Why you shouldn’t tolerate bullying even if your job is really important

I often speak to people who work at non-profits or other jobs where they’re trying to do good.

From time to time I hear stories of people who have put up with serious disrespect at work because they didn’t want to quit, because they thought the work they were doing was too important. “I cared too much about the impact we were having.”

The world is a complex place that defies universal advice. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do. But I think it’s usually a worse plan than it first looks. Here’s a few reasons:

  1. There’s a strange class of people who will treat others respectfully if they need them, but with cruelty if they can get away with it. Having the policy that you won’t leave a job because you think the impact you’re having is just too important, paints a huge target on your back for these people.

    They respond to incentives, and if they see you’ll quit if your wellbeing isn’t taken seriously, they’ll pay attention to it. But if you show you’ll suck it up, they’ll keep taking advantage until they hit the limit of what you’ll put up with.

    Basically, if your policy is ‘I won’t stand for bullying, not even once, no matter what’ you’ll suffer some inconvenience, but be bullied much less often.

    Sometimes you can’t see how leaving a shitty work situation will help fix the underlying problem within the organisation. But if the staff someone is line managing consistently quit and report their dissatisfaction with how they were managed, in a functional project that person will be replaced, or at least won’t be in a position to take on greater responsibility.

    (If a job is unpleasant in a way that can’t be fixed at a sensible cost, this incentive argument doesn’t apply. Sometimes teams have to go through difficult periods together — so long as they are giving one another’s welfare proper consideration, that need not be a trigger to quit.)
  2. People usually overestimate how much they can handle ongoing interpersonal conflict without burning out. It’s one of the most reliable ways to cause mental health problems that lower your wellbeing and slow down our career, or cause you to give up entirely.
  3. It’s hard to do your best work, meet people you want to work with in future, and learn the most you can, when you’re acting out of fear or anxiety rather than sincere passion.
  4. It’s important to set good cultural norms for everyone around you.

    You’ll have some colleagues who will act with more cruelty or tolerate others doing so, if they get the impression that that is what’s tolerated within their organisation or industry. This can lead to less good being done in the long run.

    By showing you won’t stand for it, you have a social impact by stopping that cycle from setting in.

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Finally, I appreciate that not everyone is able to leave their job easily or quickly, and so many will have a hard time acting on the above.

The better your career is going, the better your next best option is, and so the more resistant you are to bad situations at work.

But many folks are in a more vulnerable position financially or professionally, and others figure out how to exploit that, which is terrible.

For anyone stuck in that situation, I can only suggest you work on an escape plan for getting away from an abusive manager or colleague as soon as you reasonably can.

Ideally you can then share your experiences honestly with others who need or deserve to know.

And in future, if you can, it’s great to maintain a decent backup option so you can always credibly threaten to quit if you aren’t treated with dignity.

I research the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them at 80000hours.org. More about me: robwiblin.com.