update: do I have any chance of fixing my dysfunctional job?

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.

Remember the letter-writer who wanted to know if she had any chance of fixing her dysfunctional job? Here’s the update.

In my first letter I mentioned an escape path to another organization. That didn’t end up working out, but it’s just as well because my personal goals and motivations shifted, and that position wouldn’t have helped me reach them – but that’s another story, and the least interesting one as well.

The situation is still grim, but differently grim. Management is still confoundingly incompetent. Gaslighting and finger-pointing are still the dominant forms of governance. There have been more threats of quitting from within my team, but no one has gone that far quite yet. I haven’t seen anyone crying recently, but that’s a long way from a healthy emotional landscape, and we are unfortunately far from that.

What has changed is more political than practical. More people outside of my team – including other departments, extended brands within our company, and even executive-level staff – have been talking about the issues I’ve described. There seems to be broader awareness that specific people are not only hurting morale but hurting the business. In fact, I’ve been asked from people with more power than I have for specific examples; it feels like that information is being collected with some purpose in mind, perhaps to be highlight the consequences of our current leaders.

This happens to coincide with a significant change at the executive level within our company. While that alone doesn’t immediately affect my or my team, I’m wagering that there is enough high-powered staff who are fed up with status quo, that they will be voicing their concerns as this new person assumes their responsibilities. It’s hard to tell what that will look like, but the pieces for that kind of conversation are falling into place. The word “accountability” is being thrown around a lot, along with a few other choice words that tend to follow this much frustration. It’s no guarantee, but important movements tend to happen slowly, then erupt all at once.

That highlights one thing has changed since I last wrote: before, I couldn’t believe that the rest of the company didn’t see how badly managed my team was. Now, I’ve learned that much of the company agrees that there are very serious issues – it’s just that no one has yet been able to get anything done to change it. I’m not sure which notion is worse.

Personally, I’m trying to make myself an asset to those people outside my team who have the power and willingness to drive change. I’m working with as many people as possible to drive results that would otherwise be blocked; and I’m succeeding at it. Somewhere along the way, there seems to have become a precedent that if you want things done properly and with minimal frustration, you ignore the proposed channels on my team and get it done yourself. Sadly, I’m getting more done, doing it faster, and getting better results by circumventing my bosses.

I’m also actively seeking an exit plan, but I’m comfortable waiting for an ideal option. It’s easier to do that when there is support, even if that support hasn’t yet lead to action. And as you said, there are things that I like enough that I feel I can grind my teeth and carry on for a bit longer.

It’s hard to not feel like I’m living a double-life here: one where I’m doing good work and benefitting the company, and another where I’m actively trying to undermine bad work and emotional abuse. I know I can’t sustain that forever, but knowing that there is support from inside the company helps me going.

Thanks again for your advice and for your readers’ support and comments. You all helped me see this from an outside perspective and regain a bit of my sanity in the process. Overall I am hopeful, but I don’t intend to go under if the ship sinks.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. RC Rascal*

    I’ve been in this situation before. There were a few changes at the senior level and it looked like things might get better. It didn’t. Mostly, my team was infusing every little change with hope. We read a lot of things into situations that weren’t really there. And my terrible boss continued doing his thing until the company just closed the business unit.

    Be very careful with the word “accountability “. Frequently it is corporate speak for scapegoating.

    Hope it works out for you but I caution you not to over invest in this business.

    1. SnowQueenL*

      Yes. I’ve been here too. Accountability often means meaningless blame for middle managers and/or a focus on shaming individual contributors for not being able to work themselves to death.

      Incremental, slow change really does little, in my experience. It’s just a cover for the organization to see how bad things are, and how they can make small, inconsequential changes at a glacial pace. It’s meant to be low effort and take the place of real systemic change. Hope that’s not the case, obviously! But that’s what I’ve seen in these situations.

      1. RC Rascal*

        Slow change is worse than no change because it gives employees hope.

        When there is no change, people read the tea leaves and decide if they can live with it or not, and act accordingly.

        There is no drug like hope.

        1. SallyB*

          Yeah, thats why the only thing that really ever fixes these situations is the implementation of a quality management system (or other types of management systems if you are so inclined).

      2. pope suburban*

        Agreed. I’m reminded of my previous HellJob very strongly here. Sometimes it would seem like things would get better, but it never would. I got really good at basically playing the Game of Thrones, but that was exhausting and it didn’t really do anything to improve the way I was treated there. I hope this person realizes that they need to be putting a lot more effort into leaving. It’s not a good thing to be well-adjusted to a profoundly dysfunctional workplace, even though it can sort of feel that way because it’s easier than trying to maintain normal standards.

  2. virago*

    “I caution you not to over invest in this business.”

    Agreed. Management won’t hesitate to jettison you and your team to ensure their own survival. Please be careful.

  3. Bob*

    Culture change is hard and often does not happen.
    I know it feels like it could and your even seeing green shoots but its more likely this is like a rubber band being stretched and when it gets to full extension its going to snap back so hard it will make your head spin.
    The writing is on the wall, despite the good pay if it snaps and your in its path you could suddenly find yourself unemployed and demoralized that all your very hard work was eliminated in an instant when things were looking so positive.
    Please don’t grasp straws.

    I highly recommend you get off this sinking ship before you end up with no income instead of the high income you have now. Its a trap.

  4. Peter Gibbons*

    Bill Lumbergh: Hello Peter, what’s happening? Listen, are you gonna have those TPS reports for us this afternoon?
    Peter Gibbons: No.
    Bill Lumbergh: Ah. Well then I suppose we should go ahead and have a little talk.
    Peter Gibbons: Not right now Lumbergh, I’m kinda busy. You know what, in fact I’m gonna have to ask you to just go ahead and come back later, I’ve got a meeting with the Bobs in a couple minutes.
    Bill Lumbergh: I wasn’t aware of a meeting with them.
    Peter Gibbons: Yeah, they called me at home

  5. MK*

    Frankly, OP, this sounds like the corporate business version of a cold-war-era spy story or political thriller. You are basically a workplace double agent.

    1. Beatrice*

      There are similarities to my workplace – moreso in this letter than the first. On bad days, when my family asks me about my day over dinner, I say I spent my day “playing [industry] Game of Thrones.” It gets truly ridiculous sometimes.

  6. Ariadne Oliver*

    Be careful that you don’t end up being the sacrificial lamb. I was in a similar situation years ago. What I didn’t know was that there were two warring factions at the top of the leadership chain and I happened to get caught in the middle. I ended up getting fired under the pretext that they were reorganizing. But all is well that ends well, I took them to court and won a wrongful termination suit but I was working in a European country at the time, so much better employment and labor laws than the US. However, I would still document everything and anything.

    1. NeonFireworks*

      Something a lot like this happened to me earlier this year at the workplace I am actively seeking to leave. I got caught in a workplace battleground between the older status quo and the younger tragic heroes, basically. One side latched onto me with weird compliments, which was mostly manipulation to try and get me to act on their behalf, and the other side made an attempt at throwing me under the bus. Things were set for a massive showdown. It began and then ended fast. The winner was the coronavirus. Still, I want out.

      1. Bob*

        ” One side latched onto me with weird compliments, which was mostly manipulation to try and get me to act on their behalf, and the other side made an attempt at throwing me under the bus. Things were set for a massive showdown. It began and then ended fast. The winner was the coronavirus.”
        I’m LOLing!

  7. Kali*

    The slow realisation that everyone recognises something is off but no one realises every one else feels that way reminds me of being in a friend group with someone toxic* as a teen but staying quiet because I thought it was just me only to learn years later, no one liked this one person being in the group (or at least, not the effect she had) but thought everyone else liked her and stayed quiet.

    *she has gotten better in the last 20 years as far as I can tell. In hindsight, her parents had just divorced, her dad had married her aunt, and she’d been moved clear across/to a different country (Scotland to England, so depends how you look at ‘country’). I realise now, it was probably all a bit sudden. She moved 6 months after starting secondary school, and it seems like, if you had more time to plan, you’d probably aim to move on the holidays, wouldn’t you?

    Anyway, the toxicness” was lying so she always had a better story/was the most special in any circumstances, and picking one person to be her best friend and trying to exclude others on different occasions. Like “oh no, there are only X seats for x+1 people, you must sit elsewhere because obviously you are the least friend, bye” or playing a game of “let’s all suddenly run so the person I don’t like today has to either walk behind or awkwardly run and pretend they are part of the game but knowing they are being excluded!”.

    She’d also make up lies about people, which showed she was better/better off than them. One lie about me – I was about to fail all my exams and go to military school – she repeated to my face, as if she hadn’t just made it up, and that…clumsiness? Lack of guile? Sheer inability to be as manipulative as she was trying to be? That whatever you call it made it all strangely innocent, and limited the damage she could do, and might be why I can forgive her now. It wasn’t enjoyable, but it makes sense in light of what she was going through. She did grow out of it by about 17.

    1. Kali*

      I realised this can be mistaken as support of Op’s hopes her workplace will improve. That wasn’t my intention, I just understand things best by linking them to other experiences, and I share them in case other people do and because I like talking (I suppress a LOT that is less relevant).

      My actual thoughts on the Op’s situation are that, while I hope this situation works out as she hopes, I do not personally believe it will, for reasons other commenters have mentioned. I hope we’re all wrong, I just don’t believe we are.

      1. boo bot*

        “I just understand things best by linking them to other experiences, and I share them in case other people do and because I like talking (I suppress a LOT that is less relevant).”

        Me too! To me it’s also hopefully an invitation to other people to talk about their experiences – if someone asks me a direct question, I often feel put on the spot, but if someone else tells a story from their life, it makes me feel more open to talking about my own.

        1. Kali*

          I hear it that way too! But there are some people – like the ex-toxic friend – who will tell stories with the intention of one-upping yours, and I’ve gotten the impression some people don’t realise others will communicate emotions and understanding by sharing stories like that, and they end up with the idea that everyone who responds to a story with a story is one-upping. :(

          ….I remembered another story. I once accidentally sent a message intended for my partner to my friend, complete with cutsey nicknames and all the personal misspellings and slang that communication between us has become. It wasn’t a long or intimate message, but it was pretty embarrassing. He laughed, but then shared a story of himself being a goofus, like a gift, so we would be equal. I think it felt like a gift because it wasn’t at all related topically, it was just “hey, completely random story of me that shows me in an awkward light”.

          1. selena*

            Within a friendgroup or family i think it’s important wether you are *always* the one responding and pushing aside other people trying to share their own stories and thoughts.

            With one-on-one relations it’s a variant on that: do you actually listen to what the other person is saying or do you jump straight into search-engine mode to come up with a vaguely related story just so you can turn any conversation into being about yourself.

            1. Kali*

              Honestly, I think the fact that you believe it’s possible I’m not aware of those things and that you needed to point them out based only on the fact I communicate via stories proves my point above. That you find it hard to believe people sincerely share stories to communicate because you’ve known a lot of people just want to talk about themselves and so have developed a suspicion that everyone with this communication style is actually doing that. Which isn’t an unreasonable belief to hold if that has been your experience, but it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you end up immediately thinking “oh it’s a story, they’re one of those, what a bore” and don’t actually listen to what’s said!

              It’s a bit like when someone who is Guess doesn’t realise that there are two possible communication styles, Ask and Guess, and assumes that every Ask is rude and entitled. Some people ARE rude and entitled, and both they and Ask people will ask for what they need/want directly, but they aren’t the same thing. One difference, for example, would be an Ask person would accept a ‘no’ while an entitled person wouldn’t.

              1. Kali*

                To add: I do realise you might not think I *personally* needed to be told, and it was more for anyone reading the conversation. There may well be people out there who do just want to talk about themselves, and would latch onto this discussion to justify that desire without actually taking account of the points you raised. They’re not bad points themselves, it’s the apparent need to raise them that I found interesting.

      2. Filosofickle*

        I am the same. My natural tendency is to share “me too” stories to build empathy and build on the conversation. Unfortunately, I’m aware that many people perceive that as one-upping so I work hard at being sensitive to that and pulling back. Intent v. impact. And I like to talk, too. A lot. It’s a lifelong struggle to say even less to meet other people’s needs when I already feel like I don’t say half of what I want to. :(

        1. selena*

          Making that effort is what counts: nobody is perfect, but some people want to improve and others don’t.

          The most one-upping person i know refuses any self-examination: she has convinced herself that she is a shy and modest and quiet person and gets angry at anyone trying to explain to her f.i. why her church-group once started singing ‘my life is soooooo difficult’ to her (it’s a well-known comedy song about a drama-queen)

          I suppose that’s a counter-example to Kali: the person i am talking about is 60 years old and i’ve spend years latching onto any hope that she might be teachable after all.

          At that age any big change would have to come with the implicit recognition that she spend decades being a far less noble person than she thought she was.
          This will also be more and more of a problem for the company: the longer bad management continues the more emotionally invested that bad management becomes in keeping things as they are.

  8. WellRed*

    Maybe it’s because I rewatched Bridget Jones last night, but this feels like the corporate equivalent of a bad relationship. They mistreat you and you know it, but because there are occasional green shoots, as another comment said, you convince yourself it’s not all bad. I’m glad you are making an exit plan but worry you are too comfortable in the meantime.

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Absolutely. Recently, my current job has been going really well. I got some great projects and they did brilliantly. I was getting kudos. Feeling great. I was at the end stages of an interview process and thinking, “Do I really want to leave now when things are going so well?”

      I got the offer and I’m leaving. I have to remind myself that a couple of good moments does not override the misery and frustration of the past several years. The job I’m going into isn’t perfect, it’s doing something completely new and in an area I used to swear I would never touch, but it has great qualities. Most of all, it’s working for a place where I know corporate is held accountable and where there are options to move around as well as opportunities to truly have an impact on the business and the culture. It will do for now, and who knows, I might end up loving it. I would rather dive into the new and unknown than drown in the crap while being thrown the occasional flimsy life preserver.

  9. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — Like the other commenters upstream, I’d like to discourage you from reading too much into this. Culture change is hard, even when everybody is on board with it, and the new executives are still unknown quantities.

    While it’s no doubt satisfying to know that you can work around the system, that system is still corrupt. It’s flattering to have your skills recognized in other departments, but that won’t keep you from being thrown under the bus. Document everything and keep your records off site. (Google Docs and Evernote both work nicely for this, but there are plenty of similar products out there.) Read everything in the AAM archives about job searching.

    You’ve developed great skills in bailing, but the ship is still sinking. Time to head for the lifeboat.

  10. Paul*

    This response was helpful for me. I decided last week to jump ship from my dysfunctional company, and seeing OP still struggling with the decision six months later solidifies my reasoning for leaving now. Even though there are promises of change, structural change just doesn’t happen without the organizational will to get it done at the highest levels. Mid-level managers can make life much better for their employees by protecting them from the dysfunction of the company, but that protection will always be incomplete and temporary. The company you know today is very likely to be the company in a year. The entropy always wins in the end.

    OP, it’s been five months since you wrote in about this. Subtract your age from 85 and multiply it by 52. That’s about how many more weeks you likely have, give or take a few hundred, on this rock. You don’t get another chance at it. Five months was 21-ish of those weeks. If you can escape your job without going bankrupt, you owe it to yourself to do it. If you can’t, then finding a solution that allows you to leave safely has to be your first priority.

      1. Paul*

        It is at first, but it does bring some things into focus. “This is week 1922 of 4400, so let’s make it awesome.”

        1. selena*

          Doing a similar thing with finances helped me set my priorities. It works by calculating f.i. that your new coat is ‘2 days of work’ and your vacation is ‘1 month of work’.

  11. Thankful for AAM*

    I just keep thinking of this update. My own workplace and team are going through a process of evaluation. The team is unhappy and managers did not know why. I’m not sure they still do but their response has made clear how they view their role (spoiler, not the same way we do). It helps to know thats how they see things so we can know if that works for us.

  12. Watch Your Back*

    I was involved in a similar situation years ago. There were a group of employees, including some higher ups, pushing for change. We felt like we were making progress and were turning a corner…then one Monday I came in and almost everyone one of those employees (except for me and two others) had been fired over the weekend. I was stunned. I was told people had terminated for insubordination and that I had always conducted myself professionally, but I saw the writing on the wall and left a few months later.

    1. Des*

      That’s what usually happens in these companies. Maybe 1 exec is pushing for change, but they will likely be pushed out because the culture is too set. If the change doesn’t happen within 6 months of their arrival don’t expect it to ever happen because by then the patterns are too set.

  13. Des*

    I struggle to reconcile the phrase in the original post about it being a “dream job” and the comment in this update about “[not seeing] anyone crying recently”. ???????

    I think OP your perception of normal is so skewed that you are clinging to the good portions of the job (salary/location?) and assuming it’s normal to witness anyone (!!!!) crying at work ever (!!!).

  14. learnedthehardway*

    On the plus side, when you’re asked how you were able to navigate a difficult work situation, you’ll have an answer that you cultivated relationships across the business, developed recognition of what the issues were, developed workarounds to deal with bottlenecks in the process, etc. etc. Although you couldn’t change the culture, you adapted where you could and found ways to circumvent the worst issues.

    Of course, you’ll want to be diplomatic about how you phrase all this, but it should help you, in the end…

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