In many parts of the United States and likely other cultures, the most authoritarian, rigid and manipulative cultural demands are found in workplace environments. It seems particularly evil and cruel to set up a competitive, (supposedly) meritocratic environment and simultaneously hold people to unhealthy standards of being polite, fake, obedient and passive. If you really want to see someone’s capability, skill, wisdom, or other value, setting up an anti-human environment will only make them want to hide or rebel instead.
In the big picture, a toxic environment so hostile to human nature and human needs is a terrible and tragic life. But, you don’t have to stay stuck in those environments forever, and while you’re there, you can use the situation as an opportunity to learn how to protect yourself. To be strong, become resilient in terrible conditions- and even transcend.
First, we need to learn the red flags of a coworker or manager’s actions and words that implies they would be punishing, unhealthy, abusive, or cruel if you cross a line. Additionally, you need to pay attention to what boundaries and expectations are set at work, whether you think they are good or bad, if you know what they are you can prepare much better and make wiser choices.
So what are the most common red flags in the workplace?
1. Zero Tolerance for Collaboration: If a manager immediately recoils or reacts very negatively when you ask a question, make a suggestion, or bring up a problem, this creates a hostile environment. It also makes it very hard for employees to do their job well, when they can’t clarify what should be done or how. It gets worse when the methods of doing the work lead to bad results, and you can’t make suggestions for improvement. If a manager emphasizes hierarchy at work, it suggests they are against true meritocracy, because they don’t acknowledge the merit of what employees have to offer. This makes it almost impossible to show your potential or skill, and creates a depressing environment against quality and innovation.
2. Unusually Harsh Punishment Built Into the Rules: If the rules at work create unbearably high standards with threatening punishments for falling below the standard, this is a sign the environment is unsafe and workers act out of desperation to keep their jobs. An example is getting marked late if it’s under 10 minutes, and getting fired after 3 late marks. Or getting threatened with punishment over minor mistakes- especially if the mistakes are a result of the manager’s poor communication.
3. Polite Manipulation and Fake Interactions: If the way you speak normally receives harsh mischaracterizing criticism and threats of punishment, then it’s a sign at least that person believes in excessive politeness and friendliness as a default. It becomes evident a workplace is overtaken by polite pretending if people repeatedly react poorly to regular communication because it isn’t covered up with passive language and excessive manners. It becomes polite manipulation when you can’t bring up issues at work or speak plain and direct, even if it’s not necessarily blunt or directed as criticism of a person. When the polite friendly surface interactions contrast the underlying unresolved issues, it shows this politeness is used as manipulation and self-protection from the threats that ensue if anyone breaks the mold. This is toxic and unstable for everyone, because nobody can be themselves safely, the invisible rules for communication are subjective and unclear, and unresolved issues degrade the workplace until it falls apart.
4. Obedience Prioritized Over Quality: A desire for obedience to authority figures in the workplace in general can be brutal, it leads to employees acting in fake ways to exaggerate their work- almost like a theatrical performance- for the sake of managers leaving them alone. But this belief in obedience gets way worse when you have to follow orders to the detriment of quality or helping customers. This is the path to some of the most horrific genocides and mass economic catastrophes in human history. When people go along with endless demands, even if it crosses their ethical or moral boundaries, it leads us to a culture where people do horrible things and say afterwards, “I was just doing my job”.