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My experience with toxic teams

I've quit my job several different times without anything lined up because of the working environment. It is never on a whim or because of a single incident. It is the result of months of trying to make it work and realizing that I am only being set up to fail on purpose.

Toxic teams do not think they are the problem. They just have this bad luck in hiring new people, none of them last. Maybe they think they are the cream of the crop, the elite, you just have to be as dedicated and hard as them to survive. This is false, their behavior and attitudes are driving away anyone that isn't like them.

Things I watch out for at work

There can be a honeymoon period when starting a new job with a toxic team. There may be space and time given to learn and settle in. This is when I have historically started to notice the difference in team culture from what they said in the interview and what I see.

  • No one uses vacation time or sick leave

    Having unlimited sick or vacation time is great. But if you are highly discouraged from ever using it, it is worthless.

  • It is always crunch time

    This is usually why members are discouraged from taking time off.

  • Everything is urgent

    If everything is urgent, nothing is. Tasks and projects cannot be prioritized. The priority of the day shifts to whoever is screaming loudest.

  • Professional development budgets aren't allowed to be used

    There is money for you to go to the conference, but you aren't allowed to go because it is crunch time.

  • Socializing with other teams is frowned upon

    Once again, it is crunch time. Why aren't you eating lunch at your desk?

  • Minimal or no on-boarding

    There is no time to have you shadow someone to learn the job. Questions are frowned upon, you are just supposed to know it.

  • No documentation

    They also didn't have time for any documentation, everything is in their heads. You are left alone to learn as you go.

  • Little or no recognition of good work

    Everyone likes to feel appreciated and that they matter. I like the idea that praise is a vitamin and everyone deserves good actionable praise. If recognition is not given, how do people know if they are meeting expectations?

  • Check-ins are constantly skipped

    I use check-ins as a time for a conversation with my lead or manager on how I am doing and what direction the team is going. If these conversations are not happening, I do not know if I am being effective or how to prepare for later projects.

  • Roadblocks are ignored

    Ignoring a roadblock does not make it go away. It makes it a bigger problem.

  • Jokes or put-downs against me or what I do

    There is a difference between making fun of a tool (e.g. jokes about how hard it is to quit Vim) and making fun of the users of that tool. Making fun of the users is not cool.

  • It isn't safe to fail

    Failure is part of learning. Failure is a consequence of being on the edge of technology. There should be safeguards to prevent failure from being catastrophic.

Things I watch out for in myself

There is often an internal equation or algorithm we use to justify actions we take and our place in the team. Sometimes we explain away everything happening to ourselves without seeing how it really is affecting us.

  • Having to will myself into work every day

    Everyone has off days, but if I am dreading work every day there is usually something wrong.

  • Feeling like I ran a marathon every day after work

    If I only come home and crash every day, either I am really sick or something else is happening.

  • Crying because of work

    Being passionate about work is a good thing but being frustrated enough to cry at the walls and roadblocks that are happening every day is not.

  • Doing everything possible to not be at my desk

    If I feel like I don't have control over my job, I often end up volunteering for several committees or groups so I feel like I have something I can do and get direction through them.

Creating an action plan

Having a good support network is key to surviving a toxic team. Whenever I spot several of the above symptoms happening over a week or so, I reach out to talk with someone. I have talked with my partner, colleagues in other companies, mentors, family, friends, and mental health practitioners. Discussing these actions always helps me to figure out the best plan of action.

  • Take a break

    Use that vacation or sick time and get out of the office for more than just the weekend. Take some time to think and discuss with others about the work environment.

  • Look for a new job

    There can be too many things wrong and or no support from management and HR. In those cases, I start looking for a new job while continuing to work.

  • Stay with the team

    Sometimes, the job is not what you were expecting it to be but you have support through management or HR. In those cases, you can try working through it. This option requires a good personal support network.

  • Quit with nothing lined up

    Sometimes the best option is just to quit. The job is too stressful and is a danger to your health. This option requires having enough money to support yourself while you look.

You are not responsible for fixing the team.

Each time I have ended up quitting without a job lined up, I had been working to try to fix the team but ended up with pushback and was labelled the trouble maker. Some teams cannot be fixed, they have to be destroyed and rebuilt. Don't sacrifice yourself trying to fix them.

Top comments (31)

intricatecloud profile image
Danny Perez

I've wound up with a bunch of health problems with some problematic teammates.

After one engineer joined, we frequently butted heads, and after a few months, I started to get heartburn whenever I had to talk to that person. That person was laid off for unrelated reasons, and my heartburn went away. I was pretty shocked that it could affect me like that.

Later on I started grinding my teeth, and have slightly chipped a molar from the grinding. After that I started prioritizing my health instead of work, and coincidentally the problematic person left the company, and things vastly improved after that. I would have left the job, had that person not left.

Thanks for sharing your experience.

lkopacz profile image
Lindsey Kopacz

Thank you for sharing this.

One that's related to what you shared about what to watch out for is the only people who get rewarded are working ridiculous hours and also very unhappy.

I give up on getting recognition for those places because I have gotten to a point where I refuse to sacrifice my health for any job. I'd rather get my "promotion" from moving on. I can show I am right for a promotion without working myself to the ground.

lkopacz profile image
Lindsey Kopacz

I've experienced the what to look out for in myself as well, I've experienced almost all of them at certain jobs I've had. Really sad proud that I know that's not how it has to be.

stel profile image
St3l • Edited

Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I find this reading comforting :)

My current job is toxic. I work in a small startup (we are 6 and one trainee) and the toxic ambiance it's because of of the choices of the two founders of the startup. They are always changing their mind about important decisions, and they never listen the advices of their employees (even when they know nothing about a subject). Since I am here (it's been one year and a half) there is 5 people who choose to left the company, and it's been 7 month that they try to recrute a developer but they don't succeed.
I planed to quit at the end of december but I sometime ask myself if my colleagues are thinking like me or if I am the only one in the current team who can't work like that anymore.

shiling profile image
Shi Ling • Edited

Crying because of work

Being passionate about work is a good thing but being frustrated enough to cry at the walls and roadblocks that are happening every day is not.

The next stage is laughing.

I remember working to the bone at one of my jobs, being angry first at the inefficiencies, then crying about being exhausted and hating work, then laughing in the end because I probably lost my marbles. You should probably quit before you reach here.

I made it a point to make sure people who work with me don't contribute to this culture. People are really workaholic in Asia... I sometimes need to scold people for not resting when they are sick and tell them to chill because the work can be delayed or that other people in the team will help them pick up the slack. It is unfortunate that it's become a habit some people grow up with because of the unhealthy obsession with academic excellence here. It's also sad that some people relish in bragging about how busy -and important- they are.

earthtone0ne profile image

"You should probably quit before you reach here." I'm not sure why this made me LOL.. probably because I'm already there. T_T

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

I recognize a couple of our own red flags here as well as items I think we should be proud of.

Really hits the nail on the head.

ccleary00 profile image
Corey Cleary

When you quit without anything lined up, how was your experience interviewing while you were unemployed? Did it come up during interviews? I realize there is a big fear around this - that you are "supposed to always be employed!" - but wonder if it's really as big a deal is it's made out to be.

Great post!

geekgalgroks profile image

Both times I have been able to get a job after quitting without too much hassle. Shorter gaps (< 3 months) in my employment history I don't explain. Longer gaps I stress the open source online communities I worked with while searching.

If you have the safety net to quit a toxic environment without something lined up, I recommend it. In my opinion it is better to have a gap in employment than to bring the mistrust and stress with you into the next job.

abbhishek971 profile image

It's not the fear that surrounds supposed to be always employed. There is the pressure of skipping bills and payments of the month which disrupts the financial management of the next month and starts a disastrous chain of events which is quite difficult to recover from.

fundatillus profile image
Josh Clements

This is really well written and accurate. Being exposed to many toxic workplaces in the past, my first reaction is to ask, "how does one fix a poor culture?" I do believe that is your point, though... while some people may be able to change cultures, those of us that aren't suited for organizational transformation need to move on and be productive elsewhere.

piotroxp profile image
Piotr Słupski • Edited

Thanks for this !

One of the projects I worked on had every single one issue you mentioned!.

Literally, everything. On top of that, the manager/product owner had the internal pride of being "technologically agnostic". The frequent drop-ins of "just add salesforce integration" were on the daily.

Every single meeting was drawing the same diagram over and over and over again, due to him not being able to communicate with slack or trello. No documentation as well, not to mention the fact that that the PM expected no tests due to the fast and dynamically changing work environment.

The thing I won't forget was how he described the product : "You walk into a bar and immediately find chicks to bang". In the end, his rhethoric was disgusting.

I quit. I'm so much better off now.

yasserhussain1110 profile image
Yasser Hussain • Edited

Thank you for this post. At my previous place, I was expected to work on Sundays. Everything had urgency but nothing was getting accomplished there. I kept blaming myself for six months before realising that I wasn't the problem. I quit. I am in a much happier place now.

converge profile image
João Vanzuita

I believe that we attract everything to our life, when someone is bad with us, we feel bad, and that's your inner self feeling bad, we create our own feelings and we're responsible for that.

Life is a long travel, and is so good to be/feel in charge, no one can hurt you when you deep understand it. Of course, we're not a machine, sometimes "shit happens", but the main point is how we deal with that, we have two opportunities, feel bad with the situation, or learn and get stronger with the issues.

And no one is bad, it's just their best, and everyone is trying to be better everyday, understanding that take us to a peaceful way of thinking.

wparad profile image
Warren Parad

Everyone faces a toxic team at one point or another (and if you don't either you didn't notice, or you were one of the lucky ones). The biggest problem is that, as you've pointed out, it isn't always easy to recognize. Or worse, it seems that you aren't in the position to improve that situation. I have found, though, working together with others does help, especially if the whole team is on the same page. In our team, we've recognized the issues with this and want to stay ahead of the game. To do that we've spent time invested in finding tools which help us keep track of our teams. The one we've found to help us the most is Teaminator, it has some simple things, but we use to make sure our team is working effectively. I've tried thinking back to some of the things you mentioned, and I've found we we were able to pull ourselves out of those trouble spots only because we were paying attention.

bconfortin profile image
Bruno Goerck Confortin • Edited

I'm currently going through everything in your article and it's extremely hard to cope with.

I am a mid-senior developer working on the new headquarters of a company that has the main office in a different city. I'm leading two other developers on a project shared with the main office.

I'm 4 months on the job and my motivation is already at 0. We were very happy with the new job and we started suggesting minor changes that would benefit the product in huge ways. We found out that if the suggestions aren't coming from the core team (the people in the project for 2 years now), then it's immediately discarded. I talked to my local team and they are all demotivated as well.

There is zero documentation in the code. The "senior" developers from the main office say if the method name is clear, then we don't need documentation. In simple methods, sure. Today, in the daily meeting, I said: "It took me 4 hours to finally find where the problem was, because the code for X feature is so complex. If we had code documentation, this would all be solved in 15 minutes.". Instead of "Oh, then let's start writting documentation", I got hit by "You need documentation to write for loops?". That was not said in a joking tone. It was said in a tone of hostility.

The other day I talked to a person from a different team and our product owner yelled (yes, yelled histericaly) with me, on the daily meeting, in front of everyone. "WHY DID YOU DO THAT? WHO TOLD YOU TO DO THAT? THAT IS NOT MAPPED IN THE SPRINT TIME". I kept my cool and answered all his questions in a normal voice tone, but WTF?

Not to mention that on our code reviews, the "senior" developers of the main office only write things like: "This is wrong." or "Change this for that.". There is no explanation as to why. There are no links to know more about it. They are not teaching, they are demanding.

If I don't work in a toxic environment, then I am afraid to know what one is.

Thank you very much for your article. I'm glad to know that I'm not alone and I'm not the trouble maker.

P.S. I believe the three of us of the local team are looking for jobs, which is bad for the company, since they took 8 months to find 3 developers that passed their tests and got hired.

gingerchew profile image

Wow, reading through this made me realize how toxic my job actually is. It’s my first job as a developer so I never really considered that other jobs weren’t like this. That’s something i’ll Have to consider now

jess profile image
Jess Lee


maxwell_dev profile image
Max Antonucci

The "crunch time" theme definitely came up on my last job. It was a mix of designers having skewed priorities on what should be fixed, and arbitrarily strict deadlines by people who didn't fully understand the complexity of the goals. Plus one team member did plenty of "mock the user, not the tools" behavior to much of the staff themselves, which made them exceedingly tough to work with. The work itself wasn't a huge issue despite it being my first job, but it was toxic behavior like that which made me eager to always escape each day as soon as possible.