When I embarked on my mid-life career change into international aid I was full of optimism. Finally I had found what I was looking for: dedicating myself to meaningful tasks in an international and vibrant community.
Moreover, I thought I was well informed about the flaws and deficiencies of the UN system and I had received warnings about INGOs being bad employers.
I also had many years of work experience and believed I was seasoned and prepared.
I was not.
If you have ever experienced how is to work in a toxic environment encompassing backstabbing, fraud, bad management, the absence of leadership or all of it then this blog post is for you.
From my own experience, and all the stories I have been told or read about, these phenomena are unfortunately widespread in international aid. Hence, you are not alone.
Impact on you and beyond
Working in a toxic environment is bad for your wellbeing. Life is too short for that and no cause, however commendable, is worth it. It is also detrimental to your physical health.
It affects your performance, and since you are not alone being unhappy, though you might think you are, it affects the performance of the whole office.
As a consequence, a bad work environment has huge impact on the people you want to assist.
How to thrive in difficult circumstances
You find your inner strength through focusing on being mature.
A technique that has worked for me is it to imagine other people around me being children, while I am the only mature person around. Consequently, you need to teach these children how to take responsibility for their own actions by being a good example. If they do not behave like adults, you will.
Of course you do not actually treat them as children. That would be disrespectful, though it might be tempting. It is just a trick to put you in the right state of mind.
- As an adult you are the one who admit your own mistakes.
- You are the one who understand that behind meanness there is fear. A frightened little boy, who thinks that if he is not tough, the bigger boys will bully him. Or the scared little girl, insecure and full of envy. The only thing she can do to make herself feel better is to try and get at strong and confident you.
- You are concerned with the emotions and modes of others, asking them how they are doing, even the ones you do not like.
- You ask the difficult questions on the obvious breaches of conduct going on.
- You are able to keep your sense of humour. Look for something to laugh at. Especially at yourself, a true sign of maturity.
Imagine it as an exercise in patience and in constant improvement under difficult circumstances.
You are not alone. You may think you are but many hide their true feelings believing it benefits their careers.
If you cannot find anyone to talk to, go online and read blogs and comments from like-minded people. If everything else fails: reinvent an imaginative friend from your childhood, now a grown and mature person you can have intelligent conversations with. Childish? Yes, but no one will find out.
What I did and you should not
A senior officer lambasted me for taking several initiatives in the midst of a crisis. Unintentionally I had threaded on his toes. I now see him as the toddler he was, but I did not back then, and fell into the trap of letting his attacks affect me.
Furthermore, I took things too seriously. The complacency and pompousness within the UN is a laughing matter. The problems we intend to solve are of course not.
I was too concerned with delivering and being the good girl. I worked weekends to finish reports no one ever read.
The most profound problem was that I had fallen from my natural point of strength and cheerfulness, and had become a person acting out of fear. And if you are afraid you are not having any fun.
How I got out of it
I moved to another country and started working for a small NGO with a bad salary. But I was happy. And I found good people to spend time with.
Most importantly of all, I found back to the deep satisfaction of helping others. Like the smile on the face of a girl in Guatemala I gave a drawing book and some pencils. That is what matters.
“ Normative frameworks” and “integrated approaches”, not so much.