There may come a time when you work in an office, or maybe on a project, where the environment feels like something only Kafka could have invented. I worked in an office environment like this for a few months once (not presently, my current job is much more straight forward) and I have found myself in several conversations with peers in the last few weeks about what can only be described as Kafka-inspired office environments. I want to share my learnings from the experience as… survival tips.
First: It’s not you. Sometimes, it’s just not. You may look around the room at the people sitting there in front of you and feel like either you or the entire room must be insane. There may a time where the room is insane and you have to keep yourself out of that comparison, for your own clarity. First step is to stop comparing yourself and find a way to stay centered. Even if the room is no longer making sense, you can maintain your own sense.
Second: Once you have stopped comparing yourself to the group/event/goal that does not make sense, take stock of what matters to you and what options are available to you.
On a scale of “this is manageable and I can survive with my sanity intact, I am in fact learning some useful soft skills while I navigate this situation” (Score: 1) to I go home and cry almost every night and fear I will fall down into a hole of darkness that I am not sure I will survive (Score: 10), let’s say 5 is “I’m miserable when I’m at work but will get through this and move on. Where are you right now? (At one point in my Kafka office, I was at 8: go home, cry every night, question my sanity regularly, complain to the same friends in nearly non-stop rants. It was time to remove myself from this project.)
If you’re under 5, make a list of things you are going to learn about yourself from it. Give yourself back some control and ways to see how things are going for you as a worker. Are you learning to rephrase your arguments and questions better? Are you making friends with another teammate who offers some perspective on the insanity? Are you learning to negotiate better? Are you learning how not to run your next project/structure your next team? Build this list of goals, focus on your growth there, and survive it. You’ve got this.
If you’re above a 5, your next question is: How important is this current job/project to your long-term goals? If you lose your sanity or your hope and good energy, it’s really hard to get that back. If the answer is anything less than “if I don’t do this I will be black-listed from my industry and all of my dreams will turn to sand” maybe you need to remove yourself from it. Even if you do say “black-listed in industry and dreams turn to sand,” ask yourself, why do I want to suffer for this particular dream, and are there in fact other ways I could reach an equally appealing dream?
Third: If you have some reflection time and realize this job/project is burning you out and you need to leave, find a way to quit in a way that allows you to continue respecting yourself. Sometimes it is ok to say, this isn’t working and I need to go. You can and will find a way that works for you, and you should not be ashamed for acting in a way that preserves who you are. It is not the company or your team’s job to figure out how to preserve you, they can only do that if you are clear with rules and boundaries for yourself. If too many of your rules and boundaries are repeatedly violated and you know you cannot move forward as you are now, act for yourself. Preserve your sanity and hope and good energy.
I believe, from working on different teams over time and watching different political structures play out internally, that every person has a few “good” environments for them that bring out the best versions of themselves, and a handful of really “bad” environments that bring out the worst. I was not proud of the version of myself that I became in my Kafka office experience, and ultimately that was what pushed me to leave. I had trouble respecting and recognizing the person I became to survive in that particular environment. Now that I’m in a much healthier one for me, I see what a really good work experience can be like and what I am like under much better working conditions. I am also much better equipped to interview my potential managers when I interview for jobs/new projects.
Now, especially when I offer feedback to contractors or interview, I try to remember the value of environmental context. Sometimes an experience in a different office might not say a lot about a person’s potential if it was the complete wrong one. I appreciate people who’ve been through the battles of defining and preserving their boundaries, because it means they will tell me clearly what they can or cannot do, what they do or do not enjoy, and how I can support them as a manager. Maybe there are ways we can work together now that were not available in a previous job and this is where this person can really grow and enjoy their work.
In Summary: If you need to leave your Kafka environment, you need to leave it. If you decide to stay, let it be about your personal growth as a manager and teammate and let the rest go. Good luck!