Millions of people feel trapped in places where "the pro asshole rule" rather than the no asshole rule prevails. Employees who face and witness constant bullying do leave their jobs at higher rates than in civilized places.
Researchers Charlotte Rayner and Loraleigh Keashly estimate that 25% of victims and 20% of witnesses of bullying leave their jobs, compared to a typical rate of about 5%. But these numbers also show that most of the afflicted hunker down and take it. Many people are stuck in vile workplaces for financial reasons-they have no escape route to another job, at least to one that pays as well. Even good jobs in civilized places involve run-ins with nasty people, especially service jobs. JetBlue flight attendants, 7-Eleven clerks, Starbucks baristas, Disneyland cast members, business school professors, and McKinsey consultants all have told me that sometimes they "just have to take it" from demeaning customers.
And even people who are planning to escape a wicked workplace may choose to endure weeks or months of abuse before walking out. A Harvard Business Review reader wrote to me that his software company had "jerks in management that crush their employees" and made them feel "worthless," so the best programmers kept leaving, but only after lining up another job. People may also tolerate abuse for a while because they promised to finish a project, are holding out for a year-end bonus, or are waiting for stock options or a retirement plan to vest. Yet whether you are a "short-timer" or face a long sentence embedded with a bumper crop of assholes, there are ways to make the best of a bad situation.
Consider the strategy that one Silicon Valley executive used to survive her mean-spirited colleagues. Let's call her Ruth to protect the innocent as well as the guilty. Earlier in her career, Ruth became tangled in a nasty political battle with "a slew of assholes" who routinely put her down, interrupted her, and glared at her in meetings. They repeatedly criticized what she did and shot down her solutions, while offering few constructive ideas of their own. They proposed tough solutions (such as firing poor performers) and then lacked the courage to implement their macho talk-leaving her to do their dirty work.
These pompous table pounders also repeatedly instructed Ruth to take actions and then criticized her for doing exactly what they asked. Ruth tried to fight back and was beaten clown. Although she weathered the storm and kept her position, she emerged with her confidence eroded and was physically and emotionally exhausted. Ruth lost weight and had a hard time sleeping for months after the abuse she suffered at the hands of these jerks.
Three years later, a similar dynamic reared its ugly head again, with the same creeps using the same dirty tricks. This time, Ruth went in with her eyes open, determined to get through it all without letting them "get" to her. Ruth's coping strategy was inspired by advice she had gotten as a teenager from a river rafting guide: If you fall out of the boat in rapids, don't try to fight it; just rely on your life vest and float with your feet out in front of you. That way, if you are thrown up against rocks, you can use your feet to push off, and you will protect your head and conserve your energy. As it turned out, Ruth had fallen overboard, in a stretch of the American River in California known as Satan's Cesspool. The guide's advice worked perfectly: after an amazing trip through the rapids, with her feet out in front of her, Ruth came to a smooth stretch of river and swam over to the boat, which was waiting for her by a gentle beach.
Tags: Career & Money
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