You Are a Hot Mess AND a Masterpiece

“You can be a hot mess and a masterpiece at the same time.”  Hannah Corbin, Peloton.

A few months ago, Hannah Corbin uttered these words on a Peloton ride, and they stopped me in my tracks. Metaphorically, of course. I kept pedaling.

I can’t recall the context but I think it was about letting yourself “get ugly” in order to grow. No one looks their best when they are red-faced, dripping with sweat, and struggling to cycle up a steep hill. And yet – doing so, helps you chip away at the work of art that lies beneath. 

That when you try, fail, get up again, strain, get uncomfortable, get scared, yet keep moving forward, you are working toward becoming your own masterpiece. 

AND not just working toward it. You already are a masterpiece.

It felt like she saw me. I feel like a hot mess most days, while I’m striving to be a masterpiece, a better person. It sometimes feels like everyone else has it together but me.

But we’re never just one thing or the other, are we? We can be two opposing things at the very same time. We can be striving and struggling while still being the best version of ourselves. 

That’s the journey we’re all on, whether you’re hopping on a Peloton bike, or trying to be a better parent, or seeking to coach and inspire your team with empathy. It’s a process. And just because you’re not at your ideal goal (which is fictitious anyway), doesn’t mean you are not both a hot mess in progress and closer to your destination.

And it also doesn’t mean you don’t have impact along the way, either. 

Even if you don’t believe you have perfected being an empathetic leader, human, or parent, it doesn’t mean you are not impacting lives yet. YOU ARE.  You are making incremental differences and changes. People notice when you see, hear, and value them. They are affected by your grace and compassion. They are moved to perform, deliver, innovate, and start their own journey to being more empathetic.

Don’t give up or assume it’s perfection or nothing. Just making the attempt day after day means you are a masterpiece. And if you are stumbling along while you do it, that’s okay, too. Both/And.

Photo credit: Ave Calvar, 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

Are You Outsourcing Empathy in Your Organization?

My 9-year-old son recently left a note on his dirty breakfast dishes:

Can u pls take care of this ☹️Thanks

The fact you must know is that he placed the dishes on the counter right above the dishwasher. The ultimate in lazy maneuvers. I mean, writing the note took him longer than putting the dishes away!

While this provided a great laugh over on social media, it got me thinking about the primal nature of laziness and how it shows up in our organizations.

We see laziness as the customer service rep who can’t be bothered to listen to your real issue and look into possible options.  It’s just easier to tell you nothing can be done.

We see it in the leader who claims that adopting a more empathetic approach is too hard and takes too much time and then falls back on the old ways of doing things. Which are dying, BTW.

We see it in the colleague who decides getting to know other team members is a “waste of time” and forgets the importance of building relationships and connections in order to get things done.

So that is the answer?  Here are some options leaders like to think they have:

  • We outsource empathy to HR
  • We outsource empathy (hopefully) to AI
  • We strengthen the muscle ourselves

Let’s parse these out:

Trying to outsource empathy to HR is like a parent trying to outsource love to their child’s teacher. It doesn’t make any sense. Do they outsource kindness, courage, and effective communication? The point of empathetic leadership is that your team members know you, their leader, have their backs and see, hear, and value them. That is the only way for you to reap the benefits of empathy, including increased engagement, performance, loyalty, and creativity. It needs to be woven into the way we interact with each other. It’s not a need I “go to” someone else to fulfill.

Trying to outsource empathy AI is trickier. There are empathic AI technologies available that are helping organizations strapped for resources or staffing to provide individualized guidance and interactions in industries such as healthcare, higher ed, and finance. But the organization’s leaders have to strengthen their own empathy in order to build it into the AI models and ensure the holistic customer experience is consistent and engaging. 

Strengthening your own empathy is the smart choice. Just like going to the gym, you can build that innate human muscle if it has atrophied. You just need to put in the reps.  This is why I wrote The Empathy Edge and speak at leadership trainings, keynotes, and customer events. To clarify what empathy looks like at work (and what it is most certainly NOT), and give you actionable tips to strengthen your empathy. The results may not be immediate (who gets six-pack abs on the first day at the gym?) but over time, this is the more sustainable option that you will carry with you to great success, no matter what team you’re leading or what role you are in.

If you’re tempted to outsource empathy, please think about the reason why.

Are you too scared or feel too vulnerable to connect with your people or customers with empathy? If so, you may need to do some work on your own strengths and blind spots. And what causes that fear. Is it insecurity, defensiveness, low self-esteem?

Are you strapped for time and overwhelmed? If so, perhaps prioritization is the issue and an understanding that the work of leading IS connecting and engaging with your people. If you don’t have time for that, you may need to reassess how you spend your time. 

Do you think machines can “do it better? If so, who is teaching these machines? Where are the inputs coming from? And what happens when people interacting with AI dip in and out of workflow between humans and machines? We abhor inconsistency. That seems like a big risk you don’t need to take that could have catastrophic implications on your customer or employee experience. And also, no, to the question above. Empathy is an essential human trait about human connection. Machines will never be able to fully replicate it, even if they are able to imitate it in some scenarios.

Empathy is the most important leadership skill going into the 21st century. You can definitely augment empathy by shoring up your HR team and investing in empathic AI solutions. But you don’t want to outsource it without building it yourself because if you really believe that is possible, then you’re making yourself obsolete.

Photo Credit: Maria Ross

Gratitude Leads to Empathy

The reports are in. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are hearing more and and more about how having an attitude of gratitude enhances our lives – and our performance.

This is not some simple hack of Pollyanna thinking. Studies show that a sustained practice of gratitude improves heart health, increases resilience, improves sleep, provides great mental well-being, and even improves overall health and well-being.

Gratitude increases our emotional intelligence and empathy.

Why?

When we practice gratitude, we get out of our selfish center and notice what is around us. Including other people. I personally find gratitude grounds me. It literally causes me to slow down, lower my blood pressure, and calm my monkey mind.

Pausing is essential to building empathy. In order to see things from another person’s perspective, we’ve got to be able to SEE them, HEAR them, NOTICE their tone, body language, and facial expressions. 

Steadying yourself to think about what you can be grateful for enables you to slow down enough to notice who and what is around you.

In my leadership trainings, I often talk about the need to slow down. Going so fast is making us less effective and productive. Quite frankly, when we’re racing (when I’m racing), I tend to do a half-a** job at any one thing! You may feel this, too.

I’ve talked about this with leaders on my podcast before. That need – but more importantly, that ability – to force yourself to slow down in the face of pressure, stress, and chaos. Some of the most impactful interviews I had about this were with Paul Marobella, when he spoke about leading through crisis. We’re talking 9/11, the financial downturn of 2008, and most recently COVID. And Chris L. Johnson, who speaks about how when leaders pause, they win. I highly recommend you check out their episodes. 

This month, we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States. Despite this holiday being fraught with misinformation and revisionist history, I believe it’s valuable that we honor the truth AND take that needed step back to be thankful. Thankful for what we DO have, for those in our lives, for any privileges we enjoy, and to take that step back to slow down and use our senses.

That is how we can gain emotional regulation and connect better with those around us. Whether coworkers or community, friends, or family. Embrace gratitude wherever you can and see how it enhances your relationships with others and yourself going forward.

Photo credit: Maria Ross

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

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

Change is Hard – Even When It’s Good For Us

My son loved his play kitchen when he was a toddler. His toy groceries, pots, and pans came to life for him, so he would bake cakes, fry up eggs, and offer me and my husband dinner, which usually consisted of waffles, a chicken leg, asparagus, and a side of fries – and chocolate milk.

As he got older, he played with the kitchen set less and less. But the thought of donating it terrified him. Especially since his world turned upside down in the Pandemic. One day in 2019, he was in kindergarten, playing with his friends. The next, he was taken home, away from his friends and school, for many, many months – and had no idea why.

As he neared 6 and 7 and he went back to somewhat normal life,  he still clung to what he knew, refusing to make any changes. And that meant we could not give away a single toy or book without drama. Despite telling him we wanted to make room for new toys and games – and bring happiness to another child – he wouldn’t budge. And so the toys collected dust and took up room.

I get it. Change is hard. Even when it’s good for us. Even when it’s worth it.  Even for adults. (TWEET THIS!)

Why?

Change requires us to lead the status quo behind. And that makes us uncomfortable. The status quo is what we know. It’s why moving cities and developing a new routine is hard. It’s also why seasoned leaders sometimes have a tough time embracing a new paradigm of emotionally intelligent and human-centered leadership. Even though our brains know we might land up in a better place, our hearts don’t want to let go. And our brains are wired to exert the least amount of effort on actions and activity – change requires us to think harder again, for lack of a better phrase!

Change means we risk failure. We may not know how to expertly navigate the change. What if we do it “wrong”? What if we cause more harm than good? What if we look like an idiot? What if we don’t know the next right step to take? This often happens to people trying to strengthen their empathy. What if I offend you with all my questions? What if I appear weak? What if someone walks all over me? All valid fears to feel – but also myths about what empathy really means!

Our brains understand the need and desire for change. But it doesn’t make it any less scary and hard.

So I invite you to calm your heart when facing change. We should allow ourselves to feel the emotions associated with it fully. Denying them is pointless and counterproductive. We can grieve the loss of the status quo or our idea of comfort by focusing on all we gain when we change.  And we can seek support as we make the journey – and celebrate achievements along the way by measuring success.

My son has eventually learned the power of decluttering to make room for new interests. He has learned how happy his old toys can make another child. And yes, he gets half the money if we sell the items – no one said you can’t incentivize change!

The only way to live, evolve, and grow is to experience and embrace change. The alternative is to stay stuck and stop learning. And really, who wants that? What is the point of life if you live and work that way?

Photo credit: Magnet.me on Unsplash

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