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.”
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 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.
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?
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.