3 Tips to Surviving a Toxic Startup Job
September 30, 2014

3 Tips to Surviving a Toxic Startup Job

by Keith Brown

I have worked in toxic environments and survived. It was not easy and I struggled to believe I could keep going in the face of hostility and a belligerent boss, but I survived. The worst boss I ever had called my coworker and me into the conference room and accused us of refusing to clean the toilets.

We worked in an office environment and had never been informed that cleaning the bathrooms was part of our job responsibilities. I will never forget sitting across the table from our boss while she said, “It has come to my attention that the two of you refuse to clean the bathrooms.”

I did not last long at that startup and it was not the first time I had been bullied or demeaned at work.

I even had a manager who would send scathing emails after 9 p.m. because it was easier for him to demoralize his team over email when they could not defend or immediately respond. The entire team would dread logging into email at night, in fear of the next digital attack.

We all have stories about peers, coworkers, and managers who have either bullied teammates or direct reports. But, when it happens to you, you can feel paralyzed, demoralized, and shaken.

There are no easy answers or quick fixes for surviving a toxic boss or environment, but here are a few ways I kept my cool and tried to avoid the drama:

Focus on the work
One day when very frustrated at work, a good friend of mine one told me, “Don’t get overwhelmed, just do the work that’s in front of you.” I realized that is easier said than done, but if you believe in your skills and abilities, the output will reflect the effort. Focus on what you can control by doing your job to the best of your abilities so your work speaks for itself.

Build a support system
One of the best strategies to cope with a boss on the attack is to surround yourself with people who believe in you. In my situation, I was lucky to have a team who worked well together and supported each other, so in the face of a negative attack, we would build each other up instead of walking away from the wounded. A support system can also include close friends, former coworkers who know your skills and even a therapist who can help you work through potential anxiety or low self-esteem.

Decide when it is time to go
Making the decision to find a new opportunity is not giving up. It is acknowledging that the situation you are in is no longer helping you grow and achieve your goals. If you have identified the issues in the organization, tried to work through them and there really does not appear to be a way out, it is ok to walk away.

Survival starts with believing in yourself, which can be challenging if you are working for someone who takes pleasure in demeaning your skills. Take a good look at your skills, what you have to offer and the success you have achieved in your role. Surround yourself with believers and acknowledge when you have done everything you can to make it work.

Have you survived a toxic startup work environment?

Keith Brown

Keith was a VP of Marketing at Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software.

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