No one likes to be the butt of a private joke. It’s behaviour that contributes to allowing contempt to flourish in a system.
One of my clients Sarah* was nervous about a presentation—the first one at her new company. With over 100 people in the room Sarah knew that first impressions would be made and confirmed.
She was conscious that she came with a reputation for expertise in her field, which for her, added to the pressure she felt.
“Pedestals are for statues, not people!” – Debra Munn
She prepared well. “I over prepared, which always helps me,” Sarah shared.
‘”The presentation went well. I felt so happy as I left the podium, the good feeling I had about the company was reinforced by the warm feeling in the room and the friendly way I was greeted by all. I collected my bag as I had to leave straight after the presentation to see a client – not ideal as I would have like to stay – however, I had got there early and met lots of people, so that felt okay.. I walked out and I felt great! You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was happy with my presentation and delighted that I had joined the right company!
“I realised I had left my notebook on the podium and as I walked back into the room I heard my name being said by one of the senior managers—he hadn’t seen me.
“Then they all laughed.
“I didn’t hear what they said, but it didn’t feel good. They hadn’t seen me come back in, and when the senior leader who had laughed loudest saw me he looked shocked and embarrassed, and like a ripple that feeling spread through the three front rows of senior leaders.
“I smiled and said I had forgotten my notebook, and left as quickly as I could. Two seconds earlier I was on top of the world, and now I was feeling doubt and rock bottom. I felt embarrassed and made fun of.
“It felt like being at school and the cool kids (which I wasn’t part of) were whispering and laughing at me. I can pretend it doesn’t matter but it chipped away at me. I couldn’t look at them the same anymore, or trust what they said to me from that day on.”
Sarah lasted six months at the company before deciding on a career move to another organisation. We worked together during the gap of leaving that organisation and starting her new role where she has been for a few years now.
There was a lot going on in the mix of this experience that helped Sarah understand her role in the six months that she “battled her way” through; her decision to leave, the experiences she had and the opportunities she missed.
I asked Sarah to reflect back on that time through the lens of a mentor. To share how she would advise someone who experienced the same situation with the benefit of hindsight, experience, unpacking the experience through coaching and the distance of time.
“The first thing is to trust your instinct and look at the facts.
“The facts were that they were laughing at me not with me. There was a feeling of awkwardness amongst the group of senior leaders. The ‘pack’ as I labelled them, which consisted of five key leaders, did engage in poor behaviours. And there were another 20 senior leaders plus another 70+ people who didn’t engage in this or were not aware of what had occurred.
“I reacted rather than responded and stayed in reaction for the six months I was there. I made this situation mean all sorts of things, the narrative I quickly built up was one of belittling and exclusion—I wasn’t accepted in the club. I decided that everyone felt like that, resulting in me also engaging in excluding myself. I felt embarrassed and fell into a familiar pattern of me against the world—I don’t need them—which clearly wasn’t helpful.
“I missed a leadership opportunity. When I met with the chief executive and human resources director at my interview I was given a true representation of the company. There were poor behaviours that were derailing the business, which they were working on eradicating. I became another statistic of this culture rather than being a voice and role model for eradicating it.
“This would have required me to have the conversation about the situation and the impact on the culture of the organisation by what had occurred—of what that meant in acceptance of these behaviours, how it affected performance and gave permission for this behaviour to be acceptable and ongoing.
“Work on your own stuff: The feelings that were ignited in me from my high school years added heat to the situation. I was unaware that I wasn’t separating the past from the current situation. This made it harder to respond and kept me in reaction.”
Sarah showed courage at a personal level by unpacking how she colluded with the situation by inaction and how she may have responded differently. In a sliding doors moment, applying the advice to her younger self, she may still have left the organisation, however, she would have saved herself some angst, created boundaries and role modelled leadership.
It’s tough to work in environments where people engage in toxic behaviours; no matter how much you run the mantra of ‘put your big pants on’, it can still hurt, create doubt and derail confidence. And sometimes the behaviours are so extreme that the only healthy decision is to leave.
If you are in a similar situation to the one Sarah experienced, find an objective trusted person who knows you well. Talk it through and get some perspective on the situation.
Borrowing from Stephen Covey, look at what’s in your circle of control and influence, and dismiss trying to work on anything that is outside of your control.
Make a decision that supports your emotional and physical wellbeing, your growth and learning.
Thank you Sarah for generously sharing your story.
*Sarah’s name has been changed for anonymity
Pollyanna Lenkic is an author, coach, and speaker who works with leading organisations. She is an expert in building high-performing teams. Her structured approach delivers an uplift of 25% in team performance. She is also the author of Women & Success: Redefining What Matters Most At Home, At Work and At Play. To work with Pollyanna go to her website.