Can you Forgive a Brand for Lack of Empathy?

Years ago, I wrote a few posts about horrific customer experiences, especially one with a certain hot Internet retail brand. As I put on the one item I bought from them today, I reflected on whether I would actually forgive them for showing such a lack of empathy. I mean, it’s been years, right?

It got me thinking: 

When is it time to forgive a brand for a bad customer experience?

Is there ever a time for a second chance, when you have felt disrespected or unseen?

And how does this apply to us personally? Can we ever give a second chance to someone who has been unempathetic, whether they realized it or not? A friend, a colleague, a boss. And if so, how do we know when it’s time?

I do believe companies (and people) can learn from their mistakes and try to do better. See: Uber.

But I also know that, when it comes to customer loyalty,  in this day and age, we have options. Especially if the company in question saw nothing wrong with their behavior and never tried to make things right. There is a difference between how classy brands own up to their mistakes (well done, Alaska Airlines) and how others simply blame and complain.

Interestingly, I found this study that shows that when businesses humanize their leaders, like when you don’t see your local catering company as Acme Catering, but as Sue, Bob, and Joe who OWN Acme Catering, customers are more apt to forgive them for missteps.

Companies pay a very high price when customers feel disrespected, unseen, or even blamed. One negative customer experience can be a brand’s undoing. 

And if you want a masterclass in what a string of negative user and employee experiences can do to a company, see Twitter (now X). That platform seems to be a ghost town these days, with most people fleeing to Threads.

How can a brand bounce back from bad customer experiences? Well a few things need to happen

Accountability: Did the person involved or the brand itself own up to their mistakes, apologize, and transparently explain how things went wrong? Note: Simply throwing a discount code at someone is not the same as accountability!

Genuine Contrition: Does the person or brand genuinely sound like they are sorry for your experience? Are they taking steps to make things right or secure your loyalty? If they say “Sorry…”in the same tone my kid does when he is asked to apologize, you’ll know it’s not sincere!

Systemic Change: Did the brand or person look deeper and get to the root cause of the lack of empathy? Have they gone back to the status quo, believing this to be a one-off, or has something changed in their communication, hiring, processes, or interactions? If so, this may be a sign they are learning from mistakes and we should reward that with a second chance.

Humility and a Growth Mindset: Do they see your experiences as an inconvenience they have to deal with or as a learning opportunity to improve customer (and interpersonal) experience from now on? 

I still don’t know if I can forgive the brand that treated me so badly a few years ago. How they blamed ME for the shipping mistake without proof, for not getting back to me as promised,, and then arrogantly proceeded to justify their poor customer service with “We’re just getting so much business right now, we can’t answer every email.”Wow. Just….wow.

But maybe over time, if I think their processes (and staff) have improved, I may just give them a second look.

With people at work or in your personal life…..well, these same rules can apply. I’m no psychologist, but I think the most important thing with people in your life is to give them the opportunity to know there is a problem first, assess their motives, and give them a second chance if you can. Especially if they’re willing to learn from it because maybe they just didn’t even realize their behavior – and this experience is a great lesson for them.

But after communicating to them that this was an issue and working through it together,  if they continue to disrespect you by not seeing your point of view or actively listening (please know, this does not mean they just “do what you want”all the time!), you may have to reassess the arrangement. 

Photo credit: Brett Jordan, Unsplash

How Either/Or Thinking is Killing Us

Leaders, listen up: Have you ever heard the improv maxim, “Yes, and….?”

In my work researching, writing, and speaking to audiences about the power of empathy, a magnet has pulled me to one notion that gets in the way in almost every dysfunctional workplace or societal conversation.

Let me explain…

Our brains seem to defend us – yet often hold us back – due to cognitive dissonance.

From the article cited above:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are averse to inconsistencies within their own minds. It offers one explanation for why people sometimes make an effort to adjust their thinking when their own thoughts, words, or behaviors seem to clash with each other.

Put simply, it is less distressing to us to hold one single view in our thinking. We want this one thing to be true OR this one other thing, but we refuse to believe they can possibly be both.  We crave simplicity.

But life is not always that simple. Others see things differently based on their own experiences, worldviews, philosophies, and personalities. 

Call it either/or thinking or binary thinking. Any way you slice it, this approach can lead to division, stress, mental health crises, families being ripped apart, and the destruction of our planet. Not to mention how it stifles creativity, innovation, and collaboration at work.

The either/or approach to leadership and relationships is broken. It got us into our current mess. It’s not working for us.

As leadership paradigms shift in the new era of work and as society demands more collaboration for its own survival, we are called to embrace dialectics

To simplify, dialectics is understanding that we can hold two seemingly contradictory things to be true at the SAME TIME.

We can be empathetic and high-performing.

We can be compassionate and competitive.

We can be kind and ambitious.

We can be empathetic leaders and still make tough business decisions.

We can care about our people and still hold our personal boundaries.

We can be stewards of the environment and still reap financial rewards.

We can turn to alternative energy and reskill our people.

We can marry purpose with profit.

We can deliver great results and do right by our teams.

And when we extrapolate this out to our lives outside of work….

We can disagree and love each other.

We can care deeply and have to let go.

We can care about the collective and also prosper individually.

We can enjoy nice things and still be good to the environment.

We can be gentle but still get our point across.

We can guide behavior without abuse or shame.

We can both be right. Now, the question is, how will we move forward?

In our world and workplaces today, it no longer serves us to focus on either/or thinking. We must embrace BOTH/AND.

Think about all the innovations your organization is missing out on because your leaders are clinging to command and control leadership. Never leave the door open to new perspectives, insights, information, or possibilities.

We have the capacity to hold two things to be true at the same time. It just may take practice.

For your organization, and for our world, it’s time we embrace the power of BOTH/AND. Abundant, inclusive, both/and thinking will get us out of our current dysfunction.  Are you ready to see what’s possible?!

Photo Credit: Fly D on Unsplash

Belonging is Great. Tribalism? Not So Much

We all want to belong. It’s how we’re wired as humans. We sort ourselves into groups from high school (the nerds, theater geeks, jocks) and well into adulthood. Are you a soccer mom, a power player, a DINK, a Cubs fan, a wine snob?1

Some groups are more fun and innocuous than others. The game night junkies. The emo lovers. The golf buddies. The church ladies.

But we as humans crave connection and belonging so much that when we allow the Hogwarts Sorting Hat to put us into categories, it can feel safe but might have a dark side.

I’m Catholic, but have huge problems with how the Catholic church treats women, sexual abuse survivors, and the LGBTQ++ community.With my current moral, social, and political views,  I often feel like I’m on the outside looking in on this group I have belonged to my entire life. Religious affiliations in particular have been a source of divisions (and war, if we look at history) and have been used to oppress and deny rights to others outside of the “in” group. And don’t even get me started on many other so-called “God-fearing” con artists. Many of whom say one thing and do another in the name of their religion, especially when it comes to “loving your neighbor”and being kind to the poor and mistreated..  

These are not my people, nor my allies.

But see what I did there? I just “othered”another group that has different beliefs than me, painted them all with the same bias brush, and acted superior, as if my way is the only way.

Belonging is great. We can become part of a nurturing welcoming community. We can be who we really are, without fear of isolation or recrimination. We can build relationships and share resources.

But we must be very careful we don’t tip over the line into negative tribalism. 

Tribalism is the state of being organized by, or advocating for, tribes or tribal lifestyles. Human evolution has primarily occurred in small hunter-gatherer groups, as opposed to in larger and more recently settled agricultural societies or civilizations. With a negative connotation and in a political context, tribalism can also mean discriminatory behavior or attitudes towards out-groups, based on in-group loyalty. (source)

The negative aspects of tribalism look like:

  • Superiority/Supremacy
  • Oppression
  • Neglect
  • Closed-mindedness
  • Greed
  • Individualism (if you are not part of my tribe, I will not help you and your fate doesn’t matter to me)

All of it leading to a lack of empathy for anyone outside of our group. Some leading to violence when people “take sides”such as in cases of soccer (football) hooliganism or worse, MIddle Eastern identities and claims.

We must be vigilant in creating groups that honor inclusivity – and leave the door open to others to walk through, as well as leave the window open so we can hear the needs and contexts of others outside of the group we are in. Tribalism leads to the worst kind of nationalism – the kind that makes me right and you wrong and causes me to defend cruelty, oppress openly, and refuse to get curious about others not like me.

Always seek inclusive connection and belonging. Stay curious, open, empathetic, and welcoming. Please don’t use belonging as a way to further divide into camps of hate. Whether that is in your own high school, club, neighborhood, office…or country.

Photo Credit:  Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

Tried and Tested Ways To Motivate Your Employees

Enjoy today’s Guest Post about fabulous yet often overlooked ways to motivate your people from the team at Scalefluence!

All of us are aware of the fact that an organization can only be as good as its people. However, this is not limited to hiring the right people but also ensuring that they stick with the organization and remain engaged in work throughout the tenure. As a leader, you must ensure that the more motivated your employees are, the more likely they will stay with the company. It is your job to make them feel seen and motivated, and there are several approaches you can take. Here are a few tried and tested ways you can motivate your employees. 

Appreciate them

You must ensure that the employees are engaged and they know that you appreciate their hard work. You can do this by giving them a gift card or an award at the annual party. Awards and recognition go a long way in keeping the team motivated. Alternatively, you can create an initiative to ensure that the culture of the company becomes a matter of pride for each employee. Your team is working hard for you, and you need to show recognition to ensure that they feel confident and motivated at all times. 

Celebrate together

No matter how big or small a win is, celebrate it with your team. Make it a point to stay connected to the team members and celebrate their little joys. This will make them feel like a part of your family and encourage them to bring their best to work. Let the team celebrate their joys and success at work. 

Understand their purpose 

All of us have a goal in life, and we want to achieve something or become someone, and as a leader, it is your job to understand this purpose. You need to find out what truly motivates your employees and understand their “why”. It could be through a map of drivers or even a heart-to-heart conversation. You need to understand your employees to know what is it that they are searching for. 

Train them 

One way to motivate the employees is to train them and take them towards their goals. This will increase their self-confidence and improve productivity. You need to provide specific training to help improve the job performance, and it will create a win-win situation for you and the employee. Ensure that you have clear goals and you can work with them to accomplish them. Once they are achieved, you can reset the goals. 

Bonus time off

All employees enjoy bonus time off and this is something they will always appreciate. Leaders need to understand that when employees relax and reset, it improves their mental health and productivity. You need to give your employees time to reset so that they do not feel stressed or burnt out. Keep a watch on the amount of work they are doing and ensure that they are making progress but aren’t overworked. 

Set the right company culture

The company culture speaks a lot about the leadership and whether the team is happy with the same or not. Motivated employees will follow the actions done by their leaders, and you need to be an active leader who leads by example. Allow opportunities that can motivate others and understand what they expect from you. Employees can thrive in the right company culture, and you need to create one that helps everyone grow. 

Ask them what they want

Not many organizations do this, but you must ask your employees what they want and try to give it to them. Look for their preferences and try to meet their needs. There are times when they will not be happy to speak about it openly, but ask them again. Give them a safe space to talk about their needs and deliver them. This will have a huge impact on them, and they will feel like they belong to the organization. 

Pay for professional education

Encourage the employees to have an always-learning mentality and you can do this by providing them access to online training, classes, and educational benefits. Pay for the professional courses they are willing to take as this will help your company in the long term. Help them identify their weaknesses and the areas where further learning can benefit them. It will show that you are happy to invest in their growth and success. 

Set a system that allows growth, engagement, open communication, and advancement. This can be achieved through regular huddles where employees can talk freely, and share their ideas. Let them communicate their problems with the team leaders and ensure that you stay engaged with them. This will set the pulse of your organization. You can have workshops, team outings, or even weekly meetings that can help bring up new problems and brainstorm ideas and solutions. 

Image credit : Unsplash

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

If you love heady, insightful books that look at how we look at things, you will want to pick up Citizens : Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us by Jon Alexander and Ariane Conrad. Here’s the perfect description:

The book shows how human history has moved from the Subject Story of kings and empires to the current Consumer Story. Now, he argues compellingly, it is time to enter the Citizen Story.

Because when our institutions treat people as citizens rather than consumers, everything changes. Unleashing the power of everyone equips us to face the challenges of economic insecurity, climate crisis, public health threats, and polarisation.

Citizens is an upbeat handbook, full of insights, clear examples to follow, and inspiring case studies, from the slums of Kenya to the backstreets of Birmingham. It is the perfect pick-me-up for leaders, found

(Yes, I hope to get these authors on The Empathy Edge podcast!)

Here’s why I love the book:

It is all about rethinking the stories we’ve just blindly accepted and been told are fact, based on … .precedent? Power? Control?  The idea that we can’t escape the Consumer story is a myth that is told to us by those who benefit from it.

Same holds true for leadership and what I’m trying to do with my work to change that conversation. We adopted legacy leadership models and workplace cultures because that was all we knew .

The models that tell us:

  • Treat business as business and leave your own personal values at home.
  • Work is work.You get a paycheck so we have the right to treat you how we want.
  • Leaders always have to know all the answers. If they don’t, they should say nothing.
  • Information is to be hoarded and used as a lever for power.
  • Emotions and humanity have no business being in the workplace
  • Leaders need to put up their guards up in order to gain respect.
  • Work does not have to bring you joy.
  • Soft skills don’t impact the bottom line.
  • We have to be empathetic OR achieve high-performance. We have to be kind OR ambitious. Either/Or.

These models are not laws of physics that cannot be changed. They were invented by humans and we have the power to evolve them to better suit our needs.

We can flip the script to the Human-Centered Leadership story:

  • Leaders can be whole people and be vulnerable, problem-solve collaborative, and if they don’t have the answers, they can work with others to find them.
  • Work can be full of heart AND still be a high-performance culture
  • We can have friends at work!
  • We can get to know each other personally and still make tough decisions or have hard conversations.
  • Leaders who welcome new ideas from everyone are not threatened by them – they are boosted by them.
  • Soft skills will make or break your culture and company’s success.
  • We can be empathetic AND achieve high performance. We can be kind AND ambitious. We can enjoy cash flow AND be compassionate. Both/And (and research bears this out)

Don’t be so quick to accept stories as the truth. Be smart enough to see the data, savvy enough to see where workplace culture is going, and brave enough to build a new narrative and be the model that proves how it can be radically successful.
Photo Credit: Nong on Unsplash

Why Taylor Swift is the Savviest Marketer We Know

The dog days of summer have never been felt more acutely on our planet than the past few months. Record scorching temps, wildfires. And I’m hearing data that many companies are still not actively treating climate change as a business threat. Sigh. Seriously?!

Not to mention the sizzling hot economic buying power of women. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé fans are boosting local economies and Barbie became the first movie directed by a woman to break a billion dollars.

But can we pause for a moment to acknowledge something I’ve said for a long time?

Taylor Swift is a marketing genius.

Not only is she a gifted singer/songwriter, she has cultivated one of the most successful, sticky, and empathetic brands out there. She is a marketing machine, yet never loses sight of her craft – or her fans. The chef’s kiss to her extraordinary summer blitz? She made a surprise announcement that her concert will be launched in theaters as a film experience for those who want to see her again, or those for whom the concert was not accessible (either due to location or cost)

Damn, girl. BRA-VO!

Here are 3 reasons why Taylor Swift is one of the savviest marketers around:

  1. She knows her fans

Empathy is her watchword and she knows exactly what her fans want, need, value, and how they want to feel. Everything she does is designed to delight – from encouraging Eras tour makeovers to friendship bracelets to her vulnerability and authenticity in both her songwriting and on social media, she is tapped into exactly what her audience wants. And she’s constantly topping herself – like releasing the movie version of her tour.

  1. She knows the music business

Taylor writes a lot of her own songs, and retains many rights other artists do not enjoy – but back in 2019, her old record label was sold and she lost the rights to her master recordings. Which meant anyone who wanted to use her songs had to ask Scooter Braun for permission and pay him a licensing fee. So she sidestepped him and has been re-recording all her old songs again, branded as Taylor’s Version to ensure she still retains control over those newer cuts. Boss move.

  1. She knows social media

Taylor is the queen of social media savvy. Her posts achieve crazy engagement from fans, and she posts so much “bonus content” there about her life, behind-the-scenes moments, and first-to-know-news.  But she would not achieve this level of fandom if she simply used social media as a one-way billboard, promoting her records and concerts. She has created a hub that invites engagement, where fans feel like they are visiting a friend, and are part of a community bigger than themselves. She talks about her feelings, her process, her heartbreaks! And she loves using social media to surprise lucky fans, making the others stay glued to her every word in case she may come knocking on their door next! Taylor has created an iconic image, yet her fans feel she is so approachable. A hard balance to achieve!

The lessons here?

  • Know your people – adopt an empathetic mindset and really get to know them.
  • Know your industry – understand how your business operates within the ecosystem.
  • Know your channels – leverage channels to connect and engage, not just “sell.”

Photo Credit: Getty Images, article

Leaders: Control or Connect?

Recently, I learned (another) leadership lesson from my parenting journey:

Are you trying to control or connect?

My defiant son is learning to navigate who he is in the world, apart from Mom and Dad (if I dare slip up and say, Mommy, he is quick to correct!). You can imagine the arguments, stress, exhaustion – on both sides.

I’ve embraced positive parenting or conscious parenting. But I was raised quite differently and sometimes, well, I mess up.

And by mess up, I mean lose sight of my goals to get a short-term hit of self-righteousness.. 

My goal is to raise a healthy, empathetic, kind, self-aware, self-sufficient human boy. My goal is to encourage him to speak up for himself, express his creativity, and develop a growth mindset.

But those goals go out the window when your kid back-talks you, rolls his eyes, or refuses to do something you’ve asked him to do a million times.

A wise therapist reminded me (several times), my goal is not to control my son. In the macro sense of course. I’m not going to allow him to run out into traffic or anything. He is his own person with unique strengths, challenges, and preferences.  He is becoming who he is becoming and if the goals listed above are truly my goals, then I have to remember to seek connection more than compliance. 

This will ensure we have a close relationship for the long term, so when things get harder for him as a teen and an adult, his Dad and I can still have influence and he will still feel safe talking to us and being honest. No parent wants a child who keeps important secrets or cuts ethical corners to avoid punishment.

That doesn’t mean I let him do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

That doesn’t mean he has no guardrails or expectations.

But in those tense moments, when tempers start flaring, it might FEEL good to shout and scream so loud that I will him into compliance. Or I can take a more graceful tact, regulating my own emotions while still seeing who he is AND standing firm with my boundaries. Being a model for him with my own behavior so he knows what to expect and strive for.

So leaders: Ask yourselves:

Do you want control or connection?

Tight-fisted, authoritarian control may get you short-term compliance, to be sure, from demanding a return to the office, tracking keystrokes and badge swipes, or publicly berating someone at the next team meeting for screwing up – but what does that buy you in the long run?

What are your goals?

Are your goals really to force disengagement (for their own mental health, in that kind of environment), encourage the bare minimum, foster resentment, and lose good, talented people to your competition?

I don’t think so.

Or would you rather create a high-performing team for the long term that collaborates, innovates, solves problems, and gets things done – all while remaining extremely loyal to you and the organization? 

You can still set high expectations.

You can still set boundaries and guardrails.

You can still have difficult conversations and get people to take responsibility and face consequences.

AND…you can do all of that while still prioritizing connection over control. 

Remember your true goals. And choose connection over control. I promise it will be worth it for your goals in the long run.

Photo credit: RD Smith, Unsplash

Leadership Skills for Global Expansion: A Guide for Business Executives

This is a guest post, by Sam Cortez. She is a freelance journalist and has held previous internships at 20/20 magazine, Marie Claire, the NY Daily News, and Parenting magazine.

Globalization is an exciting strategy that can significantly improve a company’s revenue and brand reputation. It, however, does not come without challenges.

While the company’s structure readjusts to accommodate the new market, its leadership is also required to navigate the new globalized business landscape efficiently.

Since business executives are the primary decision-makers in their organizations, it is recommended that they are equipped with the necessary leadership skills before commencing an international expansion.

What are leadership skills for global expansion?

Most leaders have their education and work experiences in the same country, which means they are more familiar with their home country’s culture and business operations than other nations across the globe.

Meanwhile, companies with a global presence will likely have more than one headquarters. Managing these various offices, along with the cultural diversities, requires a flexible mindset.

Leadership skills for global expansion are a set of soft skills business executives must acquire to effectively handle business operations in countries other than their home countries. They help to manage growth and tackle challenges in the new market.

Below are the skills you need to succeed as a leader of a multinational company:

Strong cross-cultural communication skills

Any leadership role in a multinational company will require working in a diverse workplace with people from different countries and cultures. It is also possible that some people you will be working with speak a foreign language. 

Meanwhile, research states that meaning may get lost in the translation process. This may reduce the effectiveness of information communicated about the market. 

Since it might be tough to learn and instantly understand a new language, using accurate translation services can help. This allows effective communication with workers and customers in other countries where your firm operates.

Excellent networking abilities

Acquiring networking skills is vital for people looking to work in an international business. Landing a new job is no different from taking a new product to market, except that, in this case, the product you are selling is yourself. 

According to experts, over 70 percent of job opportunities are not published; they are landed through networking. 

This skill makes it easier for existing leaders to acclimatize to the new work environment. Networking can offer invaluable insights into the new market beyond what any market research report can indicate.

Effective collaboration

Success in international business requires effective collaboration. The leaders across departments and countries must be able to collaborate. The company must also be able to collaborate with partners in the new market.

It requires the willingness to learn new things and accept others’ views on solutions. As a leader from another culture, you may need to rely heavily on others who understand the new market. This does not mean you are incompetent. It means placing the company’s interest above your ego.

Interpersonal influence

Every leader, irrespective of the size or complexity of the team they oversee, must be able to influence others. 

This skill is even more important for business executives as they might be in charge of pitching to secure funds or present the company’s goal for a new expansion. You need to know what you are doing before influencing others to come on board.

Workers are best productive when they understand the company’s goals and what they can contribute to achieve them.

Interpersonal influence is a result of good professional relationships, which is only achieved when you can command the respect of your team members. People value leaders that treat every member equally. 

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (also known as EQ) is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions. Emotionally intelligent people can also accurately interpret and influence others’ emotions. 

Many modern businesses value EQ above IQ. Over 70 percent of employers believe employees with high EQ are more likely to stay calm under pressure and manage co-workers with empathy.

There are four competencies you will need to improve your EQ:

  • Self-awareness
    Ancient Greek Philosopher, Socrates, advised, “Know thyself.” Self-awareness is the ability to understand your strength and weaknesses. It also requires you to understand the impact of your emotions and strategic decisions on your team’s performance.
  • Self-management
    Emotions are easier to manage when there are no challenges. Self-management, however, is the ability to be able to keep your emotions in check even when there are challenges that seem insurmountable. As a leader, you are the light of your team; your emotion and body language significantly influence their actions during a hard time. 
  • Social awareness
    Social awareness is the ability to quickly grasp the emotions and dynamics in your organization and new market.
    This is best achieved through empathy, putting yourself in others’ shoes, and understanding why they act the way they do.
  • Relationship management
    This is the ability to influence others. It is crucial for effective conflict resolution. No matter how insignificant, resolving conflicts in your organization as soon as possible is important. Unaddressed conflict can result in gossip and other unproductive activities.

photo: Unsplash

The Bear on How to Deescalate Conflict

If you’re not watching The Bear on Hulu, go. Now. It’s the story of Carmen Berzatto, a world-class chef who returns to his Chicago home to take over his brother’s working-class sandwich shop after his brother commits suicide.

My husband and I love it because it’s all about the restaurant business, which we’re kind of fascinated by from a team dynamics point of view (and my husband worked in a hotel and catering kitchen when he was a teen), but the family drama, tension, acting, writing, and how they make Chicago an actual character are everything. As an Italian-American myself, the family dynamics resonate! And I get to enjoy post-college nostalgia, having lived in Chicago in the mid-’90s.

Some episodes are tough to watch. Your heart will race. The arguing will stress you out.  And some are so poignant, you will shed a tear. So much goodness!

Anyone who’s worked in a kitchen before knows the stress and drama. It’s real. And the show helps educate viewers on restaurant slang. One of which we might all want to employ. Carmen teaches his new head-chef Sydney a great signal to help de-escalate conversations when they get out of control.

We’ve all been in those conversations – at work or in life. They start out civil enough, then someone gets offended, the other person reacts, and pretty soon you’re both shouting over each other and no one is listening.  It’s not productive, and frankly, all it results in are bad feelings and a headache.

Carmen teaches Sydney the American Sign Language sign for “I’m sorry” When he has messed up, wants to apologize, or even wants to take the temperature down in a tense conversation, he makes a fist and rubs in small circles over his heart. 

There is one episode in Season 2 when they are arguing about the menu for the new restaurant they are opening. It quickly escalates. And one of them immediately uses the signal to help them both take a beat and reconnect. They are then able to constructively talk with each other again, not at each other.

What signal can you use for yourself – or create with your team – to let each other know that we recognize things are getting out of hand, and we are sorry for our behavior? How can you create a signal to reset the conversation to something more productive to move forward together?

Photo Credit: Mashed

What Does Psychological Abuse at Work Look Like?

You never knew who would be crying in the office on any given day. Today, it was mine. Again. But I would not give them the satisfaction of seeing it.

See, my anger, powerlessness, and frustration come out as hot tears.  

They used to tell us not to “get emotional” at work. But what happens if you are treated like trash? Gaslit, shamed, mentally exhausted, and not at all eager to deliver great work as a result? You suffer – and so does the company’s bottom line.

Once (well, honestly, twice) upon a time, I had to work under psychologically abusive executives.

I don’t use the term “psychological abuse” lightly. I’m not being dramatic. It feels the exact same way as a mentally abusive romantic relationship I had.

From both work and personal, those scars run deep.

We’re not talking about a manager you get along with, or who has rigorous and unflinching performance standards.  It’s about someone who makes you question your very value, ability, worth – and sanity – on a daily basis.

As a Type A overachiever, this was not a case of a perfectionist boss stretching me to deliver my best work. This leader came into a highly functioning team – a team that had been operating seamlessly for almost six months while the leadership role was vacant – and decimated it.

We were all excited when this leader joined, to finally have someone steering the ship again. To learn and grow from them. To get exponentially better than we already were.

This leader, however, came in and first ignored us, then shamed us, then waged psychological warfare by pitting us against each other and often lying to make comparisons (“So and so turned in their budget plan already, why is yours not done?” PS: They hadn’t turned it in). Literally tearing us apart in every single meeting. 

To what end, I was never really sure.  It never had to be this way. All I know is that we went from a high-performing team to one by one leaving the company. 

Every now and then, I go back to that office in my mind and shudder. We were treated like naughty children, not professionals. Could we improve? Of course – everyone can. But leading with hostility, shame, and fear just never seemed like a sound strategy to me.

What Does Psychological Abuse Look Like at Work?

How do you know when your leader has crossed the line from being “tough and driven” to psychologically abusive?

  • You feel shame and blame. People are shamed in meetings with no warning or reason. Instead of constructive feedback, people are struck silent in embarrassment and shame. The conversation can’t move forward. 
  • Fear rules the workplace. People live in constant fear of the spotlight shining on them. Questioning their skills, feeling disempowered, and turning that abuse inward through depression, alcoholism, and other destructive behavior.
  • Your personal life suffers. You can’t sleep at night. You dread Monday morning, not because of the work but because of this one person. You spend most of your time trying to figure out how you can twist yourself into knots to please them and avoid the abuse (again, the sign of a romantic abuser) Not a great environment for innovation and creativity. 
  • The team starts trauma bonding. When a leader gets off on shame and humiliation and people have to warn and support each other like they are fighting a war, you know there’s a serious issue. Trauma bonding is when we literally feel like we’re in a bomb shelter together, fighting for survival, and it’s ALL. WE. CAN. TALK ABOUT. If toxic leadership dominates your lunchtime conversations and private DM’s, that’s a sure sign of abuse and means we’re all getting distracted from delivering great work.

How Can We Protect Ourselves from Psychological Abuse at Work

Knowing what I know now, older and wiser as they say, I see clearly the issue was not completely us.  This leader was clearly broken inside. 

But sharing advice to “protect ourselves” is hard. It’s a form of victim-blaming because it implies you are the one who needs fixing. 

We should not blame the victim of psychological work abuse, just as we wouldn’t blame the victim in an abusive marriage. This advice is meant to help you weather the storm – until the situation changes or you can get out.

Knowing what I know now,  I would fortify my ability to withstand it (although, frankly, no one should have to). I am more self-confident now and know my strengths and blind spots better so I can stand my ground. I would practice more self-care so my job didn’t define me. I could have sought counsel from trusted mentors outside of the company and might have more clearly seen this power play for what it was:  A desperate attempt by a broken person to inflict pain on others and prove something. 

I would have shored up my emotional intelligence skills to approach this person with more EQ and respond to them in a way that didn’t destroy my mental health.

The irony is that I actually did learn a lot about “the work” from this leader. But it was too high a price to pay. And how much more could I have learned if this had not been the established relationship? When they ended up supporting me and advocating for my promotion,, when I was no longer their direct report, I thought we had gotten through it. Until one final and unexpected attack threw me for a loop again – and I was glad to be moving on to a place where I was appreciated and supported. Where I didn’t have to go to work every day and feel bad about myself or live in fear.

Learn to recognize when your leaders have crossed the line from demanding high performance to psychological abuse.  Don’t be afraid of hard work, fair criticism, and learning lessons as you go. But if it starts to negatively impact your mental health, walk away.

No stellar performance review or promotion is worth that.

If you want to shore up emotional intelligence in your organization to avoid psychological abuse and create more collaboration, let’s talk. I can deliver a dynamic empathy workshop series and strategically advise on an integrated curriculum with my network of talented speakers and trainers. We can build psychological safety, critical communication, and trust building into the curriculum. Just reach out today and we’ll get the conversation going.

Photo Credit: Elisa Ventur Unsplash