This is the last blog I’ll write that focuses on my previous employer. My last blog spoke about testing experiences with my current employer, Travelport Locomote. I plan for future blogs to build on that focus. I’ve been contemplating this blog for some time, vacillating between writing it and walking away, leaving it unsaid. Ultimately, as you can see, I decided to write. This blog owes much to Nat Dudley and her blog Recovering from a toxic job. I shared this article with others and found out just how widespread this issue really is.
“And I need everyone of you to support me in achieving this. The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those, who by their rank, have a leadership role.” – Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison AO, Address at the International Women’s Day Conference (2013)
I worked for at my last employer for a little over 18 years. The first stay was a little over 13 years. I joined a consultancy as a Senior Test Consultant, a stay that lasted 6 months. The consultancy company was a soulless and cold place. It was about bodies and resources, not people. I left the consultancy and effectively went back to my old job. They had yet to find a suitable candidate and the move back came with a pay rise. Maybe that was an early omen. To be honest, at that point in time, the company had some issues but I wouldn’t classify toxic culture as one of them.
Fast forward three years. The part of the company I worked for had a change of owner. Three months later, our new owners, on a cost cutting drive (margin is king, apparently) slashed a bit more than 30% of staff globally. We lost a lot of good people in Melbourne. We also had a change in leadership. Initially I had high hopes as I thought the new leadership would back our recent journey to agility. The feeling amongst most people on the development floor was that we were slowly moving to better WRONG.
At this time, I was the most senior amongst the test group, officially “Principal QA” (a title that I would have changed to include Tester). Staff changes through resignation and redundancy meant I was now reporting directly to the new Manager, who was “running the show” in Melbourne. Let’s call him “Mr X” The first six months of this relationship was, well, odd. I was asked to be an agile evangelist. I was cool with this, I was doing it anyway. In our weekly catch ups it was clear that what I was being asked to do was at odds with X’s desired path and his preferred mode of management (which includes the word micro). We had a bunch of chats where he was clearly not across what moving to agility really meant for our operations. Xs’ manager was, if anything, even less understanding (he wanted to “cherry pick” from the manifesto principles).
Let’s leap forward six months. At our weekly catch up I got the comment (command) “you need to be more pragmatic. Stop talking about this agile stuff and upsetting people”. Say what? I blogged previously on this episode (here). I should have taken the hint and rapidly sought an exit. I didn’t, my bad. Here’s a few highlights across the remaining time up to my resignation.
- I was excluded from any leadership group meetings. The testing group, as a whole, lost representation at meetings
- A demand that the team I was in working provide 70 days of free labour to make up for unpaid work delivered to a client. Management had approved the work but backed off when they realised it came at a cost of 70 days. It then became an “unauthorised promise” made by the team.
- A new tester into the company was to spend some time with me “learning the ropes”. He was moved well away from me. I had been branded with having a bad attitude for not simply agreeing, without question, with every management decision (I have inserted an extract of my e-mail response)
- The company spent money on a pool table for staff. It did more to boost morale than anything else that had been tried (not that much had been tried). X complained that “my request for software gets declined but they buy that table”
- Responsibility for creating testing opportunities and initiatives was placed in the hands of a Developer in Bangkok, while this work was specifically part of my role. However it enabled X to impose his will on test direction. It enabled him to silently deliver directives.
- An e-mail was issued to the wider test group. “Tell us about your three pain points”. I responded to the group with one ” We continue to approach improving testing in a superficial and disjointed way.”. That response earned a strong censure from X via e-mail (See below). A follow up ambush meeting followed where X and his Manager issued a formal “friendly warning” that next time it would be an official HR performance warning. Turns out the real problem here was responding back to the audience (that bit got mentioned a few times) rather than keeping it secret. Yikes!!
That is but a small sample I could cite more but I’m sure you get the idea. That last meeting lifted my motivation to get out to new highs. I moved from tepid attempts to having a red hot go. I could not operate in such a poisonous environment that held no promise of improvement. I was often asked by colleagues why I still cared, while no one else on the floor did (maybe I’m just stubborn, maybe caring is important). My “care factor” was given a new assignment. Within 4 weeks of the “friendly warning” I had signed a contract with a new employer. I was ecstatic.
The first few weeks at my new job were great. People were friendly and welcoming. I felt at home, like I belonged – even in the first few hours of my first day. At lunch on my first day I sent a text to my Wife – “So happy, this is where I belong” My enthusiasm was back. I had freedom, people wanted to know my thoughts, how I could help. People trusted me and there was zero micromanagement. It was just everything I wanted, and then it wasn’t. A few ideas met a little resistance and that triggered old habits and feelings from my previous job. I didn’t realise this was a “toxic hangover”. I started to wonder if I could do the job I was hired to do. I thought I worked well with people, maybe I didn’t. My confidence plummeted and I briefly considered moving on from the best job and workplace I have ever been a part of. I even considered moving away from testing as a career. I was languishing, doing stuff but not leading, not being “me” in the way I wanted to, and knew, I could be “me”. This is where being in a supportive and caring environment matters.
Our agile coach invited me to chat over coffee. There were some direct questions, there were answers. There was plenty of empathy and understanding from the coach. Then it was pointed out that I was making a choice and my choice seemed to be to focus on blockers rather than moving forwards. “You’re making a choice” resonated with me. It has ever since Michael Bolton spoke about this at a training session I attended. I realised I was letting the past crush me. It didn’t have to be about blockers and being beaten down. I could just as easily choose to do something else, so I did. This was what we agreed to call “a gentle ass kicking” but it was done for all the right reasons and with great care. When I left that meeting it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, my head was much clearer, my mood brighter.
Not long after that coaching session, I read Nat’s blog. It helped, a lot. I followed up a little later by having a chat with our People and Culture leader. That helped me understand the whole “toxic hangover” concept a little more. Nat’s description of the post toxic culture impact is very accurate based on my experience and stories from some of my colleagues.
Pink Floyd sings about being “Comfortably Numb”.
Now I’ve got that feeling once again
I can’t explain you would not understand
This is not how I am
I have become comfortably numb
I think survival for any length of time in toxic work environments requires you to become “Uncomfortably Numb”. You know that story about putting a frog in a pot of water and slowly heating the water. The frog gets used to the rising heat until it’s too late and it’s dead. That’s a toxic work culture. Another way I have thought about this is in terms of a behavioral science concept – learned helplessness. Get pounded enough and you just accept it and stop reacting, you become uncaring about the abuse. It leaves scars.
Now, finally, the place that I thought was everything I wanted, is that place. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, it took work and there were a few “wobbly” moments, but change happened. Not because it has changed but because the people there have helped me change. Genuine care and respect, amongst all people that I work with, will do that I guess. That veneer of toxic varnish that inevitably covers you, an unconscious form of protection that you build, has cracked and peeled away. I have been feeling energised, imaginative and involved. I’m back to loving what I’m doing and helping the people I work with understand what I do and how we can help each other. This is what a workplace should be.