Over the years, I've known several people stuck in toxic workplaces. By "toxic" I mean something more than merely dysfunctional, dispiriting, or run by assholes. I mean a place that, like an emotionally abusive relationship, erodes a person's sense of self and denies the reality of her experiences. A toxic workplace is one where you're always at fault, always the troublemaker, always the reason for any confusion, misunderstandings, or screw-ups.
Of course, you could actually be a troublemaker--and your friends and family, hearing your woes, may privately wonder whether that's the case or whether you're not at least exacerbating the problem. You may wonder the same thing. But since a toxic workplace is a place of mass delusion (or a conspiracy to support the delusions of a few), it's hard to know for sure.
Toxic workplaces exist in all fields, but I'm starting to wonder whether they're not worse in academia. Limited mobility makes it hard for any individual to get out, which also means that whatever dynamics or patterns of behavior have been established in a given department or division have been building for a very long time. By the time you appear on the scene, a great many people have a great deal invested in beliefs or behaviors that, looked at rationally, don't make a lot sense. Why isn't there a standard tenure and promotion document? Why does your academic unit operate according to some impenetrable patronage model?
One person's toxic workplace isn't always another's, however, and even among those who recognize the madness of a particular institution's culture, some will be able to tolerate it and others won't. So personality plays some role, but it's not the case that the bluntest or roughest-edged people are the most likely to be penalized; what you see as helpful, collaborative, bridge-building efforts may be exactly what those invested in an arcane and untransparent system find threatening.
I don't have first-hand experience with a toxic workplace--endless paperwork is more my jam--but what I've seen several friends go through has made me feel some of the helplessness of those unwillingly enlisted in someone else's delusion.
The particular stories I'm thinking of aren't mine to tell, but since I know some of my internet peeps have gone through similar experiences and lived to tell the tale, I'm wondering: can a toxic workplace get better? Can it be survived with one's integrity? Or is fleeing the only option?