It was a typical scene. A whole ballroom full of people. Leaders from industry there as mentors and coaches to tout their wisdom and inspire the business school students. Graduate students hanging on their every word, eager to emulate their success.
And as the industry people went around the room, introducing themselves and telling their stories of what they did, how they got there, and their lesson’s learned, I noticed the characteristic warning signals that I was being tempted to step out of my integrity. To follow their example and gold-plate it all.
I felt my heart plummet to my stomach. My skin start crawling. A tightening and constriction across my chest.
All my warning signs that the gremlins of comparison and perfectionism (aka shame) were rearing their heads. And of my ego getting ready to swing into action. To puff up and defend itself. Or - if the gremlins won out - to stay silent and small, not to be noticed.
And in that moment I had a choice.
Brené Brown’s mantra came to me.
“Don’t puff. Don’t shrink. Just stand your sacred ground.”
I kept on repeating it over and over to myself as the introductions continued.
“Don’t puff. Don’t shrink. Just stand your sacred ground.”
“Don’t puff. Don’t shrink. Just stand your sacred ground.”
Finally, it was my turn. I was the last to speak. With my heart in my mouth, I stood up. Not quite sure what words were going to come out of my mouth, I leaned into everything I have learned.
“I'm perhaps a textbook example of what not to do with your career. I followed my head instead of my heart.”
And then I told them that I was a workplace bullying and toxic environment coach. I told them that - at this weekend where they were learning how to be better leaders - the chances were that half of them, at some stage in their career, were going to find themselves working with or for someone who put them down. Who diminished and demeaned them. That they were going to find themselves in difficult and toxic environments.
And that the probability also existed, under the right stresses and conditions, that they could be those leaders themselves.
Was it effective?
I honestly don't know.
What was the truth was that I stood my sacred ground on what I knew to be important to me. In that moment, as everyone was going around the room, it would have been so easy for me to have played the game of “This is what I've done with my career and isn't that great. And this is what I've learned and isn't that wonderful?”
Far harder, and far more authentic, was to speak the truth in my heart.
Did I reach anyone and touch their heart?
Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't.
But I’ve learned that success is not measured in outcomes. It is measured in “How true was I to myself.”
So when you find yourself in that moment, comparing yourself to others, and having that sinking feeling that you’re coming up short, I invite you to remember this.
Don’t puff. Don’t shrink. Stand your sacred ground.
And if you'd like to learn how to do that, I invite you to subscribe to the “Resilience Toolkit” and get started on developing the tools you need to be able to do just that.
We hear it all the time: feedback is a gift. We’re supposed to be so grateful for it.
But let’s be honest, most of the time feedback just sucks. Negative feedback hurts – a lot. And when we get that rare bit of positive feedback – it’s typically so vague and general that it actually doesn’t mean anything to us. “Great job” someone says to us. Okay – what made it great? What specifically did I do?
And the truly awful feedback – the stuff that feels like a gut punch to the stomach? The hallmark of that kind of feedback is that it targets who we are: our intentions, our personalities, our values. If specific observable behaviour is mentioned at all, it’s rolled up with so much judgement that you can’t parse the behaviour from the criticism of who you are.
If it takes skill and practice to deliver feedback well, it arguably takes even more skill, practice and courage to receive feedback that is unskillfully delivered. Harsh, critical feedback delivered poorly can be completely demoralizing and overwhelming. It can feel like threat (because it is, even if it’s not intended that way) and trigger our innate survival responses of fight, flight, freeze or appease. We are not in learning mode when we are in survival mode.
At the same time, if we wait for others to offer us usable, digestible, manageable feedback, we will not likely receive sufficient feedback for our growth and learning. We have to be able to take feedback – regardless of how well it’s delivered – and apply it productively. For one simple reason: mastery – in anything - requires feedback.
So what to do?
The alternative is to stretch our inner muscles, seek feedback, and grow in our capacity to find the pearl in the muck.
This week's tool is more of a guide: “The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback”.
(If you're signed up for the Toolkit, you'll get this automatically. To download the guide, go here.)
If you wonder why you have such a hard-time receiving feedback, this explains why.
If you want to get better at giving feedback, this walks you through exactly how to do that.
If you want to get better at being able to deal with feedback, no matter how well or poorly it is delivered, how positive or negative it is, this tells you what to do to get to that place.
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?
When I’m running a resilience workshop I teach the concepts of “post-traumatic growth” and being “resilience-informed”, not just “trauma-informed”. The basic idea is that we are more than what has happened to us. We all found ways to cope – no matter what happened to us. We may have found better or worse ways to cope, but cope we did – because here we are.
For myself, feeling isolated in a privileged all-girls school, I learned to rely on academic performance to prove myself, to cope. And this carried over into my professional life. For others, our coping strategy may have been to shut down emotion, or to learn not to care, or to drive ourselves ever harder to “be perfect”. We developed those coping strategies because we learned and grew from our experiences. From bullying at school: don’t show weakness. From feeling isolated and excluded: don’t show them that you care. From harsh criticism on our performance: work harder, work longer. Our strategies emerged from our strengths: our willpower, our capacity for work, our creativity, our sensitivity.
And everything I have learned since that awful moment in 2017, about how we can use those same strengths to develop skills that are more adapted to the life we are in now – rather than the life we were in then – got beautifully amplified last night, when I attended a community screening and discussion of the movie Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.
The cinema theater was full. There must have been at least 150 of us or so. We were from all walks of life: law enforcement, recovery, the school system, universities, mental health professionals, medical professionals, faith leaders and ordinary citizens and people. We were all there to embody the basic tenant of movie, and the research it is based on: “If you can get the science [about trauma and resilience] into the hands of the population, they will invent very wise solutions”.
And we are. We so are.
Here, in my community, we have started a community-wide campaign called “Be The One”. The idea is so simple. And so transformative. It is that we can all “be the one” person who shows up in someone’s life to be of support and strength. In small tiny moments, or in big moments. We don’t need to be mental health professionals, we don’t need to be therapists or coaches or teachers or educators or priests. We just need to be ourselves. We just need to care and be kind. And includes ourselves, for sometimes the one person we need to show up for, care about and be kind to is us.
A few weeks ago on a Friday I gave a talk on resilience and my own experiences. I didn’t feel that I did good job, and the shame gremlins came calling and camped out over the weekend. For the first time in a very long time they had me up at 4am in the morning. By Monday morning I had what I call my “vulnerability hangover”.
At this point I relied 100% on my training and the research: self-compassion is the way, not self-criticism. And compassion is an infinite and renewable resource. We do not need to ration our care and empathy and compassion – to ourselves, or to others. No matter what we have or have not done. The more empathy and compassion and care we give to ourselves and to others, the more we have to give. And the more courage we have to pick-ourselves up and keep on going.
So as I came into that Monday with client calls, I just kept on telling myself “Compassion, Sue, compassion. Be kind to yourself. Be very, very kind to yourself”. I reached out to my “ones” – some dear friends and fellow coaches. And I got through that Monday. I was there for my clients - compassionately, kindly. And the shame gremlins and vulnerability hangover started to fade.
One of the audience questions last night was: “What can we, who are not medical or helping professionals do?” The answer came back very simply: care about others, believe in their competence, know they are capable of change and growth. One of the panelists called it the three Cs: caring, competence, capability. Believe in the resilience of people. Don’t think of them as broken and needing fixing. Believe in their innate competence. Believe that they are capable of learning and growing from any experience. And do so in a kind and caring manner. In short, be “resilience-informed” and be kind.
And those three Cs are in SUCH short supply in the workplace these days. I lived it in in 2017. I hear it everyday from my clients, as they try to navigate harsh criticism, uncaring bosses, difficult colleagues and their own gremlins. They are beating themselves up so much over workplaces that are beating them up. They think they are to blame, that they are at fault. No, no, no! They are just trying to do the best they can, using the coping strategies that they learned decades ago as they navigated childhood and early adulthood. They are survivors and fighters – not failures, not weak. And when they realize that, and tap into that, I just stand back in awe and wonder and watch them take flight. It is one of the most rewarding things in the world.
And so here’s my question to you: Will you Be The One? Will you be the one to be kind to yourself? Will you be the one to care about a colleague and reach out to them? Will you be the one to take a moment to truly see someone, and see them for the perfectly imperfect human being they are, not just a colleague who frustrates you, a boss who you fear, or a direct report you despair of?
It doesn’t take any special kind of training. It doesn’t take any super-hero skills. It’s just takes you saying “Yes, I will be the one”. And then letting the magic of compassion happen.
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.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.