“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” – Fred Rogers
In a not so distant past life, I worked in a series of workplaces that felt awful – stressful, tense, and anxiety inducing – for a whole slew of reasons. The organization was disorganized. The leadership was at odds with each other. Roles and expectations and communications were unclear. My coworkers could also see the clusterf*ck at every juncture. At my lowest points, I felt I had to check the best parts of me at door when I walked into the office. Nothing felt more soul-sucking, yet I kept showing up to it…until I didn’t.
When things at one company started to go awry, I brought up issues to my boss directly, who was also the owner-founder of the company. Of course, I’d also fielded plenty of conversations within the team about many of the issues that we all saw and for some reason put up with for a little too long. I compiled all of my notes and my chutzpah in an email to my boss, asking if we could meet. He agreed willingly, and we met at a restaurant close to the office and talked for roughly two hours about the issues I – and the team – were running into, where the stress points were, where things felt out of integrity, etc. While I wanted to change things for the better – for the company – these issues were also coming up against decisions upon which my boss had based the company for a while. He listened to everything I had to say, asked great questions, and before we walked away with action items, he said to me: “I really admire your bravery for talking to me about these things.” He was genuine. I felt relief.
Years later, at a different organization, I found myself in a weekly finance meeting with my CEO. We were looking at the numbers, which was anxiety inducing at the time, and while considering the current state of the P&L and the two-month forecast as compared with our aspirational goals, I voiced my feelings about what we were looking at: “These numbers scare me a bit” My CEO turned to me and said curtly, “I don’t need you to get emotional about this.” I clammed up. Right, I mean, who has time for emotionality? This meeting was no place for being human in the face of spreadsheets. Some part of me felt even more afraid to say what I needed to say with people that I worked with every day. At that company, I always felt like if I cried – much less simply voiced a feeling – that my job would be on the line. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that felt that way.
(See also: the recent articles by my savvy colleague Sarah Jane – especially her latest which I highly recommend, “Crying is not unprofessional. It’s human.”, where she shares her thoughts on sensitivity in the workplace.)
It’s hard working for someone else, and it’s hard working in a toxic organization when you don’t feel like you have any voice or can do anything to make a positive change. I felt pinched, cut off, divided. Somewhere in the anxiety stressing through my veins and the cloud of fear I lived in at the office, the fear that silenced my voice and dulled my chutzpah, I was divided between my inner convictions and what I witnessed or what I felt I couldn’t speak about. I felt powerless.
What can you do as an employee in a non-positional leadership role in a work environment that’s dysfunctional? How can you find meaningful work that supports your well being in an organization that feels toxic or denies your humanity? Our best work happens when we’re at ease, not stressed out and drowning in anxiety and fear about the status of our belonging in our work environs. The latest podcast conversation with Parker Palmer touches on an important aspect of this, which serves not only an organization’s people, but also greater creativity and innovation. What Parker brings to our attention is the importance of relational trust, or the interpersonal social exchanges that take place in a group setting. Afterall, the fundamental unit of work is a conversation.
He says: “Relational trust is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.”
In my examples, the former company had more relational trust than the latter. In the first company, I felt safe enough to talk to my boss about what was happening for me, versus the other company in which I felt as if anything I said even in confidence would be turned against me. In one, I felt like someone had my back. In the other, I felt like I had to watch my back.
We talk a lot about the notion of shadow in leadership (See also: Podcast Episode #14 on Shadow and Leadership with Parker Palmer), and we spend ample time on this topic at our bootcamps. When a leader is operating from their shadow, I always say that it’s like their disowned unconscious stuff is coming out sideways and the people in their lives become collateral damage. When a leader who uses the organization to project their issues, recreate family of origin stories and dynamics, do their unfinished inner work (unconsciously, narcissistically) – and fail to recognize what they are creating – the organizations toxicity tends to increase. Therefore, as a leader, there’s a moral and ethical responsibility to be aware of one’s shadow – and to prioritize relational trust as part of the team.
People that are heavily shadowed tend to also be heavily-defended, which makes approaching them with feedback challenging, especially if said feedback comes from a non-positional role. In order to make that kind of open, honest communication work amongst colleagues, it requires a culture that creates safe space for that kind of feedback organization wide. This is a culture that builds, maintains and tends to trustworthy relations. A culture that can listen to and hear clear, honest feedback.
In John O’Donohue’s poem, Blessing for A Leader, he writes, “May you have good friends/To mirror your blind spots.” Building relational trust in your organization means prioritizing the creation of relationships that are trusting so that you do just what O’Donohue speaks of – have ears and heart open to hear and see what’s in the mirror. Companies that have this kind of rapport in place know how essential this is to mission success by what this means for interpersonal communication, productivity, and culture.
How can you create a safe space for the conversations that foster relational trust? While relational trust doesn’t demand friendship as a precursor, it certainly requires being authentically human with other humans. When an employee hits an emotional note, listen and ask open, honest questions. Find out what’s important. The purpose of relational trust is to open the door – and the heart – for empathic presence with whomever in the organization has something to say. For the leader, this requires a stance that is other than dictatorial: it demands a willingness to hear what’s being said, and a curiosity to double-click into conversation to really understand what’s going on. It may be hard to hear. It may come as a surprise. You may want to shut it down. But, instead, get curious about your reactions; what part of your shadow may you be glimpsing?
For those in non-positional leadership within toxic and dysfunctional organizations where their point of view is not valued, heard, or seen, you may perceive yourselves as powerless. Talk about tanking cultural morale. Think back to the last time you were shut down by someone in a perceived position of power? Whether it’s your parents, your boss or your investor, some part of us cringes if we feel as if someone it diminishing our existence, as if we or our or points of view don’t matter. If we believe that we are indeed powerless, we remain stuck to the flytape of suffering in organizational misery.
To shift that state of powerlessness, ask how yourself: how have I been complicit in creating the circumstances I say I want to change? Most often, we create the conditions we say we don’t want. Even in the most toxic work environment we have the opportunity to look closely at how we may be contributing to the situation we find ourself in. From there, you may be able to find a solid foothold in a new direction.
Writes Parker Palmer: “No external punishment could possibly be greater than the punishment we impose on ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment.”
When will you give yourself permission to step outside the limitations of powerlessness you find yourself in and stand up and know your worth? When you can say to yourself, as Parker notes, “I’m not going to build a wall between my inner truth and outer representation in the world. I am a worthy human being,” you will live divided no more and act accordingly.