My experience with toxic teams

By Jenn

I've quit my job several different times without anything lined up because of the working environment. It is never on a whim or because of a single incident. It is the result of months of trying to make it work and realizing that I am only being set up to fail on purpose.

Toxic teams do not think they are the problem. They just have this bad luck in hiring new people, none of them last. Maybe they think they are the cream of the crop, the elite, you just have to be as dedicated and hard as them to survive. This is false, their behavior and attitudes are driving away anyone that isn't like them.

Things I watch out for at work

There can be a honeymoon period when starting a new job with a toxic team. There may be space and time given to learn and settle in. This is when I have historically started to notice the difference in team culture from what they said in the interview and what I see.

  • No one uses vacation time or sick leave

    Having unlimited sick or vacation time is great. But if you are highly discouraged from ever using it, it is worthless.

  • It is always crunch time

    This is usually why members are discouraged from taking time off.

  • Everything is urgent

    If everything is urgent, nothing is. Tasks and projects cannot be prioritized. The priority of the day shifts to whoever is screaming loudest.

  • Professional development budgets aren't allowed to be used

    There is money for you to go to the conference, but you aren't allowed to go because it is crunch time.

  • Socializing with other teams is frowned upon

    Once again, it is crunch time. Why aren't you eating lunch at your desk?

  • Minimal or no on-boarding

    There is no time to have you shadow someone to learn the job. Questions are frowned upon, you are just supposed to know it.

  • No documentation

    They also didn't have time for any documentation, everything is in their heads. You are left alone to learn as you go.

  • Little or no recognition of good work

    Everyone likes to feel appreciated and that they matter. I like the idea that praise is a vitamin and everyone deserves good actionable praise. If recognition is not given, how do people know if they are meeting expectations?

  • Check-ins are constantly skipped

    I use check-ins as a time for a conversation with my lead or manager on how I am doing and what direction the team is going. If these conversations are not happening, I do not know if I am being effective or how to prepare for later projects.

  • Roadblocks are ignored

    Ignoring a roadblock does not make it go away. It makes it a bigger problem.

  • Jokes or put-downs against me or what I do

    There is a difference between making fun of a tool (e.g. jokes about how hard it is to quit Vim) and making fun of the users of that tool. Making fun of the users is not cool.

  • It isn't safe to fail

    Failure is part of learning. Failure is a consequence of being on the edge of technology. There should be safeguards to prevent failure from being catastrophic.

Things I watch out for in myself

There is often an internal equation or algorithm we use to justify actions we take and our place in the team. Sometimes we explain away everything happening to ourselves without seeing how it really is affecting us.

  • Having to will myself into work every day

    Everyone has off days, but if I am dreading work every day there is usually something wrong.

  • Feeling like I ran a marathon every day after work

    If I only come home and crash every day, either I am really sick or something else is happening.

  • Crying because of work

    Being passionate about work is a good thing but being frustrated enough to cry at the walls and roadblocks that are happening every day is not.

  • Doing everything possible to not be at my desk

    If I feel like I don't have control over my job, I often end up volunteering for several committees or groups so I feel like I have something I can do and get direction through them.

Creating an action plan

Having a good support network is key to surviving a toxic team. Whenever I spot several of the above symptoms happening over a week or so, I reach out to talk with someone. I have talked with my partner, colleagues in other companies, mentors, family, friends, and mental health practitioners. Discussing these actions always helps me to figure out the best plan of action.

  • Take a break

    Use that vacation or sick time and get out of the office for more than just the weekend. Take some time to think and discuss with others about the work environment.

  • Look for a new job

    There can be too many things wrong and or no support from management and HR. In those cases, I start looking for a new job while continuing to work.

  • Stay with the team

    Sometimes, the job is not what you were expecting it to be but you have support through management or HR. In those cases, you can try working through it. This option requires a good personal support network.

  • Quit with nothing lined up

    Sometimes the best option is just to quit. The job is too stressful and is a danger to your health. This option requires having enough money to support yourself while you look.

You are not responsible for fixing the team.

Each time I have ended up quitting without a job lined up, I had been working to try to fix the team but ended up with pushback and was labelled the trouble maker. Some teams cannot be fixed, they have to be destroyed and rebuilt. Don't sacrifice yourself trying to fix them.