In my younger years, I used to be a professional swimmer.
The first thing I learned was to never swim against the current. Swimming against the current is the dumbest thing you can do because of two reasons.
Firstly, you will always lose.
Secondly, by the time you have realized this, you will have burned through all your energy.
Now, why am I saying this? Because surviving in open water, life, and business do have a few attributes in common.
I believe we have all felt overwhelmed in at least one point in time in our corporate career. We are drowning from tight deadlines, seemingly impossible work requests, the utter failure of leadership, or being trapped in a toxic work environment. Naturally, business is not always cherry-picking and being “happy together.”
But business life can also turn into a strong and dangerous current, and when it does, we need to use our resources (energy reserves) wisely.
Let’s take my earlier example of being trapped in a toxic work environment into consideration. Whatever defines a toxic environment is dependent on your own definition and limits. It can range from colleagues who are intimidating you to senior leadership that is openly undermining and bullying you to the extent that you feel sick by the sheer thought of going to work.
If you find yourself trapped in a toxic environment, you should be alarmed for two major reasons.
You will not benefit from toxic environments. Most likely, you will not be able to fully develop your potential, will be unable to thrive at work, and won’t be surrounded by people who truly support you in your career. Similar to plants, we need to be in an environment that supports our growth.
Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) appeals to our sense of justice. We prefer blaming an individual rather than the system itself. Toxic environments are rarely created and kept alive by a single individual or handful of “bad” managers but rather by a system that allows and embraces certain behavior traits.
Reality check: The chances for significant improvement and change in the overall system toward a healthier and more balanced work environment are, therefore, limited.
Now, I am inviting you to take a good look at your personal cost-to-benefit analysis. How much are you benefiting from your current environment, and what’s the cost you’re paying for it every day?
If you conclude that the cost outweighs the benefits (and probably has for quite a while), it is time for the next steps:
1. Acknowledge the situation you are in and that you have come to the point of awareness that something needs to change. This is a crucial first step. Be proud of yourself for reaching this point.
2. Be aware that this is not the end of the world. There are plenty of new opportunities out there, so there is no need to panic. You will not end up on the streets.
3. Write down what you have learned so far. Also, write down the things you particularly liked and disliked about your work. This will help you understand what sort of business environment/job function you work in best.
4. Prepare your exit strategy—let the current wash you ashore. Stay out of any toxic discussions, hence the phrase “do not fight the current.” Yes, things will be uneasy for a little longer, but you can start seeing the shore getting closer with every moment.
5. Once you have reached the shore, remove yourself from the toxic environment, take a deep breath, and allow yourself a moment of peace. Calm your mind and get your energy levels up again. Have a look at the list you prepared to get your focus on the positive things.
6. Get prepared for your next adventure in an environment that enables you to grow. You are now aware of how to survive in open water and can actually enjoy the swim without the constant fear of drowning.
I know the feeling, and it took me a long time to understand that I, alone, cannot fight the system. As much as the thought appealed to me to make a difference by not giving in, I came to the conclusion that the only thing broken at the end would be me—not the system.
What I have learned and encourage you to see is that being free means to have the ability to let go of things. Letting go does not imply weakness. In fact, it underlines your strength to acknowledge the situation you find yourself in and to put an end to it.
Liberating yourself means taking care of yourself. You can now begin to gather your energy once more to face the open water. Only this time, you know that there is no point fighting the current.