do I have any chance of fixing my dysfunctional job?

A reader writes:

I work for a medium-sized company that has recently exploded in growth. Our culture and history has always been to do things independently, and as a result, much of our staff (including senior executives, directors, and managers) is home grown, with little experience outside of this company.

Perhaps you can already see where this is going: we’ve gotten bigger than our existing infrastructure and expertise can support. We lack processes, understanding, and any true means to do the work in a way that would be permissible at any other company. Most of my 15-person team feels like there is no direction at all, and in fact it seems that senior leadership genuinely doesn’t even know what a strategy is (literally, they have used the word to mean a different definition). We are often gaslit, instructed to do management-level planning (but then those plans are ignored or scrutinized), and the only solutions that are enacted or supported are the “simple” ones that they can understand. My work has never been reviewed, aside from the pedantic encouragement to “make things easier.” After years of working here, management honestly can’t seem to understand the essentials that we need to do our job.

This has obviously led to very poor morale, and several of us have talked of quitting. However, there was recently a glimmer of hope: several staff, individually and as a group, spoke with the head of HR and made impassioned pleas for support. I have no doubt that HR listened, based on the feedback they’ve provided and the emotions they showed (which ranged from shock and frustration to outright tears) when listening. Afterward, I got the impression that they agreed that some sort of escalation was necessary. An outside consultant was one idea that appears plausible.

Aside from this gross mismanagement, this is my dream job. The pay is great for my industry and location, I love the field, I adore my company and its values. But I also have an opportunity to leave for a more traditional, boring, harder-working company. It would come with a pay cut. In short, I don’t want to leave, but I don’t know if I should stay.

When things are this bad and senior-level help agrees that something needs to be done, how much hope is reasonable? Can it be at all likely that the company will grow up and hold leadership accountable to do their jobs? If a consultant was brought in, what kind of organizational change might I expect? Or is this all just too unlikely, and should I consider leaving my dream job for something mundane just to be able to get things done?

If you decide to stay, assume things will stay basically the same as they are now.

It’s not that companies don’t ever change. Sometimes they do. But the impetus for that needs to come from the company’s senior leaders; it’s very hard, if not impossible, to force this kind of change from below if top-level management isn’t fully bought in.

And that’s because they’re the ones who need to change. They’re the ones who have to do the (very hard) work of learning to manage differently, of creating new structures and practices, of setting the bar much higher than they have up until now, and probably of hiring (and then listening to) staff who may be more skilled than they are. They also might need to do the sometimes painful work of realizing that the skills that brought them this far aren’t enough to carry the company through its next stage of growth, and that they might need to bring in leaders who do have expertise and experience in managing a company of this size. But if they’re not fully committed to doing that work, it’s usually not going to happen. That commitment has to come from them or from whoever is above them, like a company owner, board of directors, or investors — people with the power to say “this must change” and then hold them accountable to doing that.

To be fair, some management teams do make that commitment, and they seek out competent help to guide them. And sometimes they come to that point because lower-level staff speak up and name the problems they’re seeing and demonstrate how it’s holding the company back. It’s possible that could happen here … but if things are so bad that your HR person is crying when she hears your concerns, I’m skeptical about your management team’s level of interest in and ability to do this work.

And it’s important to realize that the HR person herself does not have the power to fix these issues. She can explain what she’s seeing, and she can make recommendations, but ultimately it’s up to your senior leadership. HR is only as effective as they’re allowed to be by the management above them.

The same would apply to any consultant they might bring in. Consultants can do a lot to assess what’s going on — they can survey staff and speak to them privately, and they can observe, assess, recommend, and coach. And sometimes outside consultants’ recommendations carry more weight because they’re experts. But a lot of companies have consultants come in, identify serious problems, make compelling recommendations about what to change … and then little to nothing happens.

Again, that doesn’t mean that’ll be the case at your company. Your company could be one of the good ones that recognizes it needs more help. And there’s nothing wrong with giving it some time so you can get more of a sense of how likely that is to happen.

But until and unless you see concrete evidence of changes being made, I would maintain a significant amount of skepticism — because making serious cultural changes is both difficult and rare.

Meanwhile, though, you don’t have to choose solely between this job and the lower-paying job you’re considering! Why not job-search more broadly and see what else is out there? You have a job that you enjoy in lots of ways, so you have the luxury of taking your time with a job search and not jumping at the first alternative you find. See what your options are, assess them against your current job, and decide from there.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 109 comments… read them below }

  1. Lily Rowan*

    Ugh. I used to work for a place that was a management disaster after fast growth with poor planning…. but that growth had happened years earlier and they had never gotten their act together. So then another growth spurt just made things worse. And it looks like they are currently in a third growth spurt and nothing has changed.

    AND it’s the kind of place that people work because they are passionate about it, so great people stay and give their all and burn out and feel bad about it, when it is not their fault — there should be better systems and structures and management and etc.

    It will not get better unless the people at the top are really committed to change, and so few people are. Get out of there!

    1. Mainly Lurking (UK)*

      This is giving me flashbacks to my former toxic workplace. The company had doubled in size a few years before I began, then increased in numbers again when they took over a smaller company, but they just hadn’t adapted to the changing needs of the organisation, in spite of a fairly sizeable HR team. They still seemed to be stuck in the practices of the 1980s.

      The staff who had been there for more than 15 years were very positive about their experience, because they had had access to more training and opportunities when they started in a smaller, more flexible workplace. Meanwhile most of the people who joined at around the same time I did left within three or four years (as did I), and sometimes sooner than that.

      When I had been there about a year, the employer conducted a detailed online staff survey, and there was some surprise in senior management at the negative responses they received. There were a number of workshops and meetings, but nothing really happened. I wouldn’t hold your breath, OP.

      1. Adminaf*

        Co-signing! It’s so hard because sometimes toxicity comes not from malice but from incompetence. I once worked for the nicest/kindest group of people who just had no idea how to run an organization. So no abusice or problematic behavior but just…a mess. They would listen to feedback but then never implemented change. It truly has to come from the top. You have my sympathy, op, but Alison is spot on.

    2. Forgot my username*

      You could be describing my current workplace, and I am terribly burned out and feel awful about it. Thank you for reminding me to keep looking for a new job.

  2. EPLawyer*

    The HR cried? That is not really a good sign. First of all, HR had no clue what was going on? Second of all, being told of dysfunction made them cry?

    If your HR behaves unprofessionally when hearing about problems, there is not much hope for fixing this place.

    1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

      That was my thought. If HR is so blindsided by workplace concerns as that, I don’t know that change will grow out of this organization organically.

      It’s possible, of course, but I think the more likely outcome is that the leadership will struggle for a while and then sell – many folks are good at one stage of managing a company, but not others.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        The thing is, HR works for upper management, not the other way around. So even if HR has total buy-in, it doesn’t follow that they have the power to fix the problems.

        1. HR Gal*

          Thank you Richard. I’m in HR and THIS is my exact problem. I can voice my opinion and opinions of my fellow employees, but until the CEOs, COOs, CFOs, etc. of the world actually realize there is a problem, there is no solution. I have the same situation at my job and I try 100% to be the voice of the people, but it’s a lost voice among ‘financials, budgets, profit, revenue, costs’. It’s a sad thing, but I’ve come to accept it.

          1. Ali G*

            That must be so hard! At my last job I was there ~5.5 years and we were on our 3rd HR director. I’ve heard that one has since left too, and it’s no surprise because as you say, if the Execs are interested in supporting any measures to make things better, your hands are tied.

          2. Gumato*

            I have the same situation at my job and I try 100% to be the voice of the people, but it’s a lost voice among ‘financials, budgets, profit, revenue, costs’. It’s a sad thing, but I’ve come to accept it.

            Then you’re going about it the wrong way. You work for a *business*. That means you *have* to be worried about “financials, budgets, profit, revenue, and costs.” You’re not there to be “the voice of the people.” If you have identified a problem that needs addressing, you need to make your case by couching it in terms of its impact on business metrics.

            1. andy*

              By the time the motivation is so low that productivity was lost in a way that is easy to measure, it is too late. Because by that time people who work there are not even trying to pretend.

              If the only thing you can talk about is business metric and are unable to discuss leadership issues around planning, process and direction, you should not be in management. Because then you are one of those managers that harm companies in the long term.

      2. andy*

        HR does not have the authority to fix management. The sort of complains they have can not be possibly fixed by HR and I have yet to hear about HR department that would deal with accountability around planning, direction or process.

        They can relay information to upper management and they can show compassion to employees. Or not show compassion. But that is about it.

    2. HRemployee*

      I want to stand up for my fellow HR professionals. It can be a frustrating job because you can make recommendations based on best practices or from what you have heard from employees but, if Senior Management doesn’t want to implement it, then your recommendations go nowhere. This HR person could have reached their breaking point.

      1. BRR*

        Yeah, I’m not necessarily concerned about HR in this letter. So many of the problems are beyond HR’s purview that I’m not sure what one would expect HR to do. I’d expect the overall lack of strategic planning to be know but I wouldn’t consider it anywhere close to standard for HR to know the day-to-day operations.

      2. Coder von Frankenstein*

        Unfortunately, it comes to the same thing from LW’s point of view. If HR is frustrated to the point of tears at their inability to get leadership to listen, that’s a clear sign that leadership ain’t listening and won’t change.

    3. selena*

      When i read that i assumed hr cried because of frustration: they know the problem but are powerless to fix it.

      Don’t be suprised if hr is the first to jump ship.

    4. HR Pro II*

      I’m trying to think of a workplace issue brought to me by employees that would make me cry actual tears in the office.

      …I can’t.

  3. Laurie*

    Removed — per an earlier discussion, I’m no longer hosting discussions here about other sites’ paywalls. – Alison

      1. hbc*

        Yeah, a lot of people stayed at my last company (or came back) simply because of the great benefits. Starting at 4 weeks vacation per year is no joke in US manufacturing. That plus location can make a lot of management shenanigans more palatable.

      2. BRR*

        I find this letter really interesting because my last job was a lot like this. I ended up being laid off (largely because nobody understood my work and how to implement it) and now make a good bit less. While my new job has issues, they’re nowhere near as bad. I thought I could make it work because the money was good and I’m not looking for a job to provide complete fulfillment in my life, but being devalued 40 hours a week is rough. I haven’t quite reached a “money can’t buy happiness” revelation (I believe that only applies to people who make a lot more than I do), but this type of environment can really take toll on someone.

      3. pancakes*

        I understand appreciating good pay, but getting promoted in a company that seems to have no resources for training higher-ups, asks lower-ranking employees for strategy at random, and leaves people in tears isn’t the best career opportunity I can think of. “I adore my company and its values” is confusing, too. There don’t seem to be many values beyond a haphazard lack of leadership.

        1. Gumato*

          Strategy is not something that should be cast down from on high, like Moses on Mt. Sinai. A well-formulated strategy is iterative and should reflect comments from all levels of the organization. The company was correct to ask lower-level employees for their views; after all, they are in the trenches and are the first to see what works and what doesn’t. Instead of complaining about this, OP should consider herself lucky to work for an organization that recognizes this and asked her for her opinion.

          1. pancakes*

            I didn’t mean to suggest that I think the problem here is the company asked lower-ranking employers for strategy, and I don’t believe I did. I don’t believe the letter-writer is complaining about having been asked to comment on strategy, either — the letter specifies that the problem is, “[m]ost of my 15-person team feels like there is no direction at all, and in fact it seems that senior leadership genuinely doesn’t even know what a strategy is (literally, they have used the word to mean a different definition). We are often gaslit, instructed to do management-level planning (but then those plans are ignored or scrutinized), and the only solutions that are enacted or supported are the ‘simple’ ones that they can understand.”

    1. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      More like a nightmare job. It’s time to jump ship.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’d rather deal with disorganized management than take a paycut and be under someone’s overly heavy thumb.

      It’s important to remember if we all had the same “Dream job” standards, we’d even more more screwed, as if there wasn’t enough competition out there for jobs anyways. *shrug*

    3. Gumato*

      I disagree with this. Based on what I have read, I do not think OP should take the offer. She will have less responsibility, lower pay, and most likely even less of an opportunity to influence policy at a bureaucratic corporation.

  4. Thankful for AAM*

    Does anyone have stories about the kinds of organizational change the OP is asking about? Have you experienced it yourself?

    Is making change from the bottom ever anything more than a bandaid?

    1. Jen*

      My first two companies were like this. I ended up just leaving and finally found a place that was “normal” and “decent”

    2. Ali G*

      No unfortunately. The #1 data point is whether or not those at the top are willing to put in the work to make change. At my first org (it wasn’t as bad as this letter) we brought in consultants to help us communicate and whatever else. The problem was the CEO didn’t want to do anything different. She didn’t believe she was a part of the problem and basically told us to figure it out for ourselves. Since she wasn’t a part of the process we did not succeed.

    3. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Change from the bottom is largely an illusion. Most employees are going to do whatever is required of them and whatever is in their own best interest, so if you have no authority to require anything, at best you’ll just be annoying.

    4. AndersonDarling*

      Bottom change is a myth. What is more likely to happen is there will be a buyout or a major scandal where the entire executive team is removed.
      I think it is funny that they think an outside consultant will help…the consultant would come in and the executives would bristle at being told they aren’t perfect and then the consultants will be thrown out. I’ve seen that scenario.

    5. irene adler*

      Back in the 1980’s, Ford wanted to start a quality movement. To achieve this, Dr. Deming was asked by Ford management to talk to the employees about quality.

      He did.

      Told them that 85% of the problems (revenue losses, company culture, management operations) were the result of management’s actions.

    6. hbc*

      It only works if management is incompetent but humble, really. They have to be receptive even if they don’t know how to change.

      Not unicorn-rare, but….

      1. CastIrony*

        It’s even rarer. I had a cook who hated how management was treating him, and guess what management did? Make it bad enough for him to quit.

    7. juliebulie*

      I’ve seen where a small company was bought out by a big one, and then new leadership was brought in to get us through the growing pains. A lot of high-ranking managerial heads rolled.

      I’ve even seen where a growing company’s owners brought in new leadership to get us all through the growing pains. A lot of high-ranking managerial heads rolled.

      You see what these two scenarios have in common.

      1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

        I’ve seen this from a distance in tech startups. In these companies, the founders often end up being the C-level executives, whether or not they’re actually any good at being C-level executives. (This is one of the reasons I don’t work for tech startups.)

        What happens is outside money (ie, not revenue from customers) shows up with strings attached. This can be in the form of a new round of venture capital funding, or a purchase by a larger company. One of these strings is usually that one or more of the startup’s C-level executives get replaced by candidates selected by the group bringing in the new money. Best case scenario, the new C-level executives know how to run a company well and make it profitable, while the original founders get to move into high level subject matter expert roles that play to their strengths. (Of course, there’s a lot of ways this can go bad, too.)

        1. Rachel in NYC*

          I went to a tech event once where someone said (using the example of 2 founders)- you can’t both be the ideas/tech guy. Someone has to be the business guy who handles running the business. Each of you needs different responsibilities and different tasks.

          The idea being multi-fold but always seemed to include that you need management skills to run a business.

          My current employer as one of the 52 things we do actually connects early stage start-ups (in certain fields) with C-level executives for them to get advice- and in some cases, the C-level ends up being the C-level for the start up if they connect. As mentioned, VCs tend to want C-levels with experience and this way the start-up has gotten to choose someone who they feel is a good fit for them.

      2. Coder von Frankenstein*

        Yeah, this. I’m sure there are cases where dysfunctional leaders have improved, but I’ve never actually seen it happen. When things get better, it’s because the dysfunctional leaders got sidelined or canned.

    8. Just Another Hiring Mgr*

      I read an article in HBR about a case study on this a few years ago, but it was completely driven by a new owner and he had to replace over half the workforce to do it.

    9. snoopythedog*

      Been there, tried that, burnt out and left.
      Can’t change management that easily- they need some sort of motivation, but very clearly the system that is set up now is working for them. Employee dissatisfaction and issues aren’t motivation to bad management. You can’t make people give a shit about you.

      OP- start looking. You aren’t in an either-or situation. You can keep looking for the right job to come along.

    10. Quinalla*

      My first company there were definitely some management issues (pretty typical small company stuff). The owner brought in a consultant who interviewed everyone, had us track our time, observed, etc. – basically all the right things – and came back with suggestions, some of them very honest assessments of how the owner needed to change the way he managed and the way the company was managed. He didn’t like that and after talking to the consultant, basically had him water down his recommendations and then the owner only made changes that he agreed with.

      My current company did the same thing shortly after I joined them and they did actually make some big changes, but they had also just had the current CEO quit and take several employees with him to start a new company because of leadership conflict (to be fair to them, I and others at my level really had no idea there was a big conflict brewing, so at least everyone was professional about it except for some things that happened after), so those that remained were clearly in camp want-a-change so it wasn’t that surprising.

      I agree with Alison, I would assume things won’t change and if they do, it will be a pleasant surprise! I made the choice to stay with my first company for a long time despite the problems for good reasons. Eventually, things changed in my life and when those reasons were gone I left. Maybe that will be the same for you, but don’t get married to the idea of a “Dream job”. You will likely have several jobs in your career, don’t get hung up any job, don’t overstay at a dysfunctional place without good reasons.

    11. Sam.*

      In my main experience with this, some of us underlings were able to keep things from going totally off the rails for several years, but it just delayed the inevitable. It was a new director coming in that caused things to nosedive, and once it became clear that things weren’t going to get better as long as he was in charge, I started looking. My resignation announcement was the first of many, and within a year, most of the people who’d kept things running had bailed. The few people I know who are still there are absolutely miserable (and yes, they are job searching).

      I don’t think change from the bottom is impossible, but I think it’s unlikely and only worth attempting if the people in charge have a track record of listening and responding to employee concerns. Since OP’s management does not, I’d try not to waste more of my energy on them and start looking for a new job. That said, OP doesn’t have to take the less-than-appealing offer she has right now. If she’s willing to keep things going at the current place for awhile, that buys her time to look for something better.

    12. MissDisplaced*

      So, yes. Sometimes these things happen, but never from the bottom. I’ve been though each of these once. Second scenario is the worst. Being bought is hit or miss. Sometimes it can be a good thing, but you will definitely get process whether you like it or not.

      1. Management/owners really want the change to happen and initiate it. Usually, they bring in consulting firms to help. If management is truly invested, things can change. Common with growing startups who have moved on to becoming a midsize company and have funds to help enact and support the changes.
      2. Management/owners want change, but don’t initiate it as directly and/or don’t think they’re the problem. Poor chance of success no matter who they bring in or how much they pay them.
      3. Management / owners are forced to change, either because they got bought out, or were acquired by a private equity firm. Typically management will be removed or placed on the board, with a new CEO and C-Suite brought in to manage the running of the company. Things will change, but may not be to everyone’s liking.

      1. Matilda Bott*

        I am in 1a) just now — Some parts of management really want the change but they’re busy and I’m not sure how much of their attention it’s getting. Also they are going to have to force change through a thick layer of inert middle management in a conflict-avoidant environment (so they won’t just sack the middle managment, even if they’re incompetent). So we’ve got support for change from the bottom and the top but not the middle.

        I don’t have high hopes for the turnaround I’d like to see, but it’s an okay job just now so I’ll see how it goes.

  5. Snow globe*

    I agree with the advice-the company is unlikely to make significant improvements, but as long as you are being paid well and you enjoy aspects of your job, you can take your time in job searching; don’t jump at the first thing you see.

    A couple of other points: 1) one more reason to leave is that working for such a dysfunctional company will not help your career development in the long run. You are learning bad habits. 2) as far as taking your time with the job search, you will likely find that if you let go of the hope that things will get better, you will probably experience less stress and frustration. Just making the decision to leave will probably make it easier to deal with all of it.

    1. Smithy*

      My worst place of employment from a management situation also paid those at the director level rates what could be described as ‘golden handcuff’ rates. Incredibly high salaries compared to the expectations for our industry and region. Retention wasn’t great overall, but for what they paid – absolutely kept a number of directors who at least appeared to be miserable.

      When I left, my boss was relatively young – more than two decades away from retirement – and he would dismiss ever leaving due to “everywhere being exactly the same”. In reality, I believe that he knew that for his title and salary, he might be able to get a new job – but doubted his ability to do the work.

    2. BRR*

      My last job was exactly like the LW’s and I agree with everything you said. The LW doesn’t sound terribly enthusiastic about the new opportunity but it sounds like they can take their time. The LW should definitely proceed with the assumption things won’t change. Coming in from the outside, I’m not entirely sure why the LW loves this company so much?

  6. Coder von Frankenstein*

    Do not assume anything is going to change. If the same people are in charge, and there is no crisis forcing them to alter their behavior, they probably won’t. If I had a nickel for every time somebody has sounded sympathetic and made all the right noises and then nothing actually happened, I’d have a whole lot of nickels. Anyway, the head of HR is not the CEO.

    If the status quo is a deal-breaker for you, then you should assume the deal is broken and move on.

    That said, how much time have you spent looking at alternatives? Boring work and a cut in pay is not what I’d call an enticing offer. If you’ve been aggressively job-hunting and this is the best you came up with, okay–but if this other opportunity just kind of fell in your lap, it’s worth shaking the trees to see what else comes loose.

    1. One of the Spreadsheet Horde*

      This, so much this. Unless leadership gets an ultimatum or their bonus is tied to some sort of action, it’s never going to change. Everything else is just putting lipstick on a pig.

  7. Richard Hershberger*

    Maybe it’s just me, but if an outside consultant is your great hope, it seems to me that you are clutching at straws. While I suppose an outside consultant could help, my experience is that when the consultants appear is when I brush up my resume.

    1. beanie gee*

      An outside consultant could help the management understand the major issues and make recommendations, but ultimately change has to happen from the management itself, so I agree, a consultant is unlikely to do much unless the management really really wants to change how they run their business.

      1. Batty Twerp*

        Very much this.
        I’ve worked for a company that engaged at least three different consultants/consultancy agents in four years. Nothing fundamentally changed, except for the CEO (the fifth one since 2016 is due to start at the beginning of November I think?)
        The consultants came in, had no idea what the company did – largely because they were asking people who didn’t really know how their particular cog fit in with the whole company machine, and *that’s* largely because they had been through an organisation change every time a new consultant came in and had mostly worked there for less than two years (25+% turnover of staff in six months for… reasons) – made some vague suggestions about organisational shuffles and changing the computer system, but were unable to come up with a single cost-effective solution, took their money and left.
        I got involved with some of the discussions, based on my tenure as much as anything else (10+ years), always late in the day, when the consultants would be surprised that the information they had been given bore no resemblance to reality, but was a hodge-podge of misinformation and wishful thinking. I’ve never been management, never made it that high up the hierarchy, but I was being tasked with making decisions that should have come from the C-Suite when the C-Suite really didn’t know what was being asked of them and were hoping the consultants would do that for them.

    2. Grits McGee*

      I work for a gov agency that is notorious for its poor morale, especially in the division where I worked. There was tremendous pressure from agency leadership to do something, and the head of the agency brought in outside consultants who spent months meeting with staff one-on-one and in groups, meeting with managers, work-shopping solutions, writing reports. In the end, managers followed none of the consultants’ recommendations and re-orged in such a way that the problems with the division were made worse.

      Outside consultants mean nothing. OP, assume nothing is going to change.

    3. Detective Amy Santiago*

      They need the right kind of consultant.

      OP, suggest that your organization bring in a process engineer. That is someone whose job it is to figure out what needs to be done and the most efficient way to do it.

  8. I'm that person*

    “do I have any chance of fixing my dysfunctional job?”

    No you do not. Zero. Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

    1. snoopythedog*


      OP can’t fix other people. From experience though, you need to make sure you shield yourself from the elements that drive you the most batty while you search for something better.

    2. BRR*

      That question usually has a bad answer but I think the real question is “do I have any chance of my dysfunctional company being fixed?” If a company is good but your job is dysfunctional because of one or two things, maybe something can change. If most of your senior leadership is lacking the knowledge to run a company and doesn’t admit what they don’t know, that’s incredibly hard to fix and something far beyond what the LW or HR can do.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Hard agree. People will absolutely cling to a bad plan because change is just way too scary.

  9. Heidi*

    I’m honestly amazed that the OP can still call this their “dream job” after the barrage of misery they just described. There’s some psychological dissonance happening there. This is not your dream job, OP! Get out before you start believing this is the way things have to be!

    1. I edit everything*

      I get it. My last full time job was like this. I loved the work, but hated the dysfunction. I will say that quitting was the best decision I ever made, but that’s largely because I can continue to do the work as a freelancer and just avoid most workplace dynamics. And if I’d never had that job, I wouldn’t have the knowledge and experience that make freelancing possible. So I guess taking the job was good too, in a way.

      1. selena*

        I have kinda the same experience: a job where i loved the work itself but hated the manager (she hated me too) and her nepotism. I spend a lot of time crying on the toilet and begging that manager to please give me more work.

        The experience helped me land a job in a much better team/company. It’s wonderfull to stand up every day and be happy to go to work.

    2. beanie gee*

      I get it too. When the work itself is good and there are a LOT of other positives, it can make the other dysfunction feel bearable.

    3. straws*

      I can understand this. My job has come with a lot of dysfunction. It also comes with flexible hours, the ability to treat a chronic illness, close proximity to my home, flexibility with my childcare, good pay for the area, and a lot of opportunity to work with various systems that wouldn’t normally be a part of the same role. In short, the management frustrations exist, but are heavily outweighed by everything else for me. At least, at this point in my life.

    4. extremely anon for this one*

      A lot of this letter could be written about my situation, and I get it. I’m at a company that has grown fast and is having some major workplace issues that stem in large part from top management not being up to the job. Those problems are serious and interfere with my ability to do my best work.

      But they don’t interfere every day. When I get to focus on my job, I love most of what I do. I like and respect my direct reports and immediate supervisors. My industry is contracting, so jobs aren’t easy to find, and not every company in my industry does the kind of work we do — and my team and position allow for a somewhat unusual amount of flexibility and creativity. Plus I’ve worked here for years and, for most of that time, really loved it. It can really take time to see with clear eyes that the place isn’t going to improve or change. But Allison is absolutely right that OP needs to assume they aren’t going to change and proceed accordingly.

  10. Tasha*

    I could have written this letter two years ago. I made a lateral move (worse title, a little more money) and I’m so much happier. They won’t change. Any consultant’s report will get read then tossed in a drawer. It was time to stop banging my head on the wall.

    1. Remote HealthWorker*

      Most likely the consultants report will get read, hand waved as not relevant to them, but considered as evidence for everything wrong with peons today. Then ignored.

      What? I’m not speaking from personal experience… not at all.

    2. BRR*

      I could have also written this letter two years ago. We hired a consultant but because management didn’t know they were the problem, the consultant went about working on a different problem (which was a legitimate problem). The consultant also didn’t have the right type of experience so they recommended the wrong solution which was implemented and while it sort of fixed the problem, it made it impossible for me to do part of my job. Think “I need water. Consultant comes in and recommends water from the toilet when the solution is water from the faucet.”

      1. bleh*

        Oooh boy, will mgt push back on outside consultants, even when being told that they are skirting legal problems, if they benefit from the current set – up. It’s just not worth trying to beat back those wave Cuchulain.

  11. Daniel*

    I think I am going to be a little more optimistic than most of the people here, especially if upper management and HR hadn’t been shown their employees’ displeasure before. To be sure, these are very real problems and the chance they actually get addressed are probably less than 50%. But there is a chance that this is the come-to-Jesus moments the higher-ups need to adjust themselves.

    But it’s only a chance.

    As it is it sounds like OP can tolerate this for a while. I agree with the conclusion–this is a good opportunity for a preliminary job-search where they can take a gradual approach of seeing what is out there, and whether there’s anything better out there.

    Again, I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about the odds of change here, and I do think OP is much more likely to find something better outside this company than waiting for change within it, but this is not an abandon-ship situation, it’s more of a start-shopping-for-a-new-ship one.

  12. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    I have NEVER been in a situation where someone says, “You know, we need to change things up, can you come up with some strategies” and then didn’t spend the rest of the time stonewalling anyone who suggested changes and going as far as to call that person not a team player and shunning them.

    Unless you are a superstar with a ton of options, like you can send out a few resumes and have a new job in a few weeks, do not bother taking a job where you’ll have to make any substantial changes. The reason those changes have not been enacted in the past are often baked into the structure and culture. You will not be able to enact any changes, and they will turn on you for trying to do so. It’s just too much of a risk for you to take on.

    1. Nesprin*

      Echoing that: there’s responsibility and there’s control. If you’re given responsibility to do thing X, be that start new initiative, fix culture, improve productivity etc, without being given the control to do thing X, i.e. the resources, authority, backing etc, you should run fast.

  13. Cedrus Libani*

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

    Your top management is not qualified to do their jobs, and the company is unlikely to succeed unless they are removed. But there’s no one to remove them, and good luck convincing them to remove themselves. A consultant wouldn’t have that power, though maybe they can run the C-suite through a Management 101 seminar. HR doesn’t. You don’t.

    My concern would be getting tarred with the same brush. When things inevitably go south, and you’re on the job market as a long-time employee of Notorious Disaster, Inc…people will assume you have no idea how to work in a functional company. And they’ll have a point.

    That said, it doesn’t sound like the company will implode tomorrow, so you have the luxury to be a bit more picky. Maybe boring work with a pay cut isn’t the best you can do?

    Boring isn’t the worst, though. I’ve worked on big ideas, but in a context where I was pretty sure management would make a mess of it – and I’ve worked on small ideas done well. And I’d take the latter all day long. Working on stuff that you’re 99% sure is a pipe dream is wildly demotivating. Watching real people use your humble little widget is great, even if you’re not impressing anyone with your cutting-edge ideas.

    1. Daniel*

      Love that last paragraph–that’s been my experience, too, especially when you have real ownership over said widget.

    2. Mr. Obstinate*

      “My concern would be getting tarred with the same brush. When things inevitably go south, and you’re on the job market as a long-time employee of Notorious Disaster, Inc…people will assume you have no idea how to work in a functional company. And they’ll have a point.”

      Would you say this is mainly an issue for people with high-level job titles (team leaders and on up) or does the bad reputation significantly affect all veterans of such a company, including low-level?

      I worry about this myself sometimes, because I have stuck around for years in a deeply dysfunctional organization due to good pay and job security. But I have an entry-level title (my pay is much better than that title would suggest, and my responsibilities are also much broader).

      For context: a lot of the dysfunction comes from all the authority being concentrated in those at the top, who are not capable of attending to or understanding all the low-level functions, but deal with that by delegating responsibility without authority. This creates multiple leaderless “teams” that consist of people who are painfully aware that their processes and communication are disorganized, but do not have the power to organize them in any way that requires consistent cooperation.

      1. Smithy*

        This may be more sector to sector, in terms of how bad reputations spread and why. In my experience, for those who are more junior, sometimes you can skate by with the “survivor” tag. But often, I find it hurts most with networking. When you meet peers, new managers or colleagues who worked for/with Bad Manager McGoo – especially if it’s for a long time – there can be more caution and a slower willingness to engage.

        That all being said, if you know you’re in a deeply dysfunctional place but it’s still working for you – I would encourage finding ways you can engage with networking in your sector. It’ll both help know exactly how your organization is perceived as well as allow you to build direct professional relationships.

      2. Cedrus Libani*

        Honestly, what you’re describing sounds like it’s within normal range. Not ideal, but things have to be pretty bad before your company develops a specific reputation.

        There’s only one company in my area that would cause me to red-flag a job candidate. Their company culture is full-on piranha tank, from the top down. I’ve worked with two short-term survivors, and both appeared to have genuine PTSD – one avoided the road leading to that company’s office, because the association with their former commute would trigger a panic attack. Frankly, I don’t want to work with a person who has been in that kind of environment long-term. Even if that’s not how they prefer to do things, their sense of what’s normal has to be warped.

  14. Ellie May*

    This hardly sounds like a ‘dream’ job – OP doesn’t realize what it’s like to work in a functional environment. Please resist picking up the ‘fleas’ of this environment.

    OP, you wrongly think it is this job of the other (‘more traditional, boring, harder-working company. It would come with a pay cut.”) and nothing in-between. Grit your teeth, keep working where you are working and ramp up a thoughtful job search. You have a job right now and that is perfect timing to now find your next one. Hoping to hear an update down the line.

  15. SheLooksFamiliar*

    I’m confident in my abilities, maybe to a fault. But I know I cannot force a culture change by myself, even when I’m in a leadership position. Meaningful, systemic change can only happen when executive leadership acknowledges issues and commits to – and owns – the solution(s). So no, OP, you cannot change the dynamic at your company.

    It’s reasonable to participate in discussions to identify issues and propose direct solutions for your function; continuous improvement is part of everyone’s job description, IMO. But trying to change the company culture yourself, either on your own or as part of a group, is like pushing water uphill.

    If you like your current role and team but not the overall culture and leadership response, you must assume that the way things are now will be the way they are in the future. Change won’t happen overnight, even with responsive leadership. But until and unless executive leadership acknowledge th current challenges and proposals to change and improve things, assume things will stay the same. Only you can determine if it’s a gamble worth taking.

  16. OrigCassandra*

    The closest I’ve ever seen to a situation like this working out is what I suppose I’d call “the island of function in the sea of dys-.” If you’re in a relatively autonomous unit that has a very skilled leader, OP, there’s a small chance for you.

    Example: A sprawling organization I once worked for had completely dysfunctional processes all over the place, but the internal IT-development unit was especially a target. Because there was no process around making requests of IT, lots of people jumped the queue, played the squeaky-wheel game, badmouthed IT when they didn’t get their way, and so on.

    The unit manager, who was an exceptional individual, instituted a specific set of Agile practices — most notably sprints, and stakeholder meetings to decide what would happen in sprints. What this did was force the queue-jumpers and squeaky wheels to argue openly amongst themselves rather than covertly badgering unit staff. It worked! Things got much better for unit staff! The process insulated them from a lot of organizational dysfunction.

    This isn’t an easy road, and it definitely doesn’t always work. If it doesn’t even seem like a possibility for you, OP, then I agree with prior commenters — get out of this organization; it won’t change before it drives you around the bend.

    1. Batty Twerp*

      “the island of function in the sea of dys-.”
      One of the greatest phrases I’ve seen in a long time! *applauds*

    2. BradC*

      I was coming here to suggest this as well.

      It does make a difference whether OP is ON a 15-member team, or MANAGING a 15-member team (they didn’t clarify), but even lower-level managers can, at least to some degree, make their teams as functional as possible.

      1. OP*

        Hi, OP here. To clarify – I don’t manage anyone on my team. I perform management level duties such as the strategizing that I referenced, but hierarchically speaking I am actually a base level employee.

        1. Strictly Speaking*

          Does your 15-person team have any formal leader within it, or only informal authority-relationships?

          1. OP*

            Formal leadership all my team goes all the way to the executive level. The highest levels are, unfortunately, the ones who are the problem here. There are a few lower level management positions on my team who are not problematic and are similarly anxious for change.

  17. employment lawyah*

    Why are you there?

    If it’s “get a paycheck” then you should stay. Especially in 2020. You’re getting paid and what you describe is neither toxic or abusive, just bad management. You can get around it be reconstructing your expectations of your job: Safe, pays on time, non-abusive, and as you put it, “basally my dream job” in many respects.

    If it’s “accomplish ____ and get a paycheck” then you can leave. It’s hard to advise anyone to leave a job, though, unless you’re pretty darn sure you can find employment elsewhere. And of course you may find that the greener grass also has some problems.

  18. animaniactoo*

    OP, from my personal experience:

    If it happens, you should expect that it will be slow, and painful, and the results will be better but not optimal and it will STILL take a certain kind of personality to survive the environment.

    And it will continue to get better over time, and all of it will still be slow and painful.

    So the question I would ask yourself is not “is there hope that it can get better”, but “If it takes 5 years for this company to slowly lurch into a more functional place, is that a ride I want to be on board for?”

  19. LQ*

    I think it’s important to identify what matters to you. It’s totally ok to say that getting paid well matters and that you’re willing to deal with dysfunction to get paid well. I think that’s a solid strategy. But you want to be clear with yourself that’s what you’re doing.

    You mention the company values as a part of why it’s your dream job. But I’d challenge that a little. Do the values that they are espousing align with what you see in your job? Not that there’s nothing where rot on the inside doesn’t impact the outcomes, but I think it’s easy to think that it doesn’t as much as it often does.

    If you want to get paid well and this is the right way for you to sock away enough money for your next thing, great, head down, eyes forward. Are you willing to deal with whatever the tears and frustration and the rest of that are for you? The answer may be yes, it absolutely can be. I just think you want to be clear eyed about it.

  20. He's just this guy, you now?*

    Whoa… do I know you? With the exception of a few small details, what you have described sounds so much like the company that I left last summer. After a lot of soul searching and frustration at how much things had changed since I started, I finally made the very difficult decision to leave the company for what I thought would be a “more traditional, boring, harder-working company” – well, I was right about two of those things, anyway (the work is, to my delight, FAR from boring). It was EXTREMELY difficult for me to come to the decision that I needed to leave, but I have no regrets – I don’t even want to think about what my mental health would have been like had I stayed there.

    Anyway I think Alison’s advice is spot on – take your time to see what other options you have, and when the right one comes along, then go for it! Good luck!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      These dysfunctional places can be so difficult to leave. I stayed in one place too long and the leader would joke, “We can’t work anywhere else, we wouldn’t know what to do.”

      I think a lot of us privately believed that, too.

      We did go through a lot of changes over the years I was there. And some of the changes were actually meaningful. But there was still much, much more that need to be done.

      A long time ago, I found an article that reported even if a company cleans up its act, many people still leave. I think they were just tired. And no amount of change was ever going to balance out how tired they were. Even if you stop pushing the boulder up hill, you STILL have the memories of all those years of pushing up hill. Those memories are tough to shake off.

  21. Goldenrod*

    Before jumping ship, I think you should consider that your company really isn’t that different from MANY MANY other workplaces. Not that that is good! But I’ve worked at very long-standing, large companies that do things just as crappily. I have never been actually trained in any job I’ve had, and I didn’t have performance evals in one job FOR YEARS even though we were supposed to do them – the manager just blew them off.

    So, I wouldn’t quit thinking that the next place will necessarily be better just because it isn’t as new. Alison’s advice is great – stick with it for now, but start actively searching for something else that you might really like.

  22. Sara without an H*

    Do I have any chance of fixing my dysfunctional job?
    No. For all the reasons Alison stated, and for others provided by the commentariat.

    You sound as though you’re mourning for the job as it was when you first started, back when the company was smaller. But it’s not really that job anymore and, even if management sees the light, brings in a consulting team, and vows to fix all the problems, it still won’t be as it was when the company was smaller.

    But I also have an opportunity to leave for a more traditional, boring, harder-working company. It would come with a pay cut. In short, I don’t want to leave, but I don’t know if I should stay.

    Don’t take a pay cut unless you’re really, really desperate to get out — I mean, gnawing-off-your-foot-to-escape-the-trap desperate. You admit your company is a hot mess, but they pay you well and you like the work. Instead of taking the first bad option offered to you, why don’t you just start looking at what’s out there? It may take a little longer under present circumstances, but there’s no harm in updating your resume and looking around.

  23. The Rural Juror*

    Some years ago, I worked for small company that doubled in size during my tenure there. I went from being entry level to being one of the managers, not necessarily because I was great at it, but because I had been there longer. My boss (the owner) and I brainstormed ways to help streamline our productivity, have better communication, and be better about delegation. We would come up with a system, but HE was the one who wouldn’t keep it up. Each week you would see him become more and more lax about the protocol, and then the whole system we had implemented would basically fall apart.

    Then he would throw his hands up in the air and go, “Well! That didn’t work! Back to the drawing board.” And we would repeat the process – come up with a system, try it out for a few weeks, he’d stop doing his part, the whole thing would fall apart, then “Well! That’s didn’t work!” It was exhausting, and very frustrating considering we really didn’t know if any of those systems were bad or good. How could we know if there was zero follow-through?!

    That wasn’t the only part of the job that was frustrating, it was just a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind place in general. I was 22 when I started working there and knew that wasn’t the norm (or shouldn’t be) and knew I needed to get out, but it took me a few years to find a job with better pay. I couldn’t afford to leave and take a pay cut, so I stuck it out…but I wanted to pull my hair out the entire time. I really didn’t have the energy to push back much, and I didn’t really have the motivation since I was trying to jump ship pretty much the whole time I worked there.

  24. Nonprofit Nancy*

    I’ll always be thankful to the consultant hired to do “mediation sessions” for my dysfunctional organization … because listening to the points she raised, and viewing the reaction from management, helped me realize that I needed to quit ASAP. I’m pretty positive things are exactly the same as ever there :D

  25. Frustration Nation*

    This is VERY typical of small TV production companies. The owners sell a show and set up a company, but they don’t know anything about business practices and refuse to spend the money to bring in a consultant, so the company just…doesn’t quite work. The team gets the job done, but is confused and miserable the whole time. I worked at a company where they had one show in production for 15+ years, and then would sometimes sell additional shows on top of that, for shorter seasons. The staffing on each different format of show should be different, based on the needs of the production, but they insisted on staffing every show the same way, and refused to make any changes to the long-running show’s staff, even though they got constant notes from the network, and needed badly to update their techniques and methods. Every time they started up a new show, they’d just move bodies around No one would ever get promoted, learn anything new, or get any raises. Any time you’d bring up an issue with a new show, you’d have to just solve it yourself with little input or guidance from management, so there was little incentive to be helpful or go out of your way at all. It’s incredibly disheartening and demoralizing. You eventually realize you’re just a body filling a hole. OP, I’d say move on once you find a better opportunity. If you’re not being actively abused, you can probably put up with it a while longer, but know in your head you’re going to leave (maybe after the pandemic?). If management wanted to change, they’d have done so by now. They’d be excited to!

  26. Arnold Snackenbocker*

    Wow! This sounds exactly like my company two years ago. We all banded together and made passionate pleas to management to get them to change and help us grow in a responsible way. Well, Alison is exactly right in her assumption that nothing will change. Two years later, it’s still a mess. We’re still poorly managed. We did get outside help in the form of a series of amazing CEOs who were hired specifically to help with growth and changing the direction of the company. Unfortunately, the people in charge do not like being told what to do (even by the people they hire to tell them what to do) and the new people they hired were abruptly let go once it was determined that they wouldn’t follow the company tradition of toxic management. Now I see that this company will never change, regardless of how unhappy the employees are, and regardless of how hard we try to change it. I say, either make peace with the toxicity, or get a new job. Your company will never change.

    1. JM in England*

      If you try to make peace with the toxicity, it will be at the expense of your sanity! Ask me how I know…..

  27. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    I worked in a very similar place. I had a fantastic salary that I’ve never been able to equal in the 30 years since its spectacular bankruptcy. Staff tried desperately to show the boss where he was going wrong, such as a cavalier approach to finances : he’d just pull out a wad of notes any time we mentioned expenses, and loads of staff never bothered to give him the change, and there were no expense notes to fill in. I once told him that I’d actually thrown away something like €200 by accident but he’d never even noticed, he just shrugged.
    The salary kind of made up for the dysfunction, and it was an amazing place, pioneering multimedia before CDs were even invented, but as I mentioned, it went spectacularly bankrupt and the leftovers were snapped up by sharks. I only lasted a month with the shark who took me on (but I was pregnant and no longer as excited by the project)

  28. Workfromhome*

    There will be no change from management until their is a change in who is in management What I mean by this is that in dysfunctional companies like this (especially like this one where management are long time employees who appear to have basically grown into management because they have been there since the start) is that the people who are managing are not going to change.

    The only way you will see change is if you replace them with new managers. Even that has a low success rate because ownership does not actually want to see core things change. They put the poor managers in place so they replace them with similar personality types that tell them what they want to hear and the cycle continues.

    Even if you do get wholesale management change its not likely to work out. If long tome managers don’t know “what you o or what is needed” just imagine what happens when brand new people come in and have no idea what you do and you spend months or years trying to bring them up to speed and essentially justify your existence while doing it.
    I went through this multiple times in my last job. Horrible toxic culture driven by CEO. Management couldn’t deliver on his unreasonable demands so they left or were fired only to be replaced by people who told them they could deliver on his unreasonable demands to get hired only to find they couldn’t and the cycle would continue. Every one of them would ask :What do you do, why do we need you ,we don’t need so many people you need to track everything you do because we don’t understand it. You’d finally get them to start to understand and boom they are gone and you start all over again.

    There is virtually no chance this is going to change unless your company is sold and they completely guy upper management and even then its unlikely. You need to weight out how valuable the perks are vs bring in this dysfunctional culture forever. You are probably best to get out ASAP because the longer you stay the more normal it seems and the harder it is to assimilate into a new job that’s actually normal.

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