When it comes to our emotions and our workplace’s we’re in a bind.
Display too much emotion, and we’re too emotional, unprofessional. Don’t display enough and we’re seen as cold and hard hearted. If we don’t know how to connect emotionally with people, we can’t inspire them or lead them effectively.
And if we let emotions rule we lose respect, can’t make tough decisions, and can’t give effective feedback.
Think for a moment of the worst boss you ever had. And now think of their general emotional tone. Chances are they were at one end of the spectrum or the other: either emotionally cold, distant and unapproachable, or emotionally volatile, prone to explosive rages, or moodiness - with their moods having everyone on eggshells. You feared them or disrespected them - or both - and probably left them as soon as you could.
And now think for a moment of the best boss you ever had and their emotional tone. Chances are they were probably somewhere in that sweet-spot in the middle, emotionally intelligent, warm, and approachable, but also emotionally well-regulated. They may not have talked overtly about emotions, but they clearly made space for feelings to be felt and didn’t expect you to be an unfeeling machine. You worked harder for them, went the extra mile, and did some of your best work for them.
Daniel Goleman’s pioneering work on emotional intelligence has really helped to change the conversation around emotions at work, and frame emotional intelligence as a core leadership skill. But time and time again I see people falling into the trap of thinking that emotional regulation and emotional intelligence are about only allowing oneself to feel “positive” or “good” emotions. Susan David succinctly calls this “toxic positivity.” This is the idea that if one is feeling anger, resentment, irritation, guilt, shame, rage, despair, sadness etc. these are bad, bad, bad and one should immediately be able to shift out of them.
The other thing I see time and again is people “tapping out” of these difficult emotions. Their most common comments are “If I allow myself to feel I’ll be overwhelmed. I’ll drown.”
Let me be clear: There are no good or bad emotions.
I’ll say that again.
Emotions are not positive or negative, good or bad. They just are.
At the most basic level all emotions are simply electrochemical compounds in our body. That’s it. There is no good or bad to them. They might feel more or less pleasant, more or less comfortable, but emotions just are.
I’ll risk a definitive statement: All our problems with emotional intelligence and regulation arise when we judge emotions rather than discern emotions; when we either refuse to feel them on the one hand or allow them to rule us on the other hand.
The problem is not what we feel. The problem is what we DO with what we feel, once we’ve truly discerned what we feel. And that discernment is a process.
So here are the three rules of what to DO with emotions that my years of training, coaching, personal experience, and reading of the research and best practices boil down to. The three rules that, collectively, can shift you to the emotional sweet spot.
Clearly, there is a lot more to each of these rules - but here they are at the high level to get you started.
Rule #1: Validate, validate, validate
The very first thing we are taught to do as coaches is to validate what the other person is feeling. We might think their perspective is dead wrong or that they are way overreacting. But they are feeling what they are feeling. That is their reality and their truth. Validation doesn’t mean we agree with them or even that we think they’re right. It just means that - from their perspective, given their experience, their values, and their stories - what they are feeling makes complete sense. And we would feel how they were feeling if we were in their shoes.
And this applies not only to other people’s emotions, but to our own too. When we judge our own emotions as good or bad, when we say we shouldn’t be angry, sad, depressed, lonely, frustrated or whatever, because “other people have it worse”, or because “I don’t have time for this”, or when we fear to feel what we feel because we fear we might be overwhelmed, we are invalidating our own experience.
Emotional invalidation is gaslighting. And it’s crazy-making. Literally. And it’s generally regarded as a form of abuse.
Validation, or rather the lack thereof, is where I see abrasive leaders get stuck. They either don’t even know what they’re feeling, or if they do, they blame everyone else for what they are feeling, and argue that whatever anyone else is feeling - they’re wrong and shouldn’t be feeling it. They take zero responsibility for their own emotions and offload them onto others. Then heap on the judgment when others react to their emotional offloading. It’s a toxic crap-shoot.
I have to do a lot of work with them to get them to the point of starting to see how they are not dealing with emotions effectively, and how doing so will help them, not hurt them, and increase theirs and others productivity, effectiveness and performance. (It’s a process, it takes time, but it is 100% possible).
Once I’ve got them there, I can teach them how to validate emotions. When they first attempt to validate, their initial unskillful attempts often land really badly. They can come across as manipulative and insincere, or even patronizing. And then we need to lean even harder into the importance of emotions - as of course it takes courage to keep on going at that point. But that’s exactly what they need to do. Because every master was once a disaster.
It is an acquired skill to be masterful at validation. I certainly flunk it sometimes. But when I do it right, it's the gift that keeps on giving. Because when we validate our own emotions we feel heard, and now we can listen to others. And when we validate others emotions, they feel heard, and now they can listen to us.
Rule #2: Feels the feels
Strong, difficult emotions feel terrible. They feel overwhelming and scary. We feel we are going to drown in a river of despair, or are terrified at our explosive, murderous rage. There are very good reasons anger is so feared. The atrocities and horrors it can unleash at home, in the workplace and in wars are horrendous.
But we cannot selectively feel. When we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we want to feel joy, we also need to be prepared to feel anger, fear, despair and sadness.
Feeling our feels does not mean acting on our emotions (that’s rule #3). Feeling our emotions simply means actually allowing ourselves to feel them in our bodies.
At the biological level, emotions are combinations of electrochemicals in our brain and blood. If we were simply to simply let our emotions be, to come and go as they do, and not amplify them either through resisting feeling them, or looping into a cascading thought-emotion spiral, the process would last six seconds.
“That’s how long it takes for each burst of electrochemicals, from the time it's produced in the hypothalamus, to be completely broken down and reabsorbed back into our body. If we’re feeling something for longer than six seconds, we are – at some level – choosing to recreate and refuel those feelings.” (Six Seconds, 7 Amazing Facts About Emotions).
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called being human.
But with any biological process there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Just like a tunnel. There’s the first rush of feeling. That gut punch to the stomach of shock or fear. That involuntary gasp of surprise. That sudden flush of rage. We enter the emotions tunnel.
But to get to the other side of the tunnel, we have to go through the middle of it. We actually have to feel what we are feeling.
And this is where I see emotionally aware and sensitive people get the most stuck. Because the middle of the tunnel for strong, difficult emotions is dark, and scary. The light behind you is rapidly receding, and you can’t see the light at the other end yet. So you tap out. You numb, you suppress, you binge watch, you eat, you drink, you work and work and work.
When I guide my clients through the tunnel, they are consistently amazed at the relief they feel on the other side. “I thought I was going to have a complete breakdown, get stuck in there and never get out,” they say. “But I see now they only way out is through. And I feel so much better now. I can actually think straight”
You get to choose when, where and how to go through the tunnel. My preferred place is either by myself in my office, away from my family, or when I need extra support, with a peer coach.
And we feel our way to the other end of the tunnel. We don’t talk our way there. Venting is not feeling - that’s amplifying. Feeling our emotions looks like tracking them in our bodies. We feel the flush on our face, the wild thumping of our heart, our clenched fists, our roiling guts, our hot wet salty tears, our stuffy runny nose.
Feeling the feels literally got me through the pandemic. Saved me from burnout. And is saving me now as I contemplate the horror of Ukraine. I very intentionally allow my train to go chugging into the tunnel. All the way into the dark, where there is no light to be had. And I keep on feeling into my body. And the light comes. It always comes. And I reach calm and peace, and am ready now to decide what to actually DO with what I’ve felt.
Rule #3: Data, not directives
Emotions come from our “Thinking Fast” brain (Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman). Wise action comes from our “Thinking Slow” brain. Emotions give us critical data about the situation, our values, and how we feel ourselves to be in relationship to others. But the data is crude, raw and riddled with biases, assumptions and judgements. Emotions are not the full picture - but they are vital pieces of the puzzle. Our emotions always point us towards something we value, something that is important to us and we care about deeply. This is why we need to feel our emotions - so that we can gather ALL the data.
But to take wise action on this data, we need to bring our “thinking slow” systems online. In particular, we need to engage our prefrontal cortex, which is home to our executive functions. Master meditators access this state almost at will. For the rest of us, going through the tunnel provides another way there.
It’s never our emotions that are wrong. It’s only what we choose to do with them that is helpful or harmful. Outraged at what is happening in Ukraine or how your boss or an employee is behaving? Feel your outrage, mine it for all of its data. Get to the other side of the tunnel, where the flush of electrochemicals has subsided and you are now calm, purposeful, values-centered and grounded. Then and only then decide what action to take. Maybe you don’t share the outrage-inducing post, but rather connect with a local volunteer organization instead. Maybe you decide to stop feeling like the victim, and start to take responsibility for what you can do. Maybe you realize there is more you need to know before assuming your employee is just being willful.
It’s not our emotions that light our way out of the dark tunnel, it’s our values. But to find them and connect with them, we need to go through the tunnel. Then we can take calm, purposeful, value-centered action that is not about hurting someone else, or numbing ourselves, in an attempt to make ourselves better.
Feel the feels.
With practice we start to live more and more in the sweet spot: emotionally intelligent, warm, and approachable, but also emotionally well-regulated. Caring, but clear. Empathetic, but straightforward.
I love good science fiction and have read every one of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, all of the Dune series, and many others. I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy at our Friends of the Library book sale last year, and devoured it.
In the third book of the series, Blue Mars, there is this passage in the chapter titled “A New Constitution”. At the time I read it, it blew me away.
Suddenly, Vlad Taneev stood up. Startled, Antar stopped speaking and looked over.
There is so much more to this powerful story, beautifully told, but it’s Robinson’s “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including the workplace where we spend so much of our lives” that has stuck with me these many months since I read it.
No one ever gets up in the morning, eager to be harassed, humiliated, ignored, demeaned or diminished. No target, however “provocative”, keeps thinking of all the ways they can provoke people into bullying them. Targets are not at fault. There is not something wrong with them. They did not cause their bullying.
And yet, they are also part of the system that drives bullying.
Because most targets, like most professionals everywhere, have conflated their identity - who they are, their worth as human beings - with what they do, with their jobs.
How do we come to find ourselves in this situation? Here's my story. My guess is that there are a lot of parallels with your story.
Somewhere along the line, long before I even left school - and certainly without any conscious awareness on my part - I adopted the prevailing cultural belief: you are what you do. If you get good grades, good girl! If you get a good degree, good girl! If you get a good job, you’re becoming a real woman! If you get promoted and rise through the ranks, you're are a worthwhile human being.
I dutifully pursued that path for 40 odd years. And then it all came to a crashing halt. Next week it will be 5 years since I went out on disability leave. When the “old me” died. That dying was awful. And painful. And traumatic. And terrifying.
And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I'd deluded myself for a long time in thinking that I could, or should, conform myself to meet the expectations of others. Because that was what I thought was expected of me. Basically, in trying so hard to succeed by other people’s standards, I failed at being me. And when my job mattered to me in that way, who had the power? Certainly not me.
The first wake up moment took place in 2010 when I was the only one in the small company I then worked for who was selected for “lay-off". As explained to me later by a high ranking woman with whom I had worked: “You pissed some of the old men off. They didn’t like that you pointed out that their decisions flew in the face of the data and what the market research was saying. So they complained. And your company decided to get rid of the problem - you - rather than face up to the problem: an old-guard self-protective system. You didn’t do something wrong. You just didn’t do something right - as defined by them.”
Things have changed a lot since then. But I would argue that, even after a pandemic, the business world doesn’t really want us in all our glorious messiness and imperfection and jumble of contradictions. They want one thing and one thing only from us: our ability to show up and do the work they set for us. That is what they pay us for.
And that’s totally reasonable and fair.
But still today, most organizations and bosses seem to be operating under the belief that they are not only buying our time - but also our personalities. And they buy it when we acquiescence to the unspoken norms about how we are supposed to be at work: what we wear, what we talk about, how we are supposed to “show up” in terms of attitude, how early we arrive, how late we stay, our deference to authority, and hundreds of other daily choices. And then we wonder at how bullied, ignored, pushed around, overlooked, mistreated we feel or unfair the whole thing seems?
I had the most delightful coffee with a former colleague a few weeks back. We have traveled very similar journeys in terms of fall-out from our jobs having catastrophic impacts on our health and well-being. But where my path has taken me to coaching her path has taken her back to a different job. One where she is utterly clear eyed about what she is doing and why: she is selling her time for money. It’s that simple. Not for her identity, not for purpose, not for meaning and fulfillment - she is meeting those needs in other ways.
As I sat listening to her describe how - because of this - she can see what is actually going on in the company (rather a lot of disorganization), clearly point it out to the owner and her boss, and offer potential suggestions for improvements, all while being completely detached from how her boss responds or reacts, I had the biggest smile on my face. This is freedom - the real, meaningful kind. Because that organization, that boss - they have no power over her. Absolutely zero. And all because she has learned to detach her worth from her job; to separate what she does to earn a living from who she is as a human being. She knows she has worth just as she is, regardless of what kind of job she has. And because of this she’s no threat to the organization or to her boss’s ego either. She gets to be who she is AND she gets to work a job she chooses to do. It’s a joy behold.
If you are someone who is feeling bullied, yes, it’s possible to get to this place. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it takes work. And yes, it is worth it. You get your life back. You get to be you. One part of your path to this sort of freedom and joy is really ditching the 200 pound weight on your back that is tying your worth and identity to your job. Because work won’t love you back.
And if you are someone who leads and manages other people, I ask you to examine what assumptions you are making about how much you get to dictate to them about who they are supposed to be. “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including the workplace where we spend so much of our lives.”
How much autonomy are you giving to your staff? How much are you expecting them to follow certain norms that really have nothing at all to do with their capacity to get their work done? There is an inverse relationship between control and trust: the more you control, the less people feel trusted, and the less they feel trusted, the less well they perform. “When a trustworthy work climate exists, information is communicated more openly, people are more willing to help one another and willing to test ideas even if these may ultimately fail. Such behavior, over time, leads to outcomes that make companies more creative, innovative, cooperative, and fast moving, which are all factors that drive performance in direct ways.” (What COVID-19 Teaches Us About the Importance of Trust at Work, Knowledge@Wharton).
Our jobs can give us great meaning and purpose. They can be places of tremendous personal and professional fulfillment and growth. We can look forward to going to work every day. And feel valued and trusted.
And they can also be places of misery and suffering. A lot of this is due to organizational structures and systems, yes.
But not all of it.
In Nonviolent Communication we teach that “There is no system in the world that reliably has enough physical force that can oppress large numbers of people without their partial cooperation or consent.” Malcolm Gladwell explores these themes in David and Goliath. When we conflate who we are with what we do, we give some of our power, some of our innate rights to self-determination, away. We partially consent to the very system that causes us so much misery.
We are not to blame for that. Society and our education systems actively socialize us into that belief.
And, if we are to bring humanity, dignity and compassion back to the workplace, so that all can thrive, it starts with not
carving workplaces out as the expectation to “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere.”
“People are a time suck,” he told me in our first coaching session. “I’m sprinting and everyone else is crawling. They don’t seem to get it. I’m having to push them the whole time. What do I do about them? ”
He is the owner of two small businesses. And he came to me for coaching because “I’m not connecting with my staff in a way that’s working.”
To his great credit he also came to coaching because “There is no-one to hold me accountable. I haven’t been the greatest leader. I need someone to be a transparent straight shooter with me.”
“That I can do,” I promised him.
So: “I wouldn’t want to work for you,” I told him in our second coaching session.
And that, right there is part of the key problem. I could risk being fired as a coach. I have other clients. He is not my sole source of income. I could easily be the messenger because the risk was small to me.
But that is not the situation for most people working with someone like him.
When you have the greater objective power - when you’re the boss, the manager, the business owner, the more senior leader - it becomes infinitely harder and more dangerous for those below you to give you feedback. That’s not because they lack courage. It’s because they value their jobs and the income it provides them. They have ample evidence that their jobs may be at risk if they attempt to give constructive upward feedback - most especially when the more powerful person is abrasive and dictatorial. Because those are the very people who respond most aggressively to perceived threats to their power, status and competence.
Time and time again the advice to people working under toxic, abrasive managers is to “talk to them”.
It doesn’t work.
It’s unreasonable to expect someone with less objective power to hold someone with more objective power accountable. Absolutely part of the problem with abrasive leaders is that not enough people do hold them accountable for the impact of their behaviour. But reality is, when it’s your job and income on the line, it's completely human not to want to take that risk.
Because the messenger is usually the one who is shot.
If any of the staff of my client had attempted to give feedback to him, they would have been dismissed as entitled whining complainers, who “don’t get what it takes to run a business” (his words). And their future at the company would have been short lived.
I could be the messenger to him. His staff less so: because of the very environment he has created.
The messenger matters.
“We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces…(like abusive power). For some, that belief is valid. (But) they are the minority, the rare birds. For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion,” Philip Zimbardo, creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, writes in The Lucifer Effect. That’s not because people are weak or sycophantic flatterers: it’s because we consistently underestimate the powerful and primal need to belong and to be accepted by both the group as a whole and the more powerful person in that group. Challenging the leader of a group risks expulsion. Which to our nervous system, still wired for social living in small groups on the savannah, means death.
The idea that the people on the receiving end of abusive and abrasive leadership should be the ones to challenge that leader is cruel and unjust. It puts the burden of accountability on those who have the least power and who have the most to lose. And it's blame shifting: it’s not leadership that’s the problem, it’s people who won’t stand up to the leader.
One of the more sobering findings from both the empathy and the self-awareness research fields is that there is an inverse relationship between power on the one hand and self-awareness, empathy and emotional intelligence on the other. The more senior the leader, the less empathetic and self-aware they tend to be.
And it’s not because those leaders start out with less skill.
Rather it is the social dynamics of power that drive this. It is simply hard to speak truth to power, and so the more power one has, the less truth you are told by others. Leaders tend to be surrounded by “walls, mirrors and liars” (Tasha Eurich, HBR Ideacast #644, “How to become more self-aware”). Precisely when it becomes more important to understand your impact on others, you become less aware of it. Which compromises your ability to lead and manage effectively.
This happened to me just last week. I needed to give some feedback to a more powerful man - and a masterful coach himself. Something he had said had really impacted me as a woman. It wasn’t easy for me to give the feedback that I did. But I knew that I had to if I wanted to be able to look myself in the eye and also to continue to collaborate with him. I coach around this stuff all the time - and I still needed to get some coaching support for myself before I went into that conversation.
It didn’t go badly. But it didn’t go as I had hoped either - because even he couldn’t resist subtly turning the tables and putting it back on me. Now, what he had to say back to me might have some truth to it. But that’s not the point. By not doing that in a separate conversation with me, but rather right after I had shared the impact on me of what he had said, the impact was to discount what I was saying, and by extension discount my experience.
The impact was to shoot the messenger - no matter how subtly.
Even if my experience was totally subjective, and not how any other woman or someone with less power would have experienced it, there is only one thing to say in that moment when someone has taken the courage to speak truth to power: “Thank you.” Bonus points if you can add “I appreciate the courage it took to raise this with me. I’ll think about what you’ve said. Can we have a follow-up conversation about this tomorrow after I’ve had some time to process this?”
Will I be likely to give him feedback again? Right now, I can honestly say I’m not sure. I hope I will - but there’s that little bit less safety and trust now, and so I will be more guarded.
Do I take feedback well, myself?
In a word: no.
Negative feedback, no matter how constructive or skillfully delivered, still lands like a gut punch to the stomach for me. I immediately want to get defensive. And my go-to defense strategies are to go on the offense, play the victim card, and/or bleat “that wasn’t my intention.” In that moment I have to lean hard into my training and practice, and just say “Thank you”. And try, if I can, to get curious - to really understand them as a human being. And if I can’t, to stick with the thank you and exit as graciously as I can. And then do my work to process it. I am very much still a work in progress on this. But I keep on practicing.
Because the messenger matters.
If I shoot them down, I don’t get to know more about them as a person (most especially if I thoroughly disagree with what they are saying), or more about me and my impact.
Yes, some feedback is more about the giver than the receiver. But relying solely on your own judgement to determine that is a recipe for self-deception. If you are a leader, it is 100 percent your responsibility to create your team of loving critics who tell you the unvarnished truth, and with whom you can check hard feedback. You need to create a psychologically safe environment for people to give you that feedback - not from those above you, but from those below you. And then explicitly seek it out. You cannot wait for people to come to you: if you do, you will never get enough of the feedback you need to become more self-aware and more effective.
And no matter how much you disagree with the feedback, under no circumstances do you shoot the messenger. Not ever. Because word will spread and you’ll enter the feedback desert. And your next ask for feedback will be met with deafening silence at worst, or useless platitudes at best.
The messenger matters.
Creating a feedback team of loving critics is something I will be working towards with my client. As will be supporting him in shifting his company culture to one in which his staff are explicitly encouraged - and rewarded - for being straight with him. It will take time, he has work to do, but it is one hundred percent possible.
What are you doing to value the messenger, to encourage and reward those who speak up to you when you have the greater power?
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.