Know When To Walk Away: Handling a Toxic Working Environment

Ben Coats

CTO at Innovative Research Technologies



I was working for a fairly small startup and needless to say we were operating in a startup mode. There was no formal career ladder since there were just a couple of us working together. As the company started to grow and we took on many more employees, opportunities started opening up for me to get into a technical leadership role. Over my career, I’ve always fallen into technical leadership roles, and had never failed to receive very positive feedback from all of my supervisors. While in this position, I was already contributing as a technical leader but was neither considered nor promoted to that role.

Actions taken

I asked my management for the opportunity to move into a technical leadership role. The feedback I received indicated that my superiors didn’t feel I was the right fit for the technical leadership role, and that I had to improve on a number of things. This was confusing to me, as what I was being told did not align with what I had heard in the past. Apparently, my management was concerned about my communication skills, leadership style, and the way my passion for my work came across. That stood in direct conflict with everything I have ever heard about myself.

However, I decided to take their concerns seriously and focus on fixing my shortcomings. I made a concerted effort to do that -- I would research online looking into how to improve business communication, foster an appropriate leadership approach, how to engage with people better, and establish personal connections.

Every few months I would raise the point again, present my management with the steps I had taken to improve in the aforementioned areas and give concrete examples of my putting what I had learned into practice. I would ask my managers if they were noticing a difference and if my efforts were getting me closer to my goal.

Unfortunately, although the changes were acknowledged it brought me no closer to my goal. I brought it all up in my annual review, presenting my documented efforts and identifiable outcomes. I was told that my effort was noticeable, but was either told I wasn’t quite there yet - without concrete examples of what to address - or that there was no need for such a position yet (though I was already covering much of what was required for that role).

Doubt started to haunt me. Before that, I was fairly confident in myself and my abilities, being aware of both my weakness and strengths. My career trajectory over the past couple of decades gave me every reason to feel confident. Yet, I started to doubt myself and that impacted all areas of my life. It hit me hard but I was nowhere near quitting. I even turned down an opportunity for a CTO role because I was determined to show them who I was.

I reached out to mentors and discussed my situation, and they all were unanimous that I was stuck in a toxic environment that was impeding my advancement. They were explicit in their advice that it was time for me to move on, to find another job where I would be more appreciated and my skillset more fully leveraged. Even so, I struggled following on that advice -- I was already overwhelmed by self-doubt, but I was determined to overcome this challenge. I felt that if I gave up trying to win my employer over, that meant I was taking the easy road, choosing to side-step this challenge rather than face it; and since it had been impressed upon me so heavily, this challenge absolutely must be a shortcoming which should be addressed.

In the end, my hesitance to take that step - my determination to force the issue, to make it work, rather than moving on - meant that in the end I wasn’t the one who “pulled the plug”. I was devastated. I had committed so thoroughly to my employer, had sacrificed my happiness and my confidence in order to prove myself to someone, that it was hard to recognize this as a blessing in disguise.

In my next role, I once again found myself organically “climbing the ladder”, promotion after promotion. But though I advanced tremendously in just a year, it took me a long while to regain my confidence. I had come to doubt myself so thoroughly based on the feedback I had been receiving that it was extremely difficult allowing the old, confident, passionate me to come out. Yet over time, as I saw the way in which my actions and leadership style were being received, I found myself becoming more and more, me. If I saw a gap I would fill it and do what I thought needed to be done, and my employer truly valued that!

Lessons learned

  • Know yourself, be self-aware of both your strengths and weaknesses, have them be based on evidence, and understand what they make you capable of. If you're hearing things which are having a negative impact on you and your career, and conflict with everything that you've heard before, this might not be the right situation for you. It may be time to look for a position where your particular skills and strengths are appreciated for what they are, rather than going through the painful exercise of trying to convince your employer of what you have to offer.
  • I wish I was able to see some signs earlier and realize that trying to find a more supportive working environment doesn’t make me a quitter. It is better for all concerned that you be in a place where you are valued for what you have to offer, than for you to prove that what you have to offer is valuable...and your mental health will thank you for it.
  • I regained my confidence by stepping forward when I saw an opportunity to employ my talents even outside the sphere of my job. Though self-doubt made it uncomfortable, by gradually pushing myself to do a little bit more and see what happened, I was able to see that the feedback matched what I would have expected before. This validated I was in a place that needed me to be who I am, and operate in the way I do...and that what I do, truly does have value.

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Ben Coats

CTO at Innovative Research Technologies

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationFeedback TechniquesTechnical ExpertiseTechnical SkillsCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionCareer LadderSkill Development

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