still interested. I accepted. I have been here for almost a year and it has been wonderful. I absolutely adore my work and I am very lucky.

The two biggest downsides to staying at the broken organization were, in hindsight: a) the hit my reputation took in the community. Once people knew i was affiliated with the org, they instantly had opinions formed about me and my capabilities, which caused some challenges, and b) the hit it took on my sanity. For the first 6 months or so at my new job I kept having mini-panic attacks at the slightest mistake, expecting to get yelled at, fired, or otherwise humiliated. I had no idea how much a dysfunctional organization could warp my sense of workplace norms. Now, in retrospect, all of the drama and insanity of that job that I got swept up into just seem silly, sad and… far away? Like it was a dream or something.

I am so lucky that I found something new – thanks for helping me navigate the mess with your awesome interview help, blog, book, and resources! Your work has educated me about the workplace in ways I never would have expected.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Cartographical*

    I love this update because it shows the benefits of a positive response to disappointment. Even if OP hadn’t gotten the second job in the long run, I expect the hit to their reputation would have been mitigated by the positive exposure and networking and raising their profile in that sector in general. Smart and likely much better for their mental health in the long run. Congrats on the good work, OP, and I’m sorry your original org couldn’t get over themselves enough to take advantage of what you were offering, you sound both dedicated and competent.

    1. Radio Girl*

      Yes, that was my reaction, too. I think learning how to handle disappointment is an important skills that can be used at work, at home and in relationships.

      I love this update.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Same. OP was smart to be so mature about the job rejection. And now Alison can use this as an example of why not burning bridges is the way to go if you get rejected from a job you really wanted. Nice work, OP! I’m also supremely impressed you stuck around at the old job for four years and glad you finally got out of there and think of it all as just a dream.

        1. OP*

          Aww, thanks! Honestly I was prud of myself for taking this route, I got really sad and disappointed with the initial rejection, but then i stopped myself and basically said “OK, so what would Allison say to do?” It was a big shift in my thinking. :-)

  2. Old Admin*

    Holy moley maccaroni.
    OP, could you give us any more details? Could you fire / hire people? Could you audit finances? Bring in consultants? Talk to the board?

    1. Not Today Satan*

      I’ve worked at a few nonprofits, and sadly in my experience boards have never been interested in anything less critical than “the whole staff is on strike” or “we’re about to run out of money and close within a month.” Stuff like culture issues, even at toxic levels, or turnover or anything like that never seems worthy of their time to address.

      By the way, I’m on a board, and I’m involved. I don’t mean to talk trash on all board members. But ultimately I think as a system of governance and checks and balances, “board oversight” is broken more often than not.

      1. Minnesota Nice*

        Agreed. Most non-profit boards, in my experience, only talk to the ED and are barely aware of the staff. So if the ED tells them everything is hunky dory, and the balance sheet looks okay, they don’t inquire further. I worked at a place with terrible culture and management problems, huge turnover, projects getting cancelled… but the board was too removed to understand or care, so nothing was addressed. There’s basically no accountability for a non-profit ED as long as the money is still coming in. It’s a problem.

        1. Not Today Satan*

          Yep, it actually bothers me a lot. So many nonprofits with excellent missions and government funding are run into the ground by an incompetent ED who essentially answers to no one. That the board only, as you notes, hears the ED’s side of the story is a recipe for disaster.

          I don’t mean to be too cynical, but it seems like a lot of board members are in it for the networking opportunities and resume boosters. I wonder if it’d be better if more nonprofits had paid boards obligated to put in a certain number of hours a month-instead of showing up to a board meeting every month or quarter and rubber stamping whatever the ED presents to them.

          1. CmdrShepard4ever*

            I think it is a tricky situation. Some boards are comprised of friends of the ED/CEO so those people are loyal to that person and any board member that makes waves they will be replaced.

            I had a friend serve on the board of a smaller artistic non-profit. It was a younger board the focus was not so much the board raising money, but each board member using their particular skills expertise to help make the organization better. After a certain point I think most board members realized that the real problem was the ED who was also the founder and an artist of that particular medium. The ED/founder ran the organization with the best of intentions, but disregarded most advice from the board. The board realized they needed to remove and replace the ED. But the organization was not self sustaining in its fundraising abilities, and most years the ED/Founder would donate to make up any budget shortfalls. In that regard the board was afraid to replace the ED/Founder and lose that donation stream. Eventually everyone on the board left when they realized they were just hitting a concrete wall. I think the organization now has a rubber stamp board.

            1. your favorite person*

              I have an interview with a organization that, after doing research, looks like it was a one woman show for about 10 years. The founder has passed but I’m really afraid of the board being made up of her friends and not allowing me to make changes that would be contrary to what the founder would do. Any advice/questions to ask the board to see if they were a ‘rubber stamp’ board?

              1. Not Today Satan*

                I’d ask what involvement the board has between meetings, maybe if you’re feeling brave, if the board has never voted down a suggestion from the ED. Fwiw in my experience boards of very small orgs are usually more involved, out of necessity. There can still be an unhealthy dynamic though.

                1. Observer*

                  The problem with your second question is that the answer may not really tell you much. I suspect that the Board of my employer has not voted down too many (if any) of my ED’s suggestions. But that’s because he’s always VERY prepared when he goes to the Board. I’ve been in a meeting or two where he’s presented a proposal as well as having presented a few times to the Board. And they ask questions – good, relevant and pointed questions. And he has good answers. On the other hand, I’ve seen boards where the ED gets over-ruled, but it’s not because the Board is exercising appropriate oversight, but are either micromanaging or pushing something they want for whatever reason.

              2. Not in US*

                Also ask what kind of training and development the board has for its members. I sat on a board of a very well run organization and the training and education the board had was amazing. They really wanted educated and informed board members who understood their jobs and also how that differed from the ED. This organization also had metrics that were tracked that would have raised flags if there were staff issues, things like employee turnover and engagement were reported to the board regularly. But the org was also big enough that things like employee engagement surveys were possible without singling out individuals.

            2. Smithy*

              I worked at a nonprofit where just before I joined, a major sexual harassment/incompetence/ financial mismanagement scandal resulted the majority of the board resigned, ED quitting, and the largest donor stepping in to provide significant oversight during the rebuild.

              Therefore, when a new ED joined who employed a number of super dubious practices around hiring laws and nepotism – the remaining and new board members were so scared of a second scandal that they did everything to paper over, ignore, and dismiss every complaint.

              In truth, the organization likely would not have survived a second major disruption in such a short time period – and for those key decision makers – it was worth it for the organization’s preservation. While lots of nonprofit employees can be told to endure a lot of terrible practices “for the cause” – board members also serve “for the cause”. And even for those who are engaged – that can lead to some really unprofessional behavior.

        2. Antilles*

          Not in the non-profit sector myself, but I’ve heard the same thing consistently from all the stories, comments, etc – the board essentially gets their information only from the ED and written fiscal reports, with no information from anyone else unless it’s a building-on-fire level emergency.
          The only exceptions I’ve heard of come when someone has a pre-existing conduit to a board member independent of the organization (former co-workers, neighbors, same church group, etc), so the staff member can unofficially approach them and be taken seriously.

        3. anonhere*

          I tried to rein in a corrupt ED – think nonprofit very closely tied to for profit business. We brought in an outside evaluator, had the report done, reached out to the larger org we belonged to for guidance, tried to create some policy changes. In the end, the ED worked around me while I was out of town, cowed the rest of the board – some of whom were employees of the for profit which the ED managed – and I stepped down. It was disheartening, because the nonprofit (and the for profit business) did such important work. But corruption is corruption.

      2. AnonNGOworker*

        Agree with this 100%. Worked in 2 very dysfunctional non profits in last 11 years and your comment is perfect.

  3. Not Today Satan*

    When I saw the description of the first letter, for a second I thought, “did I get this letter published?”

    I also was hired to be a change agent at a dysfunctional nonprofit. A year in, it’s a total mess and senior leadership (essentially, the CEO who runs the org like a benevolent dictatorship) won’t give me anything more than lip service. I think I’m gonna try to stick it out another year (which I think would make it easier to climb the ranks at another org, rather than make a lateral move, since this job was a step up for me) and then leave.

    I do worry about the reputation part of this letter though–I do think my org is known to be a mess.

    1. Clorinda*

      OP gave an excellent demonstration on how to create your own reputation independent of the dysfunctional organization.

      1. EPLawyer*

        OP also pointed out why it was insane to stay. Staying another year is not going to make a big difference. The hit to your reputation by staying at a known dysfunctional org can make it harder to climb the ranks. there are no points for showing you “stick it out in an insane place.”

        1. Antilles*

          Especially since it’s hard to say whether OP’s experiences are available to other people at other non-profits.
          Does the organization allow for employees to spend time working on pet research projects? Do they have the budget and clout to allow for flying people out to national conferences? Are the ‘folks on the ground’ knowledgeable and friendly enough to get valuable friendships?

    2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      You should, re the reputation. If you’re really visible on your own and able to prove your general competence in the sector, you may be all right. But I’ve more than once had resumes in hand for people who worked in badly-run non-profits, and found myself uncertain whether they’re part of the problem or trying to get out because they can’t fix it and how much effort I really want to put into finding out. In those circumstances, a shortish tenure is not a knock.

      1. OP*

        I have to agree – the other thing i didn’t think about till now: other people at functional organizations were growing their skills and getting better. This place was so messed up that it was impossible to grow in my skill set for my core job function. It’s kinda like the stroke slogan: time lost is brain lost. If I could go back in time I would make a change sooner, rather than later.

  4. JM in England*

    Kudos to you OP!

    I worked at some dysfunctional companies in my early career, which seriously skewed my perception of workplace norms. Sadly, AAM was not around at the time I was at these places….

  5. HeroineTuz*

    We need more stories like this. Prioritise yourself and our well-being over everything! Such an amazing update!

  6. Theory of Eeveelution*

    You know, I want to look forward to Update Season, but it’s sad that 90% of the updates are, “I didn’t take your advice and nothing changed/everything got worse.” It’s true that a lot of them end with new jobs, but, FOUR YEARS? People! Respect yourselves! Respect your mortality! You won’t get those years back! One panic attack is too many!

  7. Oranges*

    Awwws. Poor OP got stuck in the sunk cost fallacy and the one person can change everything*. I’m glad that it worked out for you in the long run.

    *only works if you are surrounded by people who also want the change

  8. Jaybeetee*

    Sorry you weren’t able to make a difference in the place, though it sounds like you gained some skills and experiences out of it (as well as some life lessons).

    I started my career at a small non-profit museum, where most of the staff was students and recent grads. Even the “upper management” was largely in their late 20s/early 30s, with a rotating door of middle-aged exec directors. Both heritage and “small non-profits” are known for a certain amount of wackiness, and a young staff – that often had limited or zero other experience in that field, exacerbated it. Lots of eccentric personalities, lots of middle-school politicking, lots of insecure micromanaging by young, inexperienced managers. Some outright sabotage and mean-girl behaviour. What really threw me is that in the 2.5 years I was there (I was one of the longest-term full-time employees – we used to joke working there was like “dog years”, most people didn’t stay past a year or a year and a half, but anyway), there was 100% turnover of full-time staff. *All* the managers changed, the ED changed, of course a lot of the entry-level people moved on. And somehow… it was *still* dysfunctional as heck. It was like the toxic staff would pass on the bad habits to the newer staff, so even when the “toxic elements” moved on or were ousted, those habits were ingrained in the staff that was there – who then passed on those habits to subsequent hires.

    About three years after I left, I randomly came across a woman who had started shortly before my departure, who had herself just left (so at least tenure had gotten a bit better) – and she said it was the same drama-filled place I remembered. Anyway, like you, I did gain a lot of valuable skills and experiences during my time there, actually had a lot of fun at times, and honestly, today I look back on it rather fondly – even though you’d have to back up a Brinks truck to ever convince me to work there again. Hopefully, with a little more time, you’ll be able to look back on the happier times, and laugh a little at the crazier times.

    1. Not Australian*

      I worked for two years in a legal firm where the staff turnover was 180% during my tenure; useful experience, and I loved the work itself, but management lurched from crisis to crisis and never seemed to work out that they – and not the junior staff – were actually the cause of the problem.

  9. Anonymous Poster*

    I’m glad you were able to move to a new job! I used to volunteer for a nonprofit that seemed to put its higher-ranking volunteers through a similar experience, and I’m happy for everyone who moves on from things like this.

  10. Minnesota Nice*

    Now, in retrospect, all of the drama and insanity of that job that I got swept up into just seem silly, sad and… far away? Like it was a dream or something.

    This is a perfect description of how it feels to leave a toxic job. When you’re in it, it’s all-consuming and feels vitally important. Once you leave, you can completely disconnect yourself from the projects, coworkers, bosses, etc. that were causing you so much pain, and just…not care about any of it anymore. It’s so hard to imagine ever being able to do that when you’re stuck in the toxic place, but once you manage to break out, it is the BEST feeling ever. The emotional distance is priceless.

    1. AnonNGOworker*

      This is very true. The immediate after effects may include PTSD, really, but in the long run after therapy, it is true that the emotional distance is priceless.

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        It took me years to stop having those dreams, the first time around.

        The second time a place I worked became dysfunctional, I took the hint and left as soon as the “we like it this way” warning flags went up. No regrets– and in retrospect, having had to process the first experience helped me avoid the quicksand the second organization has become before I was too deep to get out.

      2. WantonSeedStitch*

        I found that my dreams about my old toxic workplace went through stages:
        1. Nightmares where I was still working there and it was miserable
        2. Dreams where I was still working there–but realized that it had to be a dream because I wasn’t, really anymore
        3. Dreams where I was filling in randomly but knew it was only temporary
        4. Dreams where my old boss was taking over my department at my new workplace and everyone (including me) was leaving in droves and going “OH HELL NO,”
        5. Dreams where I encountered my old boss and was thrilled because I had an opportunity to tell him off

        Now THAT’S healing!

        1. Free now (and forever)*

          One of my toxic ex-workplaces was a private boarding school, where I worked from 1976-1977. I still occasionally have bad dreams about being there. Forty plus years later! Now that’s PTSD!

        2. Argh!*

          This was so true for me too. Eventually I started dreaming that I was visiting, or that I’d been rehired, and I encountered friendly people who remembered me…. but then the elevator didn’t go to the 3rd floor and I had to go up to the 7th, down to the 2nd, then take a different elevator or something. I had these dreams when things went wrong in the new job.

          Eventually my uncoachable supervisee and my cold-as-ice boss started to appear instead of stand-ins from the old job. I hope they don’t appear in my dreams after I move on! I want to dream about puppies and kittens.

    2. Code Monkey, the SQL*

      I read a book once, called Company, I believe, and it was so, so on the nose about this. All of the dysfunction and how it seems so vital while you’re there and then so irrelevant once you leave.

  11. Allypopx*

    “I had no idea how much a dysfunctional organization could warp my sense of workplace norms.”

    God this is so important. Because this person KNEW they were in a dysfunctional environment, they knew things were crazy, they tried to keep tapped into how sane organizations run, and still felt like their norms got warped. It’s so much worse for people who don’t realize how bad their situation is, or how abnormal.

    Anyone in a toxic environment take this as your cue to run!

    1. Digley Doowap*

      This happens in many toxic relationships and not just at work. There were 3 toxic relationships in my wife’s family where people stay together and only realize how one sided and toxic their relationship is only when they leave it.

      1. hayling*

        Agree to both! I had a horrible micromanager boss and it completely warped my sense of confidence. At my next job, it tooks months before I could trust what my manager said at face value. I am sure I drove her crazy with my constant checking in and confirming every little thing, but I was so conditioned to be randomly criticized for not looping my boss in to things that I had to re-learn how to work independently.

    2. OP*

      This is a good point. Luckily, I had a band of colleageus – about 6 of us, who were smart and motivated and relatively sane, and we checked in with each other a lot saying “um, am i crazy or is this totally abnormal???” one of the reasons I didn’t completely go off the deep end.

  12. Sharikacat*

    Part of me would like to think that if the CEO is that averse to confrontation, a sufficiently senior-level hire could bully him into being given the authority to fire people, then start taking a hatchet to things. Wishful thinking, I know.

  13. Sara without an H*

    Congratulations, OP! It sounds as though you did your best to build your career under very unpromising circumstances. Organizational culture is incredibly resistant to change, even when there’s a strong desire for change at all levels. Lone Rangers aren’t enough to do it.

    Your letter illustrates what I think is a real danger of working for any length of time in a bad organization: not only does it warp your own expectations of how workplaces function (a frequent topic here at AAM), but the longer you stay, the more likely you are to find your reputation damaged by your association with the place. (“Their resume shows exactly the combination of experiences we want — but they got most of their experience at Awful Industries. Let’s keep looking.”)

    I’m glad you were able to grow your own career and build your professional reputation in spite of it all. Thanks for updating us, and best of luck in 2020.

    1. OP*

      As my 90 year old aunt used to say when I told her about my unhappiness at that job, “well, you don’t have a piano tied to your ass!” :-)

  14. Artemesia*

    The way you handled not getting the job is golden. My daughter had something similar — she stayed in touch, ended up doing some contract work for them and when the ‘first choice’ moved on was hired and was herself COO in a couple of years. Sometimes they mean it when they say ‘keep in touch’ and ‘it was really close.’

  15. Cathie from Canada*

    This letter also shows how a thoughtful, professional person can take lemons and make lemonade. OP made their own “luck”, so to speak, instead of letting a dysfunctional organization ruin their career. Very inspirational.

  16. goodbye!*

    I’ve been working in an increasingly dysfunctional org very similar to the one described here, waffling over whether I should leave or try to wait out some much-needed retirements (plus the pay is really good). This update is the kick in the butt I needed. One or two people leaving isn’t going to change a dysfunctional culture. This place isn’t going to change in any reasonable amount of time. I need to get out for the sake of my mental health and my career. Thank you, updater!

  17. Argh!*

    “the hit it took on my sanity. For the first 6 months or so at my new job I kept having mini-panic attacks at the slightest mistake, expecting to get yelled at, fired, or otherwise humiliated. I had no idea how much a dysfunctional organization could warp my sense of workplace norms.”

    Chronic stress can cause similar symptoms as PTSD. After leaving a chronically damaging work situation, I had stress dreams for YEARS! Every time something little went wrong in the new job, that night I’d have a dream that I was back at the old place and something random & bad was happening, like the elevator doesn’t go to the 3rd floor, or I am dealing with all the people who made my life miserable for years.

    For about 3 years the new job has been chronically stressful due to some unsolvable toxicity brought in by a new grandboss who seems able to kiss up and kick down without repercussions. People at any level, down to part-timers working minimum wage, can get yelled at for almost anything, but he has pets who can do no wrong. I’ve broken two teeth from night-time bruxism, developed diabetes and back issues, and I came close to losing my gall bladder. I’ve had uncontrollable rages and crying fits after work. Therapy has helped some, but when you have to face the stressor that causes the symptoms every day there’s only so much you can do. I told my therapist that my goal was to get my old personality back. And yes, I’m applying for other jobs! It’s your whole life while you’re in the middle of it, but it’s just a job and there are other jobs.

    Congratulations for moving on.

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