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Golden Guide Career Advice: Take the High Road

Golden Guide Career Advice: Take the High Road

Lydia Lazar

churning water

Golden Tip No. 31: Dysfunctional Organizations Defeat People

Golden Guide Career Advice is a series from the AMA in partnership with Lydia Lazar, author of Dean Lazar’s Golden Guide: Pragmatic Career Advice for Smart Young People. A new tip in the series will be posted each Tuesday—all tips are available here.

Do you have a career question? Contact Lazar at—the answer may appear in a future post.

It’s a universally recognized rule of business life that when a highly functional person meets a dysfunctional organization, the organization wins. Don’t take it personally—as soon as you realize the problem, decide to learn whatever you can in the situation and get yourself a new job as quickly as you can.

Anyone can find themselves in a situation where they are treated poorly, where the job conditions deteriorate due to bad bosses or bad colleagues or even bad clients. When this happens, successful people do not wait for the situation to become intolerable: even as they take whatever steps they can to try to improve things, they ramp up their networking and start to actively—though confidentially—look around for new opportunities.


1. Stay Calm

Dysfunctional or toxic environments cause stress and can trigger your “fight or flight response” which adds even more stress to your system. You may not be able to make anything better in the work environment, so you need to strengthen your inner calm and actively manage your responses to the situation. And don’t participate in the dysfunctional behavior: stay above the fray as much as possible.

2. Don’t Make Your Work Your Life

Yes, highly ambitious people will live and breathe their careers, but even the most ambitious gunners will do better if they carve out some space for non-work life. And if you find yourself in a toxic workplace, the need to separate physically and mentally from the psychic assault that is your job is even more acute.

3. See Clearly

Everyone wants validation that they are doing good work and that their contribution to the overall enterprise matters. Many dysfunctional workplaces will treat you poorly yet paradoxically make you feel that you are at fault and that if you only worked a little harder or a little smarter, you’d get the recognition you deserve. Don’t fall for it: remember, the dysfunctional organization will always defeat the employee, so give yourself permission to validate yourself and at the same time, actively seek validation and recognition from outside your work environment.

4. Think Growth

If your employer blames individuals for setbacks and doesn’t recognize the larger problematic culture, keep yourself on track by adopting a “growth mindset”—keep developing your skills and act with integrity so that you build your own resilience. Try to achieve “small wins” that may help improve the culture or, if they don’t, at least will augment your personal portfolio of achievement.

5. Seek Out Allies—Or Leave

In a dysfunctional environment, it may be that the lack of clear communication is part of the problem. Try reaching out to others with a non-judgmental “let’s solve this together” approach. In a toxic environment where there is harassment or unethical behavior you will want to focus your energy on creating your escape pod: keep your head down and get out as fast as you can.

Once you recognize that you are in a dysfunctional or toxic environment, take steps to remove yourself. Do not tolerate self-negating employment conditions.

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash.

Dean Lazar's Golden Guide

For more career tips, read Dean Lazar’s Golden Guide: Pragmatic Career Advice for Smart Young People, available on Amazon and at your local bookstore. Do you have a career question? Contact Lazar at—the answer may appear in a future post.

Lydia Lazar is founder and president of LHL Consulting. She is the former associate dean for recruitment and career services at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and previously, dean of international law and policy overseeing international student admissions (LLM) at Chicago-Kent College of Law.