Having a mindset of gratitude not only improves your quality of life but also helps you deal with toxic leaders. How? Today’s guest is here to tell you. Dr. Margaret Gary is a business leader, entrepreneur, professor, and author, among many things. In this episode, Margaret enlightens with insights from her book Surviving Toxic Leadership With Gratefulness. She joins Dr. Kevin Sansberry to discuss how to contextualize toxic leadership and view it with the lens of gratefulness. Listen in for an interesting take on dealing with an age-old problem in the workplace.
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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Exploring The Choice of Gratitude With Dr. Margaret Gary
This episode is with Dr. Margaret Gary. She is the author of Surviving Toxic Leadership With Gratefulness. This book is impactful because Dr. Gary is pro as it relates to mental well-being and resiliency is important. It’s based on the literature and the research that she did as it relates to investigating HR departments and, in general, people going through toxic workplace environments.
To be honest, I looked through her work. Gratefulness wasn’t the first word that came to mind as it relates to how to cope in toxic leadership environments and toxic organizational cultures as a whole. It makes sense to me as we look at how can people bounce back and what they can anchor to. I hope you this conversation with Dr. Gary. I know I did so let’s get to it.
Dr. Margaret Gary, how are you?
I am well. How are you?
I’m good. I’m so happy to be able to talk to you on the show. We had a lot of great conversations offline and I love getting to know you. Welcome to the show.
Before we jump into our conversation about gratefulness and the book you wrote, I wanted to give our audience a chance to get to know who you are and what you do.
I’m a business leader, business developer, college professor and entrepreneur. I am heavily into real estate. We’ll get into that later of how I got to that point but I have lots of things in the basket.
Where are you based?
The problem of toxic leadership doesn’t really begin with the toxic leader; neither does it end there.
I am out of Florida.
One of the things about my show is we do focus on toxic leadership behavior, toxic organizational cultures and generally those things that destroy relationships and connection to other people and things like that. What is your experience or purview of the topic of toxic leadership?
I chose to study toxic leadership as my dissertation topic due to my own personal experience as a victim of a toxic leader. I left this job hurt, angry, confused by the leader’s action, as do many victims but equally heard and confused by the actions of that human resource management system in general. Both at the local and corporate levels.
What are some of the things you found in your personal experience that you feel like, “I wish I would have known this.”?
I view that human resource management position as the company police. When I think of the police in a city, I think of an individual who’s under a mayor. However, if a mayor is out speed and drunk driving, this police has the power to control this individual to keep the peace, to make certain that everyone is safe. Through my research, I’ve found the opposite as true in the HR realm.
I discovered that these individuals are often collateral damage themselves. They’re bystanders who themselves eventually become victims due to being a bystander and not being involved as they should be. My research revealed the problem of toxic leadership. It doesn’t begin the toxic leader neither does it end there. Instead, we have to look at these many components, the leader, the follower, the environment of toxicity and that surviving this trauma without healing was unlikely.
When you talk about the environment, the environment can allow certain things to manifest and sustain too. For our HR leaders who are reading this, what are some insights that you gathered based on your experience with them?
I talk about a lot in chapter one, which is courage. That was very important to those individuals having the courage to support. I talk about the dangers of not having that courage and the frankly, the shame of not being courageous. I highlight some of the damage that’s done in workspaces where individuals lack courage within the HR space to support their followers, not taking control of the power or they should have.
One of the things I look at where power is concerned is having knowledge within their realm and sharpening the saw. A lot of these individuals weren’t doing that, understanding the power of interviewing skills, training and development, not for themselves but for leadership. I talk about the architecture in general or structure of an organization and power positions to the culture, policies, norms and different things like that. I try to look to power and courage to be the tools for those individuals to be successful and to save others so to speak.
As you described, a lot of HR people that are in these roles are as skittish of retaliation like you are, the employee. That’s why I focused on an environment piece. Where in the environment or what in the environment can we create to perpetuate people to demonstrate that courage that we talk about and things like that? Thank you for lifting that up. When I ran across your book, Surviving Toxic Leadership With Gratefulness, I was curious about the title and about the genesis of that book. What led you to write the book in the first place?
Surviving Toxic Leadership With Gratefulness is, it’s an account of mine as well as my research participants’ experience with toxic leadership. Along with that research-based perspective on curing toxicity. The book covers five things. We look at courage first. We talk about perseverance, reluctance, healing and then gratefulness, the final chapter in the book.
People ask me all the time, “How do you go back, look at a situation, an experience like this and feel grateful? How do you get to that grateful point?” I point out that achieving this gratefulness is about perspective. It’s about understanding toxic situations. Once it’s achieved, we know that it’s this powerful energy that’s what’s important.
It’s that powerful energy that’s going to improve health, happiness and our overall mental state. It’s about taking action for others, even for those HR professionals, when you get gratefulness out of taking action for others and stepping up to prevent other people from suffering. I write that this place of gratefulness is a choice. That’s important that you choose to make it to this place.
That makes a lot of sense that gratefulness being a choice is also a way to illustrate the power you do have. You have the power to shift. What do you think when people say something like, “In this toxic environment or in this space that I’m in, it’s hard for me to see that light, to be hopeful and be able access that.” Tell some more about that. What I’m asking is, if I’m in this toxic situation, how can I be hopeful that anything is going to change?
This was an interesting piece. Even my interviewing individuals with HR professionals, many of them spoke to this concept that, “I cannot see how I could even access gratefulness. How do I get to that point?” In the book, I write on a piece for Robert Frost, a poem that’s titled Reluctance. He writes a portion of that, “When to the heart of man, was it ever less than a treason, to go with the drift of things, to a yield with a grace to reason and bow and accept that the end of a love or a season.”
Frost is arguing here that reluctance is this natural stubbornness order that prevents us from accepting change. I agree but in the book, I add that reluctance is much deeper than that. It takes on many forms as well and is extremely dangerous, especially when it takes on the form of complicity. Reluctance is that culprit or our inability to achieve gratefulness to get to that point. It’s the reluctance that does that to us. We can’t access gratefulness.
To further answer that question, many people have difficulty accessing gratefulness because they’re reluctant to acknowledge that harm has even been done. There’s some trauma here that it exists. We know that this acknowledgment is critical to healing. You’ve got to first acknowledge something is wrong in order for you to heal. I found this to be true in African-American women, who are most effective according to statistics by leader toxicity. The African-American women tend to marginalize that experience or the remnants of it. The trauma that took place like, “I’m tough. You can’t stop me. I’m purred away. I hold my head up high. I’m going to be okay,” type of attitude.
I can be honest and say that, to this day, there were many things that took place with this leader that I worked with for ten years. I’ve worked with them for nineteen years and ten of which were very toxic. There were things I couldn’t even write about. I didn’t have the courage to put on paper to acknowledge that it happened to me. I write in this area that if we want to survive toxic leadership with gratefulness, we have to continue to heal. We have to finally feel liberated enough to share our strength and courage with others. There’s this constant juggle between healing, courage, strength and liberation, tossing it back and forth and hopefully in an upward angle.
Gratefulness is about perspective. It’s about understanding toxic situations.
The tricky part that happens here is we tend to create self-fulfilling prophecies by avoiding acknowledging something. We try to explain away something, “Maybe it’s me. I’m seeing this situation this way. The environment, it’s not toxic. It’s me. We tend to gaslight ourselves in a way.” I feel like that’s a protective mechanism to avoid the pain.
Another thing that reminded me of is others do that too. Let’s say a Black woman in a workplace setting is going through something. She seeks out support to validate, “Am I the only one seeing this?” Sometimes, she’ll go to people and they’re blind to it. Maybe HR is blind to it or is purposefully blind to it. “There’s nothing I can do. My hands are tied. Have you tried talking to them?” “I’ve tried talking to them.” That goes around a lot in these environments where sometimes, for people to look at themselves in the mirror, they purposely blind themselves for that complicit reason that you talked about. That’s unfortunate.
It adds to then, “I’m on the receiving end of that. I’m speaking with individuals about this. I have someone telling me this isn’t real or toughen up.” To hear that feeds to this idea that, “You’re right. I’m tough. I can get past this. You won’t affect me.”
That’s where that great gratefulness comes in. I did an Instagram live where I was talking about, “Can you use your past experiences instead of as baggage but can you use them as lessons?” I was saying the same thing as you said in the book, “What did you learn from this experience? How can you be grateful for the experience that you had?” Another mental reframe to keep you resilient. What were some surprises that came up as you did your research? Anything that came up that you were like, “I didn’t know that.”
The target was to understand why HR allowed this. “How in the world can the entire HR system allow something like this to happen? I’ve gone up to corporate with this.” I was trying to satisfy some anger that I had there. That was the initial goal. I was surprised to learn then. As I said, I turned it in my book, collateral damage, to learn that these individuals were on the sideline because of a lack of power and the power that was at their reach. They were responsible for not having that power but that they were as timid as I was about it. Individuals that I interviewed HR professionals were crying with me speaking of their own experience and I was in shock. You’re the police.
How are you afraid?
That was definitely a big one for me, then understanding the whole process of healing was a surprising thing to me. I read a lot of books on death and dying. I looked at how they related to this process that you go through in healing. The section of the book I talk about is the job so what’s the big deal? To look at the mental components of that to someone’s not just their employment life, economic life but their social life, how these things crossed over. Those were some surprises for me.
What words of wisdom would you want to leave our audience with?
I would say in that resilience realm. I talked about this in chapter two to build perseverance and resilience, which are preparation tools that give power that’s needed to overcome roadblocks, obstacles and adversity that prevent us from thinking we can’t do something. We need to build that for that reason. I remind readers about the importance of positive communities, working otherwise, the influence and responsibilities within these communities and self-esteem built during childhood that we can give to others. All of these things support us, moving into workspaces.
While I’ve already experienced it, now I know what’s important for my children, for individuals and young people that I cross paths, giving them those tools needed to build resilience and perseverance. I talked about a concept of spiritual muscle in my book that I find to be a steroid or supplement that helps build that as well.
Especially for individuals who are in these situations, maybe in HR or in toxic workplaces, trying to figure out what to do, it does sound that resilience and courage are two big pieces there to walk away from. Thank you for sharing that. How can people get ahold of you?
I’m really happy we got a chance to talk and cross paths. Thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
About Margaret Gary