In a great workplace, most days feel like good days. You have psychological safety, autonomy to do your best work, and room to grow your career. Your colleagues treat each other with kindness; you and your manager have mutual trust and respect. These are the kinds of gigs where bad days can happen, but in general, you feel supported and happy in your work.
But some jobs just don’t feel right. Maybe every day feels like a new mess or crisis; maybe rudeness is tolerated, even encouraged. Rather than feeling positive about logging in to work or walking into the office, you’re filled with dread and anxiety. Often, these emotions are signs that a workplace might be toxic, disorganized, or in the midst of growing pains.
Toxicity, disorganization, and growing pains all overlap with one another. An organization experiencing temporary growing pains may settle into disorganization if issues aren’t addressed. If a disorganized company loses trust amongst employees and leadership, the org may slide into toxicity. Conversely, the lack of trust and transparency in toxic companies can lead to disorganization as communication and camaraderie break down.
Defining toxicity, disorganization, and growing pains
A toxic workplace has a negative impact on your emotional, mental, or physical well-being. It’s any environment or set of behaviors that erode trust, communication, and teamwork.
While toxic workplaces share common characteristics, your own preferences and experiences will determine just how toxic it is for you and if you can stick around.
Some workplaces, though, aren’t toxic; they’re just mired in disorganization. In a disorganized workplace, chaos reigns: they lack repeatable, reliable processes and frequently make organizational changes in an attempt to find stability. Amit Saraf, product leader and author of The ABCs of Product Management, describes disorganization: “There aren’t set processes in place for everything around you. There are people who don’t know what they’re doing. Functions are being created on the fly and maybe taken away on the fly. People are moving around roles a lot.”
Disorganized companies don’t have to be toxic. The team may value its members, treat one another with respect, and cultivate a culture of positivity and psychological safety, but dysfunction is the order of the day.
But because disorganization so often leads to a lack of transparency and miscommunication, unless the team is willing to learn from its mistakes, a disorganized workplace can often morph into a toxic workplace without intervention. The lack of learning culture devolves into blame games, while gossip and rumors fill the void left by poor communication.
Not all disorganized workplaces start out messy and chaotic. Often, a company will experience growing pains that then solidify into permanent disorganization. Growing pains at work are operational stresses as a result of a major, sudden shift that changed how the company needs to work, but it hasn’t caught up to its new reality. A workplace or team experiencing growing pains usually experienced some seismic adjustment:
- The company recently raised a bunch of money
- The company or team has grown by 50-100% in a matter of months
- The company was recently acquired or part of a merger
- The company is focused on scaling teams rapidly and hitting major growth goals, especially after a major funding round
- The entire country went into lockdown because of a global pandemic, and now all regular workday activities must be conducted online for the foreseeable future
Signs of toxic, disorganized, or growing workplaces
There are a few common signs of toxicity at work. Below is a toxic workplace checklist:
- Gossip: People regularly swap rumors or spread negative information.
- Self-interest: Everyone operates in their own best interest, not the company’s or their team’s.
- Name-calling: Coworkers or managers use offensive language and call people (or their work product) insulting terms like “stupid” or “terrible.”
- Public shaming: Similar to name-calling, negative feedback is given in front of others.
- Blame games: People don’t accept accountability for their own actions or throw others under the bus.
- Poor work-life balance: Managers expect subordinates to sacrifice personal commitments, and long hours are the norm, not the exception. “Crunch time” is all the time.
- High turnover rate: Firings with little or no warning are common, and people don’t stick around for long.
- No learning culture: Teams don’t conduct regular retrospectives, and crises don’t prompt post-mortems. Employees rarely, if ever, receive constructive feedback.
- Tyranny and micromanagement: Teams lack autonomy. Employees don’t feel empowered to make independent decisions and fear retribution if they do.
- Lack of transparency: What’s said in public doesn’t match what’s said in private, and important information is never shared or given too late.
- Harassment: Discrimination and a hostile work environment is always toxic, often illegal, and never okay.
Meanwhile, a disorganized workplace often includes some of the following behaviors:
- Frequently shifting priorities: The company or team never settles on a priority or goal for long. It’s difficult to know what to work or focus on because what’s important today won’t matter next week.
- Multiple decision owners: No one person “owns” approving a decision, so a decision is never made. Like in toxic orgs where employees don’t feel empowered to make decisions because they’ll be punished, folks in disorganized situations don’t feel empowered to make decisions because they don’t know who’s ultimately accountable for it.
- Unavailable leadership: Leadership is so busy trying to get the house in order that they have little to no time to meet with individual contributors or answer questions.
- Recurrent reorganizations: Every few months, teams are restructured and reshuffled. New functions are created or removed.
- Unclear reporting structure: Individuals don’t know who their manager is or their manager’s manager.
- Ill-defined process/no process: It’s not clear how to perform tasks like writing product requirements, conducting user interviews, get code reviewed, or launch a new product.
- Information silos: Communication is shared within departments, but not across departments.
Many growing pains overlap directly with disorganization, like unclear reporting structures, ill-defined process, and information silos. But a few traits are more specific to growing pains:
- Duplicated work: Another team or person is working on the exact same thing as you, and you had no idea
- Poorly defined roles and responsibilities: As new teams and roles are created, it’s unclear who does what.
- Lack of camaraderie: Coworkers don’t feel a sense of rapport or teamwork yet; there hasn’t been enough time for many new people to bond.
- Undefined norms and culture: All of a sudden, the stable culture and expectations are disrupted. If norms and culture aren’t carefully cultivated and nurtured, the situation may become toxic over time.
- Tension between the “old guard” and new hires: Folks who have been at the company for years have context and institutional knowledge that new hires—who are often brought in as experts to scale the org—don’t have. This can lead to an “us vs. them” mentality, according to Saraf.
How to tell which one you’re in—and what to do
A toxic workplace will make you feel bad. If your workplace is toxic, you may be experiencing some of the following:
- Panic attacks about going to work or attending meetings
- Regularly crying or experiencing emotional distress because of work
- Insomnia or lack of sleep from work stress and/or work-related nightmares
- Decreased physical health (getting sick more often or experiencing chronic inflammation from constant stress)
- Spending all of your evenings or weekends recovering from the workweek
- Less time spent with friends and family or on healthy behaviors
Because toxic environments are so difficult to fix, formulating an exit strategy that is economically and emotionally feasible for you is important. If you're not in a place to move jobs, consider finding support from colleagues if you feel safe sharing with them.
Rather than negative, a disorganized workplace feels like chaos:
- You don’t know who to talk to to get information
- You don’t know who does what
- You’re never sure if you’re working on the right thing
- You don’t know how to get approval to move forward with a project
- You can’t find documentation
- What was important last week isn’t important this week
If you’re an individual contributor, ask yourself how much chaos you can tolerate—you may even thrive in this kind of environment. If the company is disorganized but otherwise fairly healthy (not toxic), then it may be worth using the job as a learning experience.
It’s important to remember that you’ll encounter new pains, especially if your company or team continues to grow. Saraf adds, “Inevitably, change is constant. There is no organization that was really fast-moving, nimble, and shooting for scale five years ago that is the same org today. Either that org is going to grow, or it’s going to get displaced.” As long as you’re seeing progress on addressing existing problems, it’s okay for new ones to crop up.
Being in any of these situations can feel like being in a room on fire. Jennifer Tu, in her talk “You Can’t Bubblebath the Burnout Away,” says that if you find yourself in a room on fire, you have three options:
- Stay and change yourself by altering how you react or spend your mental and emotional energy
- Stay and change the situation by switching teams or projects
- Leave the room by moving to a new job
For what you personally can’t change, companies can acknowledge and fix problems through concerted, ongoing efforts. Belinda Ju, who coaches founders, CEOs, and product leaders through her consultancy Purposive, says that in these cases, you can ask yourself a few questions to determine if the situation can change:
- Is leadership listening?
- Is feedback being collected at all levels, especially those least voiced within the org?
- Is thoughtful synthesis and analysis being conducted based on the feedback?
- Does that synthesis accurately reflect the root cause(s)?
- Is there some commitment of deliverables intended to address those causes with timelines?
- Will progress towards those deliverables be communicated transparently?
- Is there opportunity for soliciting feedback to iterate along the way?
If the answers to all of the above questions are “Yes,” then the company may be able to move toward a healthier, more stable state. And it’s okay to expect that leadership could and should address systemic issues within the org. Ju elaborates, “It’s important to feel empowered. Sometimes folks earlier in their careers don’t know that there’s an accountability that they can and should expect from their leaders. Leaders are accountable, too. It’s not just folks on the front lines who have to show their work.” Going through this process requires patience; it may take months or years to see change.
When it’s time to move on
In all of the above situations, only you can decide when a situation becomes intolerable for you and what you would do. Outlining what that looks like for you—ahead of time—is critical. If you wait until you hit that moment, you might be in crisis and without a plan.
For example, you might say that after 6 months, if there are no signs of improvement, you will leave. Or you might say that if your team or department hits a certain % turnover, you’ll begin looking for another job. Whatever your boundary, know that accountability runs both ways between employer and employee. If you’re not seeing an organization-wide acknowledgment and effort to address the issues you’re seeing, it’s okay to leave if your circumstances allow you to.
Keep in mind that many toxic and disorganized tech companies hide behind “startup culture” by saying that startups hustle and are constantly growing and evolving. While this is absolutely true, startups can be both rapid growth and healthy places to work. While there may be bumps along the way, working at a startup can be a positive, empowering experience.
If you’re experiencing a difficult situation at work and aren’t sure what to do, connect with a mentor. When you join Merit, you can book time with hundreds of experienced tech workers who can help you assess what’s going on and what you can do next.