Workplace bullying is a dehumanizing process that is all about power and control. It targets an employee’s character, dignity and integrity — not just as a professional, but as a human being. It is often the most traumatic experience someone has gone through.
To any threat, stress, or trauma there are five possible stress responses. These stress responses are innate. They are part of the wiring of our brain and nervous system and not something we have conscious control over. Which one gets activated is a function of both personal wiring, experience and context.
Everywhere one hears about the “fight, flight or freeze” response. But there are two more. And how these responses look in a workplace bullying situation is not what you might expect.
The Fight Stress Response
The fight stress response is an attempt to defend oneself against a threat. That might be literal physical aggression. But in the workplace physical aggression is a no-no.
So for targets the fight stress response might look like:
The fight stress response in targets is all about trying to achieve justice, set the record straight and clear their name.
Sadly, however, it all too often boomerangs. The more a target tries to fight back, the more the intimidation and retaliation ratchets up.
Contrary to what most people think, however, the fight response is typically a late stage stress response for targets. It is not their go-to (unlike for abrasive leaders). And by the time targets get to the fight response it is almost always too late for it to be effective. By that point the damage has been done. They are seen as the problem, and their fight response is just further evidence of that. They are the ones who are difficult to work with. They are the ones who are now too aggressive.
And if they take it all the way to complaints and/or legal action, their resources to fight are miniscule in comparison to that of the organization. They are already emotionally, mental and physically depleted from the bullying. Now they deplete themselves even further.
Almost without exception, targets who do manage to win their legal cases say they’re not sure it was worth it. It can take years, tens of thousands of dollars, and being subjected to relentless intimidation and retaliation, to win a legal battle. And the chances of winning it are very low in all but the most egregious cases.
If you do choose to fight back, be very clear eyed about what you are getting yourself into. And set some very clear “fight rules” around the amount of time — and money — you will allow yourself to spend fighting. And when then those are reached: stop. And walk away.
“Don’t make fighting the organization that mobbed you be your next career… Unequivocally, your organization is not worth this level of sacrifice.”
The Flight Stress Response
The flight stress response is an attempt to get away from the threat.
The flight stress response plays out in a number of ways in a workplace context — from low key and relatively passive, to more active.
At its lowest level the flight response looks like increased sick-leave, disengagement, hiding out, no longer attending office social gatherings, and generally just trying to keep a low profile and make oneself as small, insignificant and unthreatening as possible.
Sadly, most targets don’t take this as their cue to immediately start looking for another job. And that’s because they’re usually still working under the (mistaken) belief that they must be doing something to cause this. And if they can just <insert whatever>, they can get it to stop. They’re bewildered and confused by what’s going on. They’re being told they’re the problem, they believe that there must be some basis for the feedback, and so they keep trying to *fix* it.
At some point the accumulated stress pushes them to start actively looking for a job, outright quitting even without another job in hand, or going out on extended sick leave. These are active forms of the flight response.
The most tragic — and ultimate — form of the flight stress response is suicide.
Decades of research reveals a clear — and terribly sad — pattern: most targets do not get out soon enough. Many endure months and months, some even years, of bullying — at profound cost to their mental, physical and emotional health. For targets, fleeing seems like giving up, like letting the organization get away with it; it feels grossly unjust that they are the ones who need to leave — not the ones being psychologically aggressive. And so they stay. For far too long. And at profound cost to their well-being.
The Freeze Stress Response
When it is not safe to fight, nor can one escape a threat, then the brain and nervous system will automatically activate the freeze response. In the trauma world, it is well understood that freeze stress responses often lead to far worse levels of traumatization and PTSD.
A person in a freeze response looks outwardly passive and immobile. Their muscles are tight and the expression on their face might be confused for being sullen and impassive. Their eyes can appear glazed over. They might be accused of glaring — when actually they’re terrified.
Inwardly, however, they are in a highly activated state of extreme distress.
In the workplace context, freeze happens when neither fighting back nor quitting are seen as viable options. It is the freeze state that keeps targets in a state of profound distress for far too long. The freeze state is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, despair and dread. Just the thought of going into the office is enough to bring on panic attacks. They are in a state of extreme internal psychological distress — and unable to take outward action to end the bullying.
Targets in a state of freeze need urgent social and professional support.
And, tragically, they all too often do not get it.
Well-meaning people — uninformed about workplace bullying, trauma and trauma responses — urge them to fight back or to leave. Not understanding that if they could, they would. When the target continues to be paralyzed, unable to take action or make a decision — even the most well meaning of family members and friends can get frustrated and lose their patience.
However, in a freeze response the body is ready to return to flight or fight once the threat passes. So, when a target is in a state of freeze, they need professional help to get them to a place of safety (i.e. not the workplace) for long enough so that they can start to bring one of the other stress responses back online and start the healing and recovery process.
This is still going to take time — and bucket loads of support — to recover from. And recovery is totally possible — with the right support.
Here is an example of a freeze response in an animal. While the animal survives please do not watch this if it may be too upsetting for you.
The Flop Stress Response
For animals, when the predator does not move away after the “feigned death” of the freeze response, they might move into a “flop” response. Where the freeze state is “scared stiff”, in the flop response muscles become limp, heart rate and breathing slow down, endorphins are released and the animal enters a state of “no pain”. They are no longer aware of their surroundings.
For humans, flop happens when the trauma is inescapable. When the freeze goes on for too long. This is a state of deep clinical depression. Of complete physical collapse. The brain disassociates from the world — and from the rest of the body.
Clearly at this point the target is no state to work at all. It may take many months for targets to recover from this level of collapse. And…recovery is absolutely possible. Indeed, anecdotally, it sometimes seems that the harder the fall, the higher the rise after — in a phenomenon called “post traumatic growth”.
Here is an example of a flop response in an animal. While the animal survives please do not watch this if it may be too upsetting for you.
The Friend Stress Response
The “friend” stress response is perhaps the hardest of all to understand.
Human beings (like many other mammals) are social animals. When under a state of stress, one of the first things we will do is look for social support and to engage in self-soothing behaviours.
It it fascinating to watch this stress response in action. The other day a dog chased one of our cats up a tree. When we got her down (that’s another story) and got her into the house, she immediately set to washing herself. That is the “tend and befriend” a.k.a “friend” stress response in action.
When a stressed mouse in a lab is allowed to return to other mice, they immediately set to grooming each other. And the stressed mouse rapidly calms down. If the mouse is unable to return to other mice, the stressed mouse stays in a state of stress and agitation for far longer. Researchers dub this “fight, flight, freeze or groom” — and it happens in just about all social species in some form or another.
We can see this stress response in babies and young children: whenever they are hurt or stressed they immediately cry out and look for help.
Kelly McGonigal talks about this in her wonderful TED Talk — How to Make Stress Your Friend.
And we see this response in children of abusive parents, partners in an abusive relationship, and people who are the victims of rape, taken hostage etc. When one is with an aggressor one cannot escape and cannot fight it is a highly evolutionarily adaptive response to try to mollify and appease the aggressor, to preemptively attempt to calm the abuser by agreeing, answering what they know the abuser wants to hear, or by ignoring their own personal feelings and desires and doing anything and everything to prevent the abuse.
So when the threat is coming from a boss or a co-worker, one of the most common stress responses will be to try to appease them.
Being a pleaser is a stress response.
And with bullying it works — for a while. But then it makes it worse. Bullying always follows a test-then-escalate model. So when the target doesn’t push back, but rather submits and seeks to appease (the friend stress response), the aggressor knows they can continue with the aggression. So they do.
When you pair someone who tends to default to the friend (a.k.a. fawn) stress response due to their own wiring, life experience and context, with someone who tends to default to the fight stress response (the abrasive person who responds to any perceived threat to their ego with aggression — overt or passive): bingo — you have bullying in the making. And a dangerous cycle has also kicked off: with the aggressor demanding more and more, and the target becoming less and less able to combat it. Even when the aggressor and the target might have started off with roughly equal power, it is this dynamic that so quickly leads to the power and control imbalance that is one of the hallmarks of bullying.
One of the most tragic parts of bullying is as it continues and escalates, the target comes to be seen as more and more tainted and damaged goods at work, and paranoid at home. Other people start to avoid them. At precisely the time when targets need more social support, it is less and less available to them.
One of my main jobs as a trauma-informed coach who specializes in workplace bullying is to get targets to activate that friend response towards themselves. Targets tend to believe that there’s something wrong with them (there’s not). They tend to assume way too much responsibility for what has happened to them. (Abrasive leaders, of course, have the exact opposite challenge — they take on too little responsibility for their actions). So my number one job as a coach is get them to stop fighting themselves and beating themselves up and start “friending” themselves instead. FYI, exactly the same is true when I’m coaching abrasive people: getting them to actually “friend” themselves and tune into their own stress — rather than taking it out on others.
Sadly, by the time targets get to me they have often been in a state of freeze for so long that even making the decision to do anything for themselves feels too hard or too scary. It breaks my heart when this happens. The single best thing targets can do is to start to fight for themselves — not against the circumstances. Targets need to externalize the cause (i.e. they did not cause this and they are not to blame) but internalize the solution (i.e. stop waiting for others to “fix” this for them and really start being their own strongest friend, ally and advocate.)
If someone you know and love is in this situation, please show them this article. Please help them understand the stress responses. All are adaptive. All are completely understandable. But there’s only one that leads to true recovery and sustained well-being thereafter: learning to activate our “friend” stress response — where we become our own best friend.
There it sits before me. An innocent thermos mug.
Which I hate.
And which I can’t throw out.
I hate it, because every time I use it, I land up burning myself when I sip my tea from it. Because it keeps things so damn hot. And then I don’t enjoy drinking my tea.
And the whole damn point of my tea ritual (my English ancestors and mother would be so proud of me) is that I get to really savor and enjoy drinking lovely hot tea throughout the morning without endless runs to the kettle.
(And wow, I really am throwing those damns around here aren’t I? Can you tell I get just a leeetle wound up over my tea?? )
OK, back to the thermos mug in hand.
And that’s also why I can’t throw it out. Because it really is the best thermos mug that we have - rating it on the scale of how long it will keep things hot. And, you know - landfill. Argh. Or I could just give it away to the Salvation Army or something. But….it’s a really good thermos mug.
So I hate it. And it sits there. And I stare at it malevolently - not using it nearly enough as I should.
There’s always more, isn’t there?
This thermos mug - the best one we have - also happens to be the sole physical object I still have from that awful toxic workplace that so completely crushed me that I fell apart completely and didn’t move off the couch for two months.
So every time I look at it, it’s a little reminder of that.
So I hate it. Of course.
But I still can’t get rid of it.
I mean it’s just an effing thermos mug. It’s not like it’s done anything to me.
Except burn me every time I use it for my tea.
So yesterday I decided, enough already. This is ridiculous. Either get rid of the damn thing or keep it and use it gladly.
I pulled it off the shelf and we had a little talk.
OK, I did the talking. It just sat there. Yup - it’s as crazy as it sounds.
“OK thermos,” I said. “Let’s figure this out. You just want to be you. You just want to do your job and keep things hot. And I keep putting too much boiling water in you, and not leaving enough space for milk, and then when I sip, you burn my tongue. Which is so not cool. So here’s what we’re going to do: we are GOING TO FIGURE THIS DAMN THING OUT OR YOU”RE OUT! I’m only going to fill you up to here with boiling water this time. Then add the milk, and lets see if that’s the right temperature.”
Thermos just sat there - duh - but grateful that I was at last getting this through my thick head.
I poured in less water than I usually do. Added my milk. And sipped.
Better. But still a little too hot.
Poor a little off. Add a little more milk.
Aaaaaah, just right.
I screwed-on the lid, and had 3 hours of hot tea. It was divine.
And yes, now I am going to get all profound on you. Bear with me.
Because that thermos mug, just like that toxic work environment, was just being who it was. I was the one who kept on burning myself - expecting, wanting, hoping it would change. The thermos mug wasn’t trying to burn me. It was just doing it’s thing. That awful boss, that passive-aggressive teflon-coated brick, that two-faced little witch, that lily-livered doormat of a manager - they were all just human beings, coping the best way they knew how. Doing the best they could with what they had. They were just doing their thing.
I was the one who kept wanting them to be something they weren’t - and couldn’t be. And so they burned me. Burned me to such a crisp that all that remained was the jewel inside of me. The jewel that had been there all along, but had needed the heat of their toxicity to burn away all the crud I had accumulated around myself in a life-time of proving, perfecting, pleasing, striving, justifying, defending, avoiding, ignoring.
So who in your life, or at work, is that thermos mug. The one that keeps on burning you. That you keep on getting so frustrated with, so hurt by, but which you just can’t seem to put down or walk away from.
What would happen if you just accepted him or her for exactly who they are. Stopped trying to change them. Stopped trying to please. Stopped seeking approval from. Stopped twisting yourself in knots to try and satisfy. Because you can never satisfy what they want from you. They want a personality transplant from you. And that’s not just impossible - you’ll die (figuratively or literally) in the attempt if you do try.
It doesn’t mean either of you is wrong. Or that either of you is right. It just means that you either need to truly accept them for they are, and truly be OK with that. Or you need to leave them be. To stopping putting yourself into the heat of their toxicity and get yourself to a better, safer place.
So yes, I’m keeping the thermos mug. Because while it still reminds me of that pain - it also reminds me of all the ways I’ve learned and grown since then. It doesn’t have to burn me anymore.
And those people? They are, of course, long gone from my life. And I’m all the better for it.
People can burn hot - with their fear, their anger, their hurt, their rage, their meanness, their negativity, their criticism, their unreasonableness. But they can only truly burn you if sip of their toxicity. If you take it inside you.
So stop drinking from them.
Struggling to know how? Drop me a line and let’s talk.
In the meantime: here’s to the perfect cup of hot tea (or coffee, or whatever!)
It’s a concept so simple it was taught to my son many years ago in Kindergarten: you cannot fill up your bucket by emptying someone else’s.
And yet that is what seems to happen all the time. Every day. Especially in workplaces. It’s part of what makes so many of them so toxic.
Here’s Elementary “Bucket Fillosophy”.
All day long, everyone in the whole wide world walk around carrying an invisible bucket.
All around us, people are running on empty. Not enough sleep, never enough time, rushing from deadline to deadline, attempting to meet the endless, impossible and competing demands of bosses, co-workers, and management.
All around us, our coworkers and bosses are desperately attempting to feel good – to fill their buckets – by dipping into others. Criticism, put downs, undermining, gossiping: our workplaces are rife with it. All dressed up as “feedback”. But it never is. Because the simple reality is: if we feel good about ourselves at work, we have no need to puff ourselves up by putting other people down.
This is not to justify or excuse poor behaviour. On the contrary. Because when your bucket is full, you can compassionately hold someone accountable for their behaviour without having to shame or blame them. You can set clear boundaries - without have to shut people out, or shut them down. You can give feedback in a manner that helps others see, and maybe even plug, the slow leaks – or gaping holes – in their buckets, so that they can stop dipping into others.
What this also means is that whatever other people are saying or doing is not about you - or at least not in the way they are trying to make it out to be. Their unhappiness, meanness, bullying, backstabbing, sniping etc. may be directed at you - but you are at the effect of their empty bucket, not it's cause. Yes, their behaviour is bucket-dipping, and to the extent that you are engaging in the same strategies, then so is yours. But our buckets are never empty solely because of the behaviour of others. When we know how to truth check the messages other direct our way, when we know how to replenish our own buckets without expecting others to do so for us, then we have true resilience and our buckets stay full, regardless of how much others are dipping into them.
It’s so simple and so hard: happy people aren’t mean. As you look around you at your coworkers what do you see? Do you see a bunch of people with full buckets? If so - yeah to you for being in an awesome work environment! Or you do you see a bunch of people with empty buckets, desperately trying to fill theirs by dipping into everyone else’s? Do you see people with holes so gaping in their own buckets that as fast as they or anyone tries to help them fill it, it all drains right back out?
So if you’re struggling at work, ask yourself: how full is your bucket? And how full are those of the people around you? Do you have holes in your own bucket? Do you know how to replenish your bucket when others take a swipe out of it? What are the thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour that are draining you bucket dry, no matter how much your or others try to fill it? How much are you dipping into other's buckets to try to feel better? And what help or support may help you to fill your own bucket, or to stop the impact of other people’s behaviour on you?
You’d be excused for thinking, on reading that headline, that I’m about to engage in some victim-blaming and shaming. Far from it. As a victim of workplace bullying myself I am intimately familiar with the devastation it causes. Putting it all on me, trying to make me the solely responsible party: that was exactly what my bully tried to do to me. Successfully, I might add – at least for a while. It’s what took me down. But as I’ve since learned in my own journey of healing and recovery: bullying is about us – but not in the way you may think.
It about you because a bully can’t bully you if it doesn’t feel like bullying to you. Say what? Let me say it this way. Bullying triggers our innate threat detection system. But if we don’t perceive the bullying as personally threatening, then we can see the aggressor’s behaviour for what it is – awful, mean, insensitive, aggressive, hurtful, manipulative or whatever – but not a threat to our sense of self and to our self-worth. Oh, make no mistake – that is exactly what the bully is targeting. They are absolutely trying to make it all about you. But when we truly know and believe that we are enough, then we can say “enough”. And learning how to do that: that’s the reason I coach!
It’s about them because there are three reasons why people bully and harass (see “Why the ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach doesn’t really work” written by Hadyn Olsen, a bullying expert and researcher. It’s a short, informative and helpful read – I highly recommend it). All three reasons come back to the bully’s own experiences and the story they are telling themselves about how they can get ahead in the world. Writes Olsen, those three reasons are:
And it’s about us, because our organizations and cultures at best tolerate, at worse actively encourage, bullying. Bullying will happen in any social system, because bullying reflects one of the constants of human nature. Given the right circumstances and incentives, any of us can be tempted to pursue our own agendas and needs regardless of the costs to others, and most especially where the costs to us of doing so are low or non-existent.
And so, there will always be bullies at work. Because most of our workplaces are structured to value individual performance and contribution over empathy, collaboration and team health and performance. Given this, there will always be benefits – at least in the short-term – to bullying. And the bully won’t even see themselves as being a bully. They will see themselves - and indeed be rewarded for being - a valuable, results-driven high-achieving performer, while their victims are “weak” and unable to compete or get with the program.
And our workplaces tolerate, support, and promote these very people because “leaders feel they can delegate power to those who will most likely further their own goals, regardless of the person’s questionable sense of values. Those whose ethics are unquestioned, but whose ability to deliver appears less certain, usually come out second best” writes Charles Kelly in his seminal, and still – sadly – highly relevant 1987 article about those who he calls “Destructive Achievers”.
And we are also part of the problem because all too often, if someone says they feel bullied, we accuse them of over-reacting, of being “too sensitive”, of “not understanding the situation”. We dismiss or diminish their experience. We ask them to examine how they contributed to the situation. We question their right to feel wronged. We may even actively distance ourselves from them. We may shun, ignore or exclude them because associating with them taints us by association. In short: we reinforce the very systems and cultures that allow bullying to happen in the first place.
There are many wonderful people working at the systems and organizational level to shine the light on this, and to work for change. And the systems change work is absolutely crucial. But it will be slow. And in the meantime what do we, who are in it, do now?
How I know how to tackle this head-on, in practical, impactful and immediate ways is to help people develop their own innate resilience, built on a rock-solid foundation of truly believing in themselves and knowing their worth. Doing the work to develop yourself, to develop your resilience – this is a radical act. And ultimately, I would argue, a subversive act. Because when a bully and system - them and us - cannot keep you down, you become unstoppable. And we need more of that in the world.
Bullies can only bully if we allow them to. No, this doesn’t mean we bring it on ourselves or deserve to bullied. Rather, the impact of bullying is amplified when we do not feel secure about ourselves or our worth. What would happen if we all collectively strengthened ourselves and really believed in our inherent worth? The bullies would still show up. And their behaviour would still be mean, nasty and hurtful. And we wouldn’t buy into their message. We would clearly be able to see their behaviour for what it is: about them, not about us – even as they try to make it all about us. When we have these skills – then our lives change radically, for then we have no fear of bullies and they lose their ability to shame us into submission.
Resilience is not armor or a thick-skin. It is like an energetic force field surrounding us – allowing only the good in, and burning up the bad on contact. We get to keep all our softness, our caring, our warmth, our sensitivity AND we get to not be so emotionally slimed or hijacked when other people’s behaviour is just awful. Resilience means we don’t take on their load; we don’t take on what they are trying to offload onto us. We can see their behaviour for exactly what it is: a tragic attempt to meet their needs in ways that, I truly believe, will ultimately undermine them.
So, that is why I do what I do. I’m a “self-worth activist”: I want to help people truly claim their worth – regardless of what has happened to them – because the world needs more compassion and empathy, not less. And it starts with us. It starts with being kind to ourselves, and building ourselves up from within. That is an act of radical power and transformative in its effects.
A few weeks ago an MBA classmate who heads up leadership development programs at a prestigious Ivy-league university reached out to some alums to ask for our personal reflections on leadership and privilege. As I started to mull over her questions, one of the first thoughts that occurred to me was that, by any objective standard, I am walking privilege.
However of course as an individual, with my own story and background, I too - as the article she attached to her ask pointed out - can still suffer hugely from the use and abuse of privilege and power. The fact that as a member of a certain class of people, with a certain background, I have generalized privilege in no way excludes the fact that as an individual I can feel very un-privileged. And that those feelings at the individual level can be intensely painful, even traumatic.
In making the decision to share my story and my reflections on this topic with a group of Ivy League MBA students (privilege anyone?), I decided to hell with it, I would just be brave and put it out there - without regard to the range of responses it may evoke. And I am doing the same here, on this much larger, even more public platform.
As you read this, some of you may feel a profound sense of discomfort, and would really rather I just don’t talk about these things. Others of you may think “Oh well, she clearly couldn’t hack it in the corporate world. She’s just justifying her failure to make herself feel better.” Still others of you may think “Oh my gosh, she’s so brave, she’s so inspiring. I wish I could be like her.” And finally some of you may even respond with “Wow, I really connect with her authenticity - her struggles and my struggles are so related.”
Hold these in mind as your read what follows. I’ll come back to them at the end and let you reflect where you fall on that continuum and what it may mean for you.
One more prefatory comment before I dive in. Because of my privilege it is sometimes hard for me to feel OK with acknowledging and sharing my pain and my experiences. Compared to so many others I “have it good”. But pain is pain, as Brené Brown reminds us; comparison to minimize the reality of another person’s pain is just another form of privilege and power. As a result of my experiences I am, I hope, much more empathetically connected with the millions who don’t have the objective privileges I do of race, education and culture. I have not walked in their shoes - because I am me. But I have felt the soul-crushing defeat and deep sense of personal failure that the use of privilege and power to “put me in my place” evoked in me.
So who am I? And what is my privilege?
I am female. South African. Of English descent so far as I know, with some Irish and Welsh mixed in. I am white, 46 years old, heterosexual, and non-physically disabled. I am married, mother to a nearly 8-year old boy, and an alum of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. I have no military experience, but have lived in conflict zones. I was brought up Christian, but identify now as Unitarian. I was born in the United States to South African parents and grew up in apartheid South Africa. I served as a diplomat for the first democratic South African government for 8 years (firstly under Nelson Mandela, then Thabo Mbeki), and spent 6 of those years in the Middle East. I have lived in the United States since 2001.
I am now a disabled middle-class professional. My new profession is as a workplace bulllying/ toxic environment coach. I have interned on Wall Street and worked for a big 4 consulting firm. Over the course of my 25-year career I’ve been a diplomat, consultant, project and program manager, banker, shoes and clothing manufacturer, coach and entrepreneur. I’ve worked in government, finance, real-estate, hospitality, energy efficiency and the utility sector, and (incongruously) children’s footwear and apparel.
But perhaps most importantly of all, I grew up in apartheid South Africa. And thus, in America, I have ever felt myself to be considered an “outsider” - with experiences unfathomable to most (so my American friends tell me). Where I grew up and my initial work experiences also gave me a difference in worldview that, if truth be told, I never really even considered as significant at all until I came to live and work here.
One of my very earliest experiences at the Johnson School was someone correcting my use of the word “orientate”. “It’s orient,” they said. “There’s no such thing as ‘orientate’,” they added. There is - look it up - but that’s not the point. What is the point was that I was to be corrected. They were right, I was wrong and if I wanted to live and work in America the message was clear: speak American, adopt American ways.
Think about that for a minute and what it says about that person.
And perhaps about this country.
Because of my heritage - of which I am proud - I was never willing, and indeed am still not willing, to blithely assimilate; to become only American and drop my American pre-history. Anyway, I can’t - the accent is unshakeable.
As a leader then, because of my background, experiences and education I was, in America, perhaps more tolerant of difference than many of my American classmates. Conversely - and this is important - I was also far less tolerant of prejudice. I was also definitely less tolerant of being required to “fit in” and do things “the American way.” Quite simply I had no belief that “our way, the American way” was the “right way.”
Indeed, if I am to be honest (and I chose that with all its attendant personal discomfort), I conveyed arrogance, superiority even, because of my diverse and broad international experience. It wasn’t intentional. Mostly I wasn’t even aware of it. But it was enough to get Americans’ backs up. Because no-one, least of all white American males at an Ivy League B-school program, and later white American males in a position of authority over me, wants to be “looked down upon.” And I just wasn’t self-aware enough back then to self-monitor for that.
Added to this, because I grew up in a police and authoritarian state, I am profoundly skeptical of all forms of power and authority: the police, the government, the military. And yes, that even extends to bosses and the “higher ups’.
It is perfectly obvious, stated this way, that that would put me on a collision course with corporate America. It did. And the consequential fall-out was catastrophic to my health...and my job.
“Privilege grants the cultural authority [the power] to make judgements about others and to have those judgements stick” writes Allan Johnson in Privilege, Power and Difference.
In my case I was judged to be:
And on and on. For another two hours...
Did I see myself this way? Of course not! But, not knowing if what I believed about myself was true or not, I decided to ask some other people with whom I had worked at this company where I had gone wrong. The responses I received couldn’t have been more different.
So who was I? What was true?
Here’s the thing. It really didn’t matter. What mattered was who had the power to make it true. And clearly, that wasn’t me as I was the lower ranked, not-really-American, female, non-engineer in a very hierarchical, male- and engineer-dominated utility company.
They had me corned.
By labeling me as they had, they effectively blocked any attempt I might make to defend myself and challenge their version of the truth. If I did that I just proved their point: I was argumentative and unable to take feedback. They were right and I was wrong. I did attempt a very mild push-back. The response was quick and blistering. In short it was complete character assassination.
The consequences for me of this feedback were pretty devastating. I fell apart - quite literally. In the good old days it would have been called a nervous breakdown. And break-down I did. Because the experience re-triggered my PTSD. Re-triggered it so badly I had to go out on short-term disability. I spent two months on the couch. On which I was either crying, sleeping or numbing myself on mindless TV. Finally, I was (predictably) terminated. Long-term disability was denied. I couldn’t even claim Unemployment for a long time - as I was in no state to look for work, let alone actually work. (Oh yes, and along the way from going out on STD and finally being terminated, I sustained a serious physical injury from falling off our deck, my mother passed away, my younger brain-damaged brother fell apart because of our mother’s death, and my older brother and father both collapsed from the stress and strain. It was a real picnic. Not.)
From a $150,000 annual income (I’ve always been the main breadwinner), we are down to a $20,000 household income. Our savings are nearly exhausted. We receive food stamps, Medicaid and child support. My medical team has made it very clear: return to my occupation at the risk of my life.
And I haven’t even written about the worst of it, or all of it.
So, what does my story evoke in you? And what might that say about how you view the world and your place in it. How you view yourself?
Am I weak? Am I a failure? Am I “less than” any of you who are reading this?
Only you can answer that.
Friends admire me for me strength, my resilience, my grit, my determination. But the fact that I have those is no accident. They are, largely, a product of my privilege. They are not some innate personality characteristic. I have the mental, emotional, and intellectual resources - due to my education, upbringing, race, culture and work experiences - to find a way to argue and fight for myself. To plan a new future. To retrain as a coach and become self-employed. If I were a poorly educated single mother-of-color in a developing country, would this be the case?
My experience has taught me, more than anything else, that leadership is never about the exercise of authority or power over someone. Leadership is about compassionately, and with a motivating principle of loving kindness, seeking to lift up everyone we can to be their best selves. To hold them accountable for their actions from that basis, not from a basis of blaming and shaming them for what they’re not. Leadership is about focusing on possibility, not scarcity - and yet that is so much what we tend to do. We measure people against metrics, not being aware that the very metrics themselves are usually rooted in privilege, in the perpetuation of the status quo, and a system of winners and losers.
These questions go to the heart of living, loving and leading. Wrestling with them is the work of our lives, so that we can become the best selves we can be. It is a brave, vulnerable and authentic act to look at these questions. It is profoundly uncomfortable. It is also an act of true leadership.
Leadership and authority are vastly different things. It is vital that leaders question authority, and resist its attempts to normalize and perpetuate the status quo. Leadership is about seeing all human beings as inherently whole, inherently worthy and doing the best they can given the tools and resources that they have.
And if we think they could be doing better, then leadership is about helping them to gain new tools and resources. That may mean letting them go so that they can pursue opportunities that are more aligned with where there are at. But is never about putting them down, or blaming or shaming or judging them for what they’re not.
The more authority and power are used, the more it is to be questioned and resisted. It is an act of profound bravery and courage - and therefore of leadership - to be willing to ask the hard questions of those in authority, of those with power over us. The personal price for doing so may be very high - as I well know. Whether or not that price is worth paying is a question only you can answer.
For myself, it was not a price I sought to pay. And yes, at the time, the price felt way too high. Way, way, way, way too high.
But now I don’t.
Because I would have paid an even higher price if I had capitulated to their definition of me, and in so doing I had continued to avoid wrestling with the question of who I really was. It would have been the price of my soul.
Feeling worthy, just as we are, is not in the least the same thing as feeling you deserve what you have, or that your are entitled to it. A sense of worthiness is routed in humility, gratitude and an awareness of how much of what you have is not due to anything you have done to earn it.
Perhaps the worst abuse of privilege is when privilege aligns with a position of power and authority over others and a feeling of entitlement to that position. The narrative then becomes that they deserve this position of power and authority and have earned it by their own hard work. That can come together in a really toxic brew, because now the privilege/power combination is completely self-justified and self-righteous. People with this outlook (and, let’s face it, they are mostly, but by no means exclusively, white males) are completely blind to - or simply don’t care about (they are effectively the same thing) - the effect of the use of their power and privilege on others. Because in this position they truly think they are better than the other person.
For this is what privilege and power seek to steal from us: our dignity, our worth, our agency, our humanity.
And as a leader I refuse to let that happen to me. And I also refuse to stand by and let it happen to others. So that is why I am now a workplace bullying coach, helping professionals of all ages and genders stop feeling disempowered and move forward in their lives and careers with unshakeable confidence.
There are many ways to fight this fight. But ultimately it boils down to how we each, as individuals, choose to show and be seen everyday. And how we choose to see others: as whole and worthy, or as flawed and needing to prove themselves. I choose the former. I choose empathy. I choose compassion.
Leadership is about owning our own privilege and prejudices. Defensiveness is a natural response to us being called on our privilege. But it never helpful. And it blinds us to the work we need to do on ourselves, for ourselves. There is only one sure way that I know to breakthrough the disconnection of privilege - and that’s empathy.
The stories we tell ourselves about our identity, about who we are, where we are from, and what we deserve and are entitled to are so powerful. And yet we are, most of us, blind to them. I certainly was. These stories are like the glasses that you are born with - and which you don’t even know are there - because they’ve been part of your ever since you can remember.
I’ll end with a quote by Brené Brown:
I’ve learned enough about privilege to know that we are at our most dangerous when we think we’ve learned everything we need to know about it. That’s when you stop paying attention to injustice. And make no mistake, not paying attention...is the definition of privilege.
“Sadly, it's not illegal to be an asshole,” my lawyer said.
And there it was. I had been through hell, but you can’t sue a bully - unless you can prove discrimination or something else illegal. And they had covered their bases well. Which left me - and indeed anyone looking to move on from these experiences - where?
Resilience. Rising strong. Not letting it get to me. Much easier said than done. So how, exactly, does one do that?
As I am a resilience coach this is a important topic for me. I see lots of posts in the future on this topic. As a beginning what exactly is resilience? And why does it matter?
There are scientific, medical, psychological, environmental and many other definitions of resilience. For me, I define it as that band of tolerance in which things can happen to one - and one may find them intensely uncomfortable, painful even - but one can still stay in choice and not be triggered into overreacting, or its corollary, under-reacting (freezing, or going numb). It’s that band where we have ups and downs, good days and bad days, hurts and joys, but in which we still feel essentially ourselves. That band where we can respond rather than react or not react at all.
It’s important because the wider our band our resilience, the more easily we can recover from the hard things that life throws at us. We will still feel challenged; we will still feel hurt, pain, fear, loss, grief, anger, or whatever else a particular event may evoke in us, but we don’t stay there as long and don’t experience them quite as severely as we otherwise might.
The good news is that resilience is not some inherent character trait. You are not born with a certain amount of resilience and that’s it. Resilience can be learned. It’s like a muscle that, with regular exercise and care, can get both stronger AND more supple. Even better, unlike for those of you who hate going to the gym (that’s me), building resilience is not like slogging through an arduous work-out. Building resilience can be downright enjoyable because - hey, bonus - one part of building resilience is doing things that you actually enjoy.
Some of you already know this. You are what Brene Brown would call the “whole-hearted”. Your band of resilience is already wide enough that when you have the misfortune to encounter one of the world’s assholes, you see them for who they are. Indeed, you even have compassion for them. You know that it’s about them, not about you. But for the rest of us, we have to work a little (or a lot!) harder to get to that place. We have to learn the skill of resilience.
One assumption that I’ve had to unlearn is that resilience is has nothing to do with being tough or thick-skinned. Rather resilience is, at its core, knowing deep down inside that we are worthy. And for many reasons - how we were brought up, the culture and community in which we were raised, our school experiences etc. - some of us have a harder time believing that than others.
I know, that sounds really woo-woo and flakey. That was my response when I first started this work. And yeah, denial that I had a problem with self-worth too! But as I have been interviewing people and listening to their stories about dealing with assholes, the pattern was very clear. The only difference between those who struggled to know how to deal with bullies, and those who didn’t, was that the latter had enough confidence in themselves to set boundaries. They could say “No, that’s not acceptable.” That’s it. They still got hurt. They still doubted and questioned themselves. They still got angry. But they didn’t take on internally what someone else might have said about them or to them, and they didn't tell themselves that they were somehow responsible for the other person’s poor behavior.
I’m “sensitive”, as my mother would say, not necessarily happily. And I’ve decided that I’m OK with that. What I’m not OK with anymore is extrapolating the hurt and pain I feel when encountering insensitive, domineering, critical people to “there’s something wrong with me.” My journey towards resilience started precisely because my old response was to take it to be about me. And, well, that didn’t end well for me. Indeed, I eventually fell apart. Quite literally. But that’s another story. I still flinch, I still get riled up when people make insensitive comments. It still gets to me. But now I’ve figured out how not to take it on - how not to make it about me.
Greater resilience is also not about caring less, or armouring up so that things bounce off of us. One person I interviewed had a lovely image. “Imagine you’re being shot at with arrows. Resilience is that the arrows still hit and wound you. But now, instead of leaning in to the arrows or, worse yet, pushing them further into you, you simply take them out, drop them on the ground, walk away, and go and get bandaged up. And in so doing you heal much more quickly.”
I can’t take down all the assholes in the world. I might be mighty, but I am not, sadly, magical. But I can help people build their resilience. In future posts I’ll write more as to how. For starters here’s a link to a recent New York Times article on building resilience as an adult. Google “how to build resilience” and lots more will come up.
If resilience is something you want more of, join me. And if resilience is something you already have, share what you do to build and maintain your resilience. Either way, drop me a line. I’d love to talk with you.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.