Cat showed up on my calendar interested in joining one of my women’s group cohorts. When I asked her why, she said, “I’ve been in a toxic workplace for too long. I’m looking for another job now, but in the meantime, I have to stay at this company. My confidence has really suffered, and I want to work on getting it back.” Cat, a senior level communications professional, is smart, well-spoken, and motivated. But has lost her mojo to a male-dominated Silicon Valley startup environment that is defined by a constant state of survival. She took the job because she wanted to be a meaningful part of a team, but now she feels more like a doormat.
I’ve heard one too many stories like this in my years of working with women. But it’s not just women who are feeling the effects of toxic workplaces. According to a recent report from the MIT Sloan Management Review, The Great Resignation is being fueled by toxic work environments, with data analysis revealing the top three elements of a toxic work culture: lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion, workers feeling disrespected, and unethical behavior.
If you’re able to resign in the face of a corporate work culture that doesn’t respect you, I applaud you. But not everyone can walk away. For every person who quits, there are many more that have to power through in order to keep food on the table.
So the question then becomes: How can we maintain our self-confidence when we find ourselves in a toxic work environment?
In a recent interview, I spoke to friend and colleague Debra Artura about her work helping women navigate challenging situations in the corporate workplace. Deb is the head coach at Women Rocking Business, is the co-founder of Happy Healthy Couples, and is a “good witch” of sorts in that she gets how to help people, especially women, realign when we get off balance with ourselves and with others.
“We lose ground when we lose our relationship to choice.” —Deb Artura
“When we’re constantly reacting to others who are in a state of survival,” says Artura, “we can lose our center of power and grow defensive. It’s important to remind ourselves that we have a choice in how to respond to every situation.”
The relationship between choice and power is important to keep in mind when considering how to respond in a culture that doesn’t respect you. When you’re in a “do what I say and don’t ask questions” type of workplace, the tendency can be to feel like a victim. But the truth is, we always have a choice in how we respond to any situation.
“For women in the corporate environment, one of the most powerful choices is to own the truth of your power,” says Artura, “and that can feel elusive when you feel at the effect of life and your boss and your co-workers.”
One of the biggest struggles Artura sees in her work is that women are operating at an imbalance when their hearts and minds aren’t aligned. In other words, they’re striving to respond with their intellect to solve the problem, but their emotions are getting the best of them because they can’t ignore the fact that they’re being disrespected. This causes an internal imbalance that, whether we solve the immediate problem or not, leaves us feeling less confident and less likely to respond in a meaningful way next time. It’s only when we can respond from a place of integrity that we feel at choice, and therefore more powerful.
So how can we respond from a place of integrity when we’re not being respected by the work culture?
Welcome everything that’s showing up
Imagine you’re given a not very well thought out strategy at 6pm and then asked to present it in the all hands meeting the next day. You also weren’t brought in on the one conversation that shaped that strategy which, by the way, affects your whole team. How would you feel?
It’s been shown that women underestimate their abilities and performance, while men overestimate both. This is one of the reasons why women often blame themselves when the challenges they’re facing in the workplace feel overwhelming. “Maybe I’m just not good at my job. I can’t handle the stress because I’m not good enough.”
But when we deny what we’re feeling, we undercut our confidence. “We have to welcome all the parts of ourselves because when we’re well integrated, we feel at choice. We feel powerful.” We can’t push away what we feel because we think we have to “just suck this up.” We have to allow ourselves to feel what we’re feeling so we can meet the moment with integrity of mind and heart. Only then can we take the next step.
Reconnect with your self-respect
“I love this idea of calling forth that integrated power of creation,” says Artura. “I am a woman, and I’ve got a womb, which is a source of power. I’ve got this incredible heart, and I’ve got this incredible mind. And when I get all three of these things lined up, I am a force of nature. I really want to own that because for me, transformation is ultimately a state.”
One thing Artura asks women she works with to do when they’re feeling at a power loss is to lean into the back of their chairs. She coaches them to push into their spine while taking breaths to slow down. This literally helps them stay lined up and in integrity, even when the situation around them feels like survival.
“Then whatever I choose, whether it’s a verbal response, or an action response, or a response to make a completely different choice, I’m doing it from this place of alignment with myself. And then we’ve got some self-respect in the conversation,” says Artura. It feels like that’s the piece that a lot of women start to lose in the process of trying to maintain their jobs is that they start losing their sense of self-respect.”
“Reclaim your dignity and composure. No one can take that away from you.” —Deb Artura
“Your dignity and your composure is yours,” Artura says. “Once you’ve reclaimed that, then you can get skillful in how you respond to what’s happening.”
Use your communication skills to respond
A great way to stay centered when responding to what feels like a toxic situation is to paraphrase what’s being said and then ask a clarifying question. This puts the ball in the other person’s court so you can take another moment before responding. It might sound something like this:
“What I heard you say is that you want me to do X, Y, and Z. Did I get that correct?”
Then make it clear that you need a moment to see if you have everything you need to meet the ask. It might sound something like this:
“Let me see if I have all the information I need to fulfill that request.”
Then, after taking some time, let them know what your terms are in this agreement. It might sound something like this:
“I hear your request. I would love to be able to do that and deliver that by noon tomorrow. And there are some things I need from other people on the team to make that happen. Here they are…”
“Just because somebody throws something in your lap, doesn’t mean you have to keep it,” says Artura. “If a toxic boss says ‘Here, do this,’ it’s still our choice to say, “We’re actually playing a game of catch, not just throw at me and…velcro. If you catch the ball, you can take a moment to be with it, think about it, and then toss it back.”
In her work with women, Artura stresses the need to integrate all parts of ourselves so that we can inhabit confidence. “It’s very challenging to sincerely inhabit confidence wholeheartedly if you’ve not done the work to bring those wounded parts of yourself into the fold.” That’s why she encourages women to listen to what’s happening on the inside before taking action on the outside. In other words, breathe before you speak.
At the time of writing, Cat is still looking for a new job. In the meantime she’s using her toxic workplace to grow skillful in how she responds to disrespect.
Are you in a toxic workplace? What are some of your strategies for maintaining your confidence despite disrespect? We’d love to hear your comments.
• • • • •
If you struggle with communicating for impact, or just want to master this skill set so you can be more visible as a leader, check out my live online workshops.