It’s a concept so simple it was taught to my son many years ago in Kindergarten: you cannot fill up your bucket by emptying someone else’s.
And yet that is what seems to happen all the time. Every day. Especially in workplaces. It’s part of what makes so many of them so toxic.
Here’s Elementary “Bucket Fillosophy”.
All day long, everyone in the whole wide world walk around carrying an invisible bucket.
All around us, people are running on empty. Not enough sleep, never enough time, rushing from deadline to deadline, attempting to meet the endless, impossible and competing demands of bosses, co-workers, and management.
All around us, our coworkers and bosses are desperately attempting to feel good – to fill their buckets – by dipping into others. Criticism, put downs, undermining, gossiping: our workplaces are rife with it. All dressed up as “feedback”. But it never is. Because the simple reality is: if we feel good about ourselves at work, we have no need to puff ourselves up by putting other people down.
This is not to justify or excuse poor behaviour. On the contrary. Because when your bucket is full, you can compassionately hold someone accountable for their behaviour without having to shame or blame them. You can set clear boundaries - without have to shut people out, or shut them down. You can give feedback in a manner that helps others see, and maybe even plug, the slow leaks – or gaping holes – in their buckets, so that they can stop dipping into others.
What this also means is that whatever other people are saying or doing is not about you - or at least not in the way they are trying to make it out to be. Their unhappiness, meanness, bullying, backstabbing, sniping etc. may be directed at you - but you are at the effect of their empty bucket, not it's cause. Yes, their behaviour is bucket-dipping, and to the extent that you are engaging in the same strategies, then so is yours. But our buckets are never empty solely because of the behaviour of others. When we know how to truth check the messages other direct our way, when we know how to replenish our own buckets without expecting others to do so for us, then we have true resilience and our buckets stay full, regardless of how much others are dipping into them.
It’s so simple and so hard: happy people aren’t mean. As you look around you at your coworkers what do you see? Do you see a bunch of people with full buckets? If so - yeah to you for being in an awesome work environment! Or you do you see a bunch of people with empty buckets, desperately trying to fill theirs by dipping into everyone else’s? Do you see people with holes so gaping in their own buckets that as fast as they or anyone tries to help them fill it, it all drains right back out?
So if you’re struggling at work, ask yourself: how full is your bucket? And how full are those of the people around you? Do you have holes in your own bucket? Do you know how to replenish your bucket when others take a swipe out of it? What are the thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour that are draining you bucket dry, no matter how much your or others try to fill it? How much are you dipping into other's buckets to try to feel better? And what help or support may help you to fill your own bucket, or to stop the impact of other people’s behaviour on you?
You’d be excused for thinking, on reading that headline, that I’m about to engage in some victim-blaming and shaming. Far from it. As a victim of workplace bullying myself I am intimately familiar with the devastation it causes. Putting it all on me, trying to make me the solely responsible party: that was exactly what my bully tried to do to me. Successfully, I might add – at least for a while. It’s what took me down. But as I’ve since learned in my own journey of healing and recovery: bullying is about us – but not in the way you may think.
It about you because a bully can’t bully you if it doesn’t feel like bullying to you. Say what? Let me say it this way. Bullying triggers our innate threat detection system. But if we don’t perceive the bullying as personally threatening, then we can see the aggressor’s behaviour for what it is – awful, mean, insensitive, aggressive, hurtful, manipulative or whatever – but not a threat to our sense of self and to our self-worth. Oh, make no mistake – that is exactly what the bully is targeting. They are absolutely trying to make it all about you. But when we truly know and believe that we are enough, then we can say “enough”. And learning how to do that: that’s the reason I coach!
It’s about them because there are three reasons why people bully and harass (see “Why the ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach doesn’t really work” written by Hadyn Olsen, a bullying expert and researcher. It’s a short, informative and helpful read – I highly recommend it). All three reasons come back to the bully’s own experiences and the story they are telling themselves about how they can get ahead in the world. Writes Olsen, those three reasons are:
And it’s about us, because our organizations and cultures at best tolerate, at worse actively encourage, bullying. Bullying will happen in any social system, because bullying reflects one of the constants of human nature. Given the right circumstances and incentives, any of us can be tempted to pursue our own agendas and needs regardless of the costs to others, and most especially where the costs to us of doing so are low or non-existent.
And so, there will always be bullies at work. Because most of our workplaces are structured to value individual performance and contribution over empathy, collaboration and team health and performance. Given this, there will always be benefits – at least in the short-term – to bullying. And the bully won’t even see themselves as being a bully. They will see themselves - and indeed be rewarded for being - a valuable, results-driven high-achieving performer, while their victims are “weak” and unable to compete or get with the program.
And our workplaces tolerate, support, and promote these very people because “leaders feel they can delegate power to those who will most likely further their own goals, regardless of the person’s questionable sense of values. Those whose ethics are unquestioned, but whose ability to deliver appears less certain, usually come out second best” writes Charles Kelly in his seminal, and still – sadly – highly relevant 1987 article about those who he calls “Destructive Achievers”.
And we are also part of the problem because all too often, if someone says they feel bullied, we accuse them of over-reacting, of being “too sensitive”, of “not understanding the situation”. We dismiss or diminish their experience. We ask them to examine how they contributed to the situation. We question their right to feel wronged. We may even actively distance ourselves from them. We may shun, ignore or exclude them because associating with them taints us by association. In short: we reinforce the very systems and cultures that allow bullying to happen in the first place.
There are many wonderful people working at the systems and organizational level to shine the light on this, and to work for change. And the systems change work is absolutely crucial. But it will be slow. And in the meantime what do we, who are in it, do now?
How I know how to tackle this head-on, in practical, impactful and immediate ways is to help people develop their own innate resilience, built on a rock-solid foundation of truly believing in themselves and knowing their worth. Doing the work to develop yourself, to develop your resilience – this is a radical act. And ultimately, I would argue, a subversive act. Because when a bully and system - them and us - cannot keep you down, you become unstoppable. And we need more of that in the world.
Bullies can only bully if we allow them to. No, this doesn’t mean we bring it on ourselves or deserve to bullied. Rather, the impact of bullying is amplified when we do not feel secure about ourselves or our worth. What would happen if we all collectively strengthened ourselves and really believed in our inherent worth? The bullies would still show up. And their behaviour would still be mean, nasty and hurtful. And we wouldn’t buy into their message. We would clearly be able to see their behaviour for what it is: about them, not about us – even as they try to make it all about us. When we have these skills – then our lives change radically, for then we have no fear of bullies and they lose their ability to shame us into submission.
Resilience is not armor or a thick-skin. It is like an energetic force field surrounding us – allowing only the good in, and burning up the bad on contact. We get to keep all our softness, our caring, our warmth, our sensitivity AND we get to not be so emotionally slimed or hijacked when other people’s behaviour is just awful. Resilience means we don’t take on their load; we don’t take on what they are trying to offload onto us. We can see their behaviour for exactly what it is: a tragic attempt to meet their needs in ways that, I truly believe, will ultimately undermine them.
So, that is why I do what I do. I’m a “self-worth activist”: I want to help people truly claim their worth – regardless of what has happened to them – because the world needs more compassion and empathy, not less. And it starts with us. It starts with being kind to ourselves, and building ourselves up from within. That is an act of radical power and transformative in its effects.
A few weeks ago an MBA classmate who heads up leadership development programs at a prestigious Ivy-league university reached out to some alums to ask for our personal reflections on leadership and privilege. As I started to mull over her questions, one of the first thoughts that occurred to me was that, by any objective standard, I am walking privilege.
However of course as an individual, with my own story and background, I too - as the article she attached to her ask pointed out - can still suffer hugely from the use and abuse of privilege and power. The fact that as a member of a certain class of people, with a certain background, I have generalized privilege in no way excludes the fact that as an individual I can feel very un-privileged. And that those feelings at the individual level can be intensely painful, even traumatic.
In making the decision to share my story and my reflections on this topic with a group of Ivy League MBA students (privilege anyone?), I decided to hell with it, I would just be brave and put it out there - without regard to the range of responses it may evoke. And I am doing the same here, on this much larger, even more public platform.
As you read this, some of you may feel a profound sense of discomfort, and would really rather I just don’t talk about these things. Others of you may think “Oh well, she clearly couldn’t hack it in the corporate world. She’s just justifying her failure to make herself feel better.” Still others of you may think “Oh my gosh, she’s so brave, she’s so inspiring. I wish I could be like her.” And finally some of you may even respond with “Wow, I really connect with her authenticity - her struggles and my struggles are so related.”
Hold these in mind as your read what follows. I’ll come back to them at the end and let you reflect where you fall on that continuum and what it may mean for you.
One more prefatory comment before I dive in. Because of my privilege it is sometimes hard for me to feel OK with acknowledging and sharing my pain and my experiences. Compared to so many others I “have it good”. But pain is pain, as Brené Brown reminds us; comparison to minimize the reality of another person’s pain is just another form of privilege and power. As a result of my experiences I am, I hope, much more empathetically connected with the millions who don’t have the objective privileges I do of race, education and culture. I have not walked in their shoes - because I am me. But I have felt the soul-crushing defeat and deep sense of personal failure that the use of privilege and power to “put me in my place” evoked in me.
So who am I? And what is my privilege?
I am female. South African. Of English descent so far as I know, with some Irish and Welsh mixed in. I am white, 46 years old, heterosexual, and non-physically disabled. I am married, mother to a nearly 8-year old boy, and an alum of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. I have no military experience, but have lived in conflict zones. I was brought up Christian, but identify now as Unitarian. I was born in the United States to South African parents and grew up in apartheid South Africa. I served as a diplomat for the first democratic South African government for 8 years (firstly under Nelson Mandela, then Thabo Mbeki), and spent 6 of those years in the Middle East. I have lived in the United States since 2001.
I am now a disabled middle-class professional. My new profession is as a workplace bulllying/ toxic environment coach. I have interned on Wall Street and worked for a big 4 consulting firm. Over the course of my 25-year career I’ve been a diplomat, consultant, project and program manager, banker, shoes and clothing manufacturer, coach and entrepreneur. I’ve worked in government, finance, real-estate, hospitality, energy efficiency and the utility sector, and (incongruously) children’s footwear and apparel.
But perhaps most importantly of all, I grew up in apartheid South Africa. And thus, in America, I have ever felt myself to be considered an “outsider” - with experiences unfathomable to most (so my American friends tell me). Where I grew up and my initial work experiences also gave me a difference in worldview that, if truth be told, I never really even considered as significant at all until I came to live and work here.
One of my very earliest experiences at the Johnson School was someone correcting my use of the word “orientate”. “It’s orient,” they said. “There’s no such thing as ‘orientate’,” they added. There is - look it up - but that’s not the point. What is the point was that I was to be corrected. They were right, I was wrong and if I wanted to live and work in America the message was clear: speak American, adopt American ways.
Think about that for a minute and what it says about that person.
And perhaps about this country.
Because of my heritage - of which I am proud - I was never willing, and indeed am still not willing, to blithely assimilate; to become only American and drop my American pre-history. Anyway, I can’t - the accent is unshakeable.
As a leader then, because of my background, experiences and education I was, in America, perhaps more tolerant of difference than many of my American classmates. Conversely - and this is important - I was also far less tolerant of prejudice. I was also definitely less tolerant of being required to “fit in” and do things “the American way.” Quite simply I had no belief that “our way, the American way” was the “right way.”
Indeed, if I am to be honest (and I chose that with all its attendant personal discomfort), I conveyed arrogance, superiority even, because of my diverse and broad international experience. It wasn’t intentional. Mostly I wasn’t even aware of it. But it was enough to get Americans’ backs up. Because no-one, least of all white American males at an Ivy League B-school program, and later white American males in a position of authority over me, wants to be “looked down upon.” And I just wasn’t self-aware enough back then to self-monitor for that.
Added to this, because I grew up in a police and authoritarian state, I am profoundly skeptical of all forms of power and authority: the police, the government, the military. And yes, that even extends to bosses and the “higher ups’.
It is perfectly obvious, stated this way, that that would put me on a collision course with corporate America. It did. And the consequential fall-out was catastrophic to my health...and my job.
“Privilege grants the cultural authority [the power] to make judgements about others and to have those judgements stick” writes Allan Johnson in Privilege, Power and Difference.
In my case I was judged to be:
And on and on. For another two hours...
Did I see myself this way? Of course not! But, not knowing if what I believed about myself was true or not, I decided to ask some other people with whom I had worked at this company where I had gone wrong. The responses I received couldn’t have been more different.
So who was I? What was true?
Here’s the thing. It really didn’t matter. What mattered was who had the power to make it true. And clearly, that wasn’t me as I was the lower ranked, not-really-American, female, non-engineer in a very hierarchical, male- and engineer-dominated utility company.
They had me corned.
By labeling me as they had, they effectively blocked any attempt I might make to defend myself and challenge their version of the truth. If I did that I just proved their point: I was argumentative and unable to take feedback. They were right and I was wrong. I did attempt a very mild push-back. The response was quick and blistering. In short it was complete character assassination.
The consequences for me of this feedback were pretty devastating. I fell apart - quite literally. In the good old days it would have been called a nervous breakdown. And break-down I did. Because the experience re-triggered my PTSD. Re-triggered it so badly I had to go out on short-term disability. I spent two months on the couch. On which I was either crying, sleeping or numbing myself on mindless TV. Finally, I was (predictably) terminated. Long-term disability was denied. I couldn’t even claim Unemployment for a long time - as I was in no state to look for work, let alone actually work. (Oh yes, and along the way from going out on STD and finally being terminated, I sustained a serious physical injury from falling off our deck, my mother passed away, my younger brain-damaged brother fell apart because of our mother’s death, and my older brother and father both collapsed from the stress and strain. It was a real picnic. Not.)
From a $150,000 annual income (I’ve always been the main breadwinner), we are down to a $20,000 household income. Our savings are nearly exhausted. We receive food stamps, Medicaid and child support. My medical team has made it very clear: return to my occupation at the risk of my life.
And I haven’t even written about the worst of it, or all of it.
So, what does my story evoke in you? And what might that say about how you view the world and your place in it. How you view yourself?
Am I weak? Am I a failure? Am I “less than” any of you who are reading this?
Only you can answer that.
Friends admire me for me strength, my resilience, my grit, my determination. But the fact that I have those is no accident. They are, largely, a product of my privilege. They are not some innate personality characteristic. I have the mental, emotional, and intellectual resources - due to my education, upbringing, race, culture and work experiences - to find a way to argue and fight for myself. To plan a new future. To retrain as a coach and become self-employed. If I were a poorly educated single mother-of-color in a developing country, would this be the case?
My experience has taught me, more than anything else, that leadership is never about the exercise of authority or power over someone. Leadership is about compassionately, and with a motivating principle of loving kindness, seeking to lift up everyone we can to be their best selves. To hold them accountable for their actions from that basis, not from a basis of blaming and shaming them for what they’re not. Leadership is about focusing on possibility, not scarcity - and yet that is so much what we tend to do. We measure people against metrics, not being aware that the very metrics themselves are usually rooted in privilege, in the perpetuation of the status quo, and a system of winners and losers.
These questions go to the heart of living, loving and leading. Wrestling with them is the work of our lives, so that we can become the best selves we can be. It is a brave, vulnerable and authentic act to look at these questions. It is profoundly uncomfortable. It is also an act of true leadership.
Leadership and authority are vastly different things. It is vital that leaders question authority, and resist its attempts to normalize and perpetuate the status quo. Leadership is about seeing all human beings as inherently whole, inherently worthy and doing the best they can given the tools and resources that they have.
And if we think they could be doing better, then leadership is about helping them to gain new tools and resources. That may mean letting them go so that they can pursue opportunities that are more aligned with where there are at. But is never about putting them down, or blaming or shaming or judging them for what they’re not.
The more authority and power are used, the more it is to be questioned and resisted. It is an act of profound bravery and courage - and therefore of leadership - to be willing to ask the hard questions of those in authority, of those with power over us. The personal price for doing so may be very high - as I well know. Whether or not that price is worth paying is a question only you can answer.
For myself, it was not a price I sought to pay. And yes, at the time, the price felt way too high. Way, way, way, way too high.
But now I don’t.
Because I would have paid an even higher price if I had capitulated to their definition of me, and in so doing I had continued to avoid wrestling with the question of who I really was. It would have been the price of my soul.
Feeling worthy, just as we are, is not in the least the same thing as feeling you deserve what you have, or that your are entitled to it. A sense of worthiness is routed in humility, gratitude and an awareness of how much of what you have is not due to anything you have done to earn it.
Perhaps the worst abuse of privilege is when privilege aligns with a position of power and authority over others and a feeling of entitlement to that position. The narrative then becomes that they deserve this position of power and authority and have earned it by their own hard work. That can come together in a really toxic brew, because now the privilege/power combination is completely self-justified and self-righteous. People with this outlook (and, let’s face it, they are mostly, but by no means exclusively, white males) are completely blind to - or simply don’t care about (they are effectively the same thing) - the effect of the use of their power and privilege on others. Because in this position they truly think they are better than the other person.
For this is what privilege and power seek to steal from us: our dignity, our worth, our agency, our humanity.
And as a leader I refuse to let that happen to me. And I also refuse to stand by and let it happen to others. So that is why I am now a workplace bullying coach, helping professionals of all ages and genders stop feeling disempowered and move forward in their lives and careers with unshakeable confidence.
There are many ways to fight this fight. But ultimately it boils down to how we each, as individuals, choose to show and be seen everyday. And how we choose to see others: as whole and worthy, or as flawed and needing to prove themselves. I choose the former. I choose empathy. I choose compassion.
Leadership is about owning our own privilege and prejudices. Defensiveness is a natural response to us being called on our privilege. But it never helpful. And it blinds us to the work we need to do on ourselves, for ourselves. There is only one sure way that I know to breakthrough the disconnection of privilege - and that’s empathy.
The stories we tell ourselves about our identity, about who we are, where we are from, and what we deserve and are entitled to are so powerful. And yet we are, most of us, blind to them. I certainly was. These stories are like the glasses that you are born with - and which you don’t even know are there - because they’ve been part of your ever since you can remember.
I’ll end with a quote by Brené Brown:
I’ve learned enough about privilege to know that we are at our most dangerous when we think we’ve learned everything we need to know about it. That’s when you stop paying attention to injustice. And make no mistake, not paying attention...is the definition of privilege.
“Sadly, it's not illegal to be an asshole,” my lawyer said.
And there it was. I had been through hell, but you can’t sue a bully - unless you can prove discrimination or something else illegal. And they had covered their bases well. Which left me - and indeed anyone looking to move on from these experiences - where?
Resilience. Rising strong. Not letting it get to me. Much easier said than done. So how, exactly, does one do that?
As I am a resilience coach this is a important topic for me. I see lots of posts in the future on this topic. As a beginning what exactly is resilience? And why does it matter?
There are scientific, medical, psychological, environmental and many other definitions of resilience. For me, I define it as that band of tolerance in which things can happen to one - and one may find them intensely uncomfortable, painful even - but one can still stay in choice and not be triggered into overreacting, or its corollary, under-reacting (freezing, or going numb). It’s that band where we have ups and downs, good days and bad days, hurts and joys, but in which we still feel essentially ourselves. That band where we can respond rather than react or not react at all.
It’s important because the wider our band our resilience, the more easily we can recover from the hard things that life throws at us. We will still feel challenged; we will still feel hurt, pain, fear, loss, grief, anger, or whatever else a particular event may evoke in us, but we don’t stay there as long and don’t experience them quite as severely as we otherwise might.
The good news is that resilience is not some inherent character trait. You are not born with a certain amount of resilience and that’s it. Resilience can be learned. It’s like a muscle that, with regular exercise and care, can get both stronger AND more supple. Even better, unlike for those of you who hate going to the gym (that’s me), building resilience is not like slogging through an arduous work-out. Building resilience can be downright enjoyable because - hey, bonus - one part of building resilience is doing things that you actually enjoy.
Some of you already know this. You are what Brene Brown would call the “whole-hearted”. Your band of resilience is already wide enough that when you have the misfortune to encounter one of the world’s assholes, you see them for who they are. Indeed, you even have compassion for them. You know that it’s about them, not about you. But for the rest of us, we have to work a little (or a lot!) harder to get to that place. We have to learn the skill of resilience.
One assumption that I’ve had to unlearn is that resilience is has nothing to do with being tough or thick-skinned. Rather resilience is, at its core, knowing deep down inside that we are worthy. And for many reasons - how we were brought up, the culture and community in which we were raised, our school experiences etc. - some of us have a harder time believing that than others.
I know, that sounds really woo-woo and flakey. That was my response when I first started this work. And yeah, denial that I had a problem with self-worth too! But as I have been interviewing people and listening to their stories about dealing with assholes, the pattern was very clear. The only difference between those who struggled to know how to deal with bullies, and those who didn’t, was that the latter had enough confidence in themselves to set boundaries. They could say “No, that’s not acceptable.” That’s it. They still got hurt. They still doubted and questioned themselves. They still got angry. But they didn’t take on internally what someone else might have said about them or to them, and they didn't tell themselves that they were somehow responsible for the other person’s poor behavior.
I’m “sensitive”, as my mother would say, not necessarily happily. And I’ve decided that I’m OK with that. What I’m not OK with anymore is extrapolating the hurt and pain I feel when encountering insensitive, domineering, critical people to “there’s something wrong with me.” My journey towards resilience started precisely because my old response was to take it to be about me. And, well, that didn’t end well for me. Indeed, I eventually fell apart. Quite literally. But that’s another story. I still flinch, I still get riled up when people make insensitive comments. It still gets to me. But now I’ve figured out how not to take it on - how not to make it about me.
Greater resilience is also not about caring less, or armouring up so that things bounce off of us. One person I interviewed had a lovely image. “Imagine you’re being shot at with arrows. Resilience is that the arrows still hit and wound you. But now, instead of leaning in to the arrows or, worse yet, pushing them further into you, you simply take them out, drop them on the ground, walk away, and go and get bandaged up. And in so doing you heal much more quickly.”
I can’t take down all the assholes in the world. I might be mighty, but I am not, sadly, magical. But I can help people build their resilience. In future posts I’ll write more as to how. For starters here’s a link to a recent New York Times article on building resilience as an adult. Google “how to build resilience” and lots more will come up.
If resilience is something you want more of, join me. And if resilience is something you already have, share what you do to build and maintain your resilience. Either way, drop me a line. I’d love to talk with you.
Sue Mann - Coach
These are my reflections on how we rise, how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges. Less personal stories ( see the blog for that) and more practical tools, tips, techniques and reflections for all of us to brave the arena every day.