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Job Survival Skills: How to Survive a Toxic Workplace

Welcome to the absurd world of the modern workplace. If you’re struggling with unproductive meetings, failed projects, hidden power dynamics and unsolved workplace conflicts, give the following ideas a go. I’ve compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of the most interesting workplace-related skills and concepts on how to survive a day in a toxic workplace. As always my selection is characterised by subjectivity and availability bias.

1. Recognise a Kafkaesque Office

/ˌkafkəˈɛsk/ adjective

characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.

Franz Kafka’s work transcends time and office spaces. Here’s Noah Tavlin of Ted-Ed explaining the disorienting nature of Franz Kafka’s work in the context of an office:

In the short story Poseidon the ancient Greek god is an executive so swamped with paperwork that he’s never had time to explore his underwater domain. The joke here is that not even a god can handle the amount of paperwork demanded by the modern workplace. The reason why is telling. He’s unwilling to delegate any of the work because he deems everyone else unworthy of the task. Kafka’s Poseidon is a prisoner of his own ego.

This story contains all of the elements that makes for a truly Kafkaesque scenario. It’s not the absurdity and bureaucracy alone, but the irony of the character’s circular reasoning in reaction to it that is emblametic of Kafka’s writing. His tragic comic stories act as a form of methology for the modern industrial age.

Noah Tavlin, What makes something ‘Kafkaesque’?

If you want to know what makes bureaucracies a breeding ground of dysfunction, check out my essay Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy and Government Dysfunction.

2. Beware of Bikeshedding

The Law of Triviality, aka Bikeshedding, claims that meetings are largely useless because most time is wasted on trivial matters. It was formulated by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1957:

The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.

C. Northcote Parkinson, The Law of Triviality

Parkinson illustrates his point with an elaborate fictional case study about a committee asked to sign off on a $10,000,000 Atomic Reactor. Little time is spent talking about the actual reactor, a highly technical, difficult and complex matter. Considerably more time is spent on discussing the intricacies of the staff’s $2,000 bike shed, a topic everyone can contribute to. Most time, however, is spent debating a trivial agenda item about $5 coffee refreshments for future committee sessions.

3. Guard Against the Dark Triad

The Dark Triad is a fateful set of personality traits with malevolent features. The term comes from psychology and comprises three distinct qualities particularly callous people display:

  1. Narcissism: The craving for admiration, having an inflated self-image and a lack of empathy.
  2. Machiavellianism: Being manipulative and having the belief that the ends justify the means. Named after Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli.
  3. Psychopathy: Lacking empathy and a sense of guilt. Often results in antisocial behaviour.

Among other things, the Dark Triad is studied to predict criminal behaviour. And has been researched in the context of the workplace and office politics.

4. Use the C.R.A.P. Framework

The C.R.A.P. Framework is a scientific approach to dealing with workplace bullshit. In their 2020 paper Confronting Indifference Toward Truth: Dealing With Workplace Bullshit, Ian P. McCarthy et al. explain this phenomenon as follows:

Workplace bullshit comes into existence when one or more members of an organization are intent on pursuing an underlying agenda of their own, such as protecting themselves against criticism or perceived threats, or attempting to benefit themselves in the pursuit of opportunities. That agenda may be exclusively self-serving, or it may be intended to serve the organization; it can have selfish or selfless motives. The bullshitter makes a decision to further that agenda through communicative acts and decides on a message and a medium that will help them to achieve that agenda.

The C.R.A.P. Framework to combat workplace bullshit itself comes in four stages:


  1. Comprehend: Understand what BS is and isn’t
  2. Recognise: Learn how to notice when it is used knowingly or unknowingly
  3. Act: Either exit the situation entirely, engage with the bullshitter, accept the BS out of loyalty, or disregard the nonsense
  4. Prevent: Exhibit and cultivate behaviours that don’t leave much room for BS, such as critical thinking

This is probably completely unnecessary at the place where you apply for work. But just in case, here’s a useful chart in case you ever need it.

5. Apply Peter’s Principles

The Peter Principle is a semi-satirical explanation for incompetence in the workplace. It was formulated in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull who looked into the nature of hierarchical structures. Evaluating hundreds of case studies the authors concluded:

In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.

In other words, the last promotion someone receives is always to a position of ineptitude. The lesser-known Peter’s Corollary takes this idea to its logical conclusion:

In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties.

If you find yourself wondering who does all the work then, Peter has the answer:

Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

According to the authors, Peter’s Parry, that is refusing to be promoted to a position of incompetence, is not an option. The only solution is Creative Incompetence:

The method boils down to this: create the impression that you have already reached your level of incompetence. […]

Creative Incompetence will achieve best results if you choose an area of incompetence which does not directly hinder you in carrying out the main duties of your present position.

In sum, we might say that true success lies in our ability to stay competent rather than becoming it. Btw, I’ve written a whole article about the Peter Principle.

6. Solve the Dead Horse Theory

The Dead Horse Theory is a meme built around the idiom of ‘flogging a dead horse”:

The Tribal wisdom of the Indians, passed on from generation to generation, says that: “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”

However, in modern business, education and government, far more advanced strategies are often employed, such as:

1. Buying a stronger whip.

2. Changing riders.

3. Threatening the horse with termination.

4. Appointing a committee to study the horse.

5. Arranging to visit other countries to see how others ride dead horses.

6. Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.

7. Re-classifying the dead horse as ‘living-impaired’.

8. Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse.

9. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase the speed.

10. Providing additional funding and/or training to increase the dead horse’s performance.

11. Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance.

12. Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead and, therefore, contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the economy than do some other horses.

13. Re-writing the expected performance requirements for all horses.

14. Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position of hiring another horse.

Unknown

I’ve tried to solve the Dead Horse Theory with more ancient horse wisdom.

7. Employ the Conflict Resolution Model

The Conflict Resolution Model is a mental model designed to do exactly what its name suggests it does. According to the model, there are six different ways you’d react to a conflict. They fall into two categories: emotional and rational.

Emotional Reactions

Flight: We evade or avoid the situation entirely. The conflict remains unresolved. Both parties lose.

Fight: We handle a conflict with the intention to win over others. There can only be one winner, though.

Give up: We retreat and give up. The conflict ends because we lose voluntarily.

Rational Reactions

Evade Responsibility: We delegate the matter to someone else. They might solve the conflict for us. Or make everything worse. Potentially, both parties end up losing.

Compromise: We find a solution both we and our counterpart can live with. It may be the best solution for everyone, given the situation. Or a spectacular mistake.

Consensus: Together with our counterpart we find a third way to resolve our conflict. In the best case-scenario, we end up with both parties being satisfied.

What’s your typical reaction to conflicts? What reaction do you anticipate from your counterparts?

Source: The Decision Book

8. Consider the Knife Theory of Hiring

Is there a way to beat the Peter Principle? With his Knife Theory of Hiring, writer David Perell explains the importance of hiring different people as a company grows:

When you first start a company, you need Swiss Army Knife people who can do a little bit of everything.

Once your company gets big, you need a bunch of kitchen knife people who do one thing very, very well.

David Perell

9. Stay Away from Bullshit Jobs

In 2013, David Graeber published his “work rant” on the prevalence of pointless professions. The late anthropologist turned his infamous essay into a book. He defines a bullshit job as follows:

A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs

Graeber identified five types of useless positions, as described by The New Yorker contributor Nathan Heller:

“Flunkies,” he says, are those paid to hang around and make their superiors feel important: doormen, useless assistants, receptionists with silent phones, and so on. “Goons” are gratuitous or arms-race muscle; Graeber points to Oxford University’s P.R. staff, whose task appears to be to convince the public that Oxford is a good school. “Duct tapers” are hired to patch or bridge major flaws that their bosses are too lazy or inept to fix systemically. (This is the woman at the airline desk whose duty is to assuage angry passengers when bags don’t arrive.) “Box tickers” go through various motions, often using paperwork or serious-looking reports, to suggest that things are happening when things aren’t. […] Last are “taskmasters,” divided into two subtypes: unnecessary superiors, who manage people who don’t need management, and bullshit generators, whose job is to create and assign more bullshit for others.

Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, The Bullshit-Job Boom

10. Never Appear Too Perfect

No matter how much work you put in, you can’t seem to get ahead. Even worse, the more you work the worse your situation seems to get. Why? You may have violated a hidden everyday power law. In his infamous book The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene explored the more unpleasant sides of human nature. Here’s his explanation for why you should never appear too perfect:

Appearing better than others is always dangerous, but most dangerous of all is to appear to have no faults or weaknesses. Envy creates silent enemies. It is smart to occasionally display defects, and admit to harmless vices, in order to deflect envy and appear more human and approachable. Only gods and the dead can seem perfect with impunity.

Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

11. Deploy Atwood’s Duck

Atwood’s Duck is a cunning maneuver to keep overeager managers from making unnecessary changes to a product. Rumour has it that some supervisors and executives are dying to add value to any project — even if there’s no value to add. The trick is to present them with a decoy that they can criticise so the rest of the project can remain unaltered. Here’s how its inventor, Jeff Atwood, explained it:

It was well known that producers (a game industry position, roughly equivalent to PMs) had to make a change to everything that was done. The assumption was that subconsciously they felt that if they didn’t, they weren’t adding value.

The artist working on the queen animations for Battle Chess was aware of this tendency, and came up with an innovative solution. He did the animations for the queen the way that he felt would be best, with one addition: he gave the queen a pet duck. He animated this duck through all of the queen’s animations, had it flapping around the corners. He also took great care to make sure that it never overlapped the “actual” animation.

Eventually, it came time for the producer to review the animation set for the queen. The producer sat down and watched all of the animations. When they were done, he turned to the artist and said, “that looks great. Just one thing — get rid of the duck.”

Jeff Atwood, New Programming Jargon

Here’s a link to my relevant essay: Atwood’s Duck: How to Achieve Perfection.

12. Avoid Bartleby’s Decision

In Herman Melville’s short story, Bartleby: The Scrivener, the protagonist is a highly productive employee at a busy Wall Street legal firm. Until he is not. One day Bartleby simply refuses to do his work with passive resistance. The narrator recalls:

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do — namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him.

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Bartleby’s continued refusal is met with incredulity. Eventually, he is arrested, imprisoned and dies of starvation. “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” the story ends.

BONUS: Attend Zen School

If only there was a way to get around this whole work thing. If becoming a Zen Buddhist seems like a sensible option, here’s English philosopher Alan Watts on the secret behind admission to Zen training:

If you go to a Zen teacher and you approach him in the traditional way, the first thing he will do is to say: “I haven’t anything to teach. Go away!”

“Well,” you say, “what are these people doing around here? Aren’t they your students?”

“They’re working with me, but unfortunately, we are very poor these days, we don’t have enough rice to go around to make ends meet.”

So you have to insist to be taken in. Every postulant for Zen training assumes immediately that the teacher has given him the brush off in order to test his sincerity. In other words: “If you really want this thing, you gotta work for it.”

That isn’t the real point. The point is that you got to make such a fuss to get in that you cannot withdraw gracefully after having made such a fuss to get in. Because you put yourself on the spot. And you define yourself as somebody needing help or as somebody with a problem who needs a master in order to be helped out of the problem.

Alan Watts

Closing Thoughts

Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to job survival. When confronted with a toxic workplace, the best course of action seems to be to generate options and find a better place. But as long as we’re stuck there, it helps to rise above the absurdities of the modern workplace, take them with humour and see the whole thing as a game of power and negotiation we must learn how to play.