You may need to quit your planning job right away if your workplace is dysfunctional.
The kinds of social control exerted in these organizations can cause great personal stress. Moreover, the pressures can impede you in finding a new job.
Having said that, it is usually better to get a new job while still employed. Future employers are generally more interested if you have a job, and you have more leverage in salary negotiations.
This post suggests ways of hanging in there in a job that is not working for you, and even prospering until you have the job you want.
Start by outsmarting the dysfunctional culture. Consider yourself a “visiting scholar” in the field of workplace anthropology. This can help depersonalize things that feel very personal, such as you being the scapegoat for your manager’s failures.
Look at the goings on as if they are a Shakespeare play. Note the role(s) you are assigned and the roles of others. For fun, tweak your role slightly and see if the changes affect the chemistry. Make yourself more mysterious, less predictable. Think if yourself as an actor in this play, not a victim of it.
Do your best work every day because you are cultivating references and gaining experience. Decide to learn something new every day. Dysfunctional workplaces can entice you into doing less than your best. But each day you put up with it, your resume looks better, you develop technical skills, and you build credibility.
Use the environment to gain skills that will help you on your way. In this way, you are buying something by putting up with bad management practices for very specific reasons that serve you. This is a stronger place to be — the chooser — than the recipient of bad behavior. Avoid victim thinking. Stare down adversity with grit and grace.
The experience can be more tolerable if you realize that you are learning about what not to do when you are a manager. You will remember how it felt when a supervisor makes a critical comment about an employee when they are within earshot. The world will certainly look different as a manager — you’ll understand the pressures your current boss feels — but you’ll select more appropriate management strategies.
Be careful of joining an anti-boss staff culture at the workplace.
That coping strategy can lead you to not doing your best. Work “gossip partners” can reinforce a sense of grievance. And, however friendly they are, they may throw you under the bus if tough times come. They could be doing it now without your knowledge. Don’t underestimate what others will do when their career advancement or self-preservation is threatened. If you don’t say it, they can’t repeat it.
If your boss does something hurtful, say “ouch, that hurt my feelings” and nothing else — leave it at that — don’t complain further or explain. Consider it an experiment. The boss could be unaware of how their style hurts morale and productivity.
Say what you would like to occur, such as receiving clearer assignments, but acknowledge that might not be possible given the boss’s reality. Tell your boss you want to know more about how things work at their level. If this engagement shows promise, ask the toxic boss to be your mentor.
This is a “keep your enemies close” strategy. Don’t let work enemies know they are getting to you — be friendly, because you want maximum information. If you hold them at a distance you won’t have that information. Be a pacifist, but if you have to fight, you’ll have more tools, more information, and the power of surprise. Keeping enemies close makes you feel empowered. You have a bit more control.
When facing difficult work environments, I recommend professionalism, containment, and stone-cold purposefulness.
You are a planner on a mission — to gain all you can from an organization that hasn’t treated you properly and to find a better, more fulfilling work life. There are many team-like, boss-supportive work environments out there for you.
With this perspective, you can go into the office, even on a Sunday, and feel like a secret agent on a mission. It’s temporary. It’s for a greater purpose.
Top image: Thinkstock photo.
About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.