One of the things that has bothered me for some time is how isolated I became in my old job – as I became more and more disillusioned I became more and more “uninvolved” with my colleagues. I turned up to do my teaching and I supported students with commitment and competence but I didn’t have close relationships with my fellow lecturers. I found the tribal approach uncomfortable and I stopped going to meetings because I hated them. I hated going to meetings that resulted in competitive misery sharing – constant top trumping about the amount of marking, stupid students, difficult students, doctoral or post-doctoral research – who was working hardest and who was making their intellectual prowess most public. I found these cultural norms and exchanges distressing and I did not want any part of the conversations. Eventually I found I had no one to go to talk about the issues – I seemed to have noticed that something was going on within team relationships but no one else wanted to either admit to or they were blind to the game playing going on all around us.
I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I “recover” from my unsuccessful career change – I thought I could lead a team in healthcare but I wasn’t able to nor was I allowed to find out what I was really capable of doing. I still believe that there are transferable skills between facilitating learning and leading teams in care delivery – I know that I was stopped from being able to effect change and transform the team environment because other people had too much to lose. I now know that it doesn’t matter how committed you are to enabling development and improvement that if people above and below you are fearful of the consequences of your success then they will sabotage and deceive to ensure you are stopped. I don’t believe mine was an isolated experience and recently I heard about staff gleefully relaying stories of how they had “seen off” new senior managers. I can just see those complacent practitioners conspiring spiteful and untruthful stories about irrational incompetence, emotional outbursts and erratic behaviour. Listening to the Archers storyline about domestic abuse over the past few weeks has made me realise how close to losing the plot I was becoming a year ago. I can’t listen to Rob with Helen without feeling sick and uncomfortable. I know what is like to be constantly undermined coupled with charm and an illusion of support – it can seriously damage one’s confidence and capability. Abusive relationships are not solely in domestic settings – they haunt the workplace too and too many people put up with and shut up about their experiences.
It might seem that these experiences are merely “petty irritations ” or “trivial niggles” but often it is all about mind games and it is time we called it for what it is – bullying and abuse – a term that HR have hijacked and distorted. I believe that it is time to ask questions about what leads to this type of behaviour and that no area of care is immune from relationship problems. Coming to work may be a sanctuary for many people, away from the trials and tribulations of complex and demanding personal lives. If that is the case then that needs to be acknowledged, sublimating needs and using work as a proxy emotional haven is not healthy and can lead to disappointment and damage. If wounded healers are seeking salvation and escape in their workplace then they will not weather the emotional storms of work. They will displace, repress and deny the inevitable changes and challenges that are a certainty of contemporary health care environments. Once stable and secure the culture of health care whether it is public, private or third sector is no longer a site of permanence and predictability. We need to equip practitioners with the awareness, insight and support to help them navigate this tricky and risky terrain.
I don’t have the answers but I do now have personal experience of being undermined and belittled at work. I now know what it is like to have people make things up about you and have a work environment that tests your mental health and leaves you exhausted and wondering what it is all about. I changed jobs because I wanted to improve patient and carer experiences in health care and I really believed that I could do that drawing on my leadership skills, a coaching style of management and using practice development frameworks to underpin and inform improvements in service delivery. It all went spectacularly wrong and I nearly lost more than a monthly salary – but I was able to walk away before they destroyed my well being completely. From adversity can come the greatest learning and insights and this is what I intend to share here and develop into learning for others.
It is time we stopped ignoring what is going on around us and admit that the workplace can be hostile and damaging for many people. It isn’t just the “little people” who have a horrible time it can often be the middle managers or senior clinicians who sit in their cars sobbing at the end of the shift or spend disproportionate amounts of time preparing to come to work overcoming fear and trepidation. It shouldn’t be the norm and people shouldn’t shrug their shoulders and admit that is a common occurrence. We need to take a stand and stop the rot – ask searching questions, give voice to the silenced and courage to those experiencing or witnessing toxic and corrosive team dynamics.
If I had my way I would prescribe poetry and expressive arts for people to help them gain insight into their motivations and emotional needs. I would also insist that if senior staff are bullying, narcissistic and incompetent that they are called to account for their performance and required to take personal responsibility for deeds and actions. Onlookers should be shamed into taking action and acting on their authority rather than passing the buck and deflecting accountability. All of this requires a different approach to the ones I have experienced but I don’t think it is alien or fanciful. It does require a shift in thinking but all the clues are there and the evidence to support this shift is available and accessible.
For examples see
I am committed to using my experiential knowledge to inform and enlighten others – it might be uncomfortable for some and it might be risky for me but I don’t think I have a choice.