A toxic workplace can cause serious damage to a person’s desire and drive to work. Thankfully, there are ways to push back against toxicity and heal from these invisible wounds left by a less than ideal work environment. Dr. Kevin Sansberry and podcast host and coach Elizabeth Perry discuss how to begin the healing process after leaving a toxic workplace. We hear Elizabeth’s own experiences and how she started her healing. We also get insights on setting boundaries and stopping workplace toxicity. Learn more by tuning in, and begin your own journey towards safe workplaces.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
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- Twitter: @ToxicLeaderShow
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.
Follow KEVRA: The Culture Company on Linkedin to keep up with your favorite behavioral scientist, Dr. Sansberry.
KEVRA: The Culture Company is specifically designed and optimized for leaders who are experiencing turnover, low employee morale, and seek to move the needle further with their initiatives. Our organizational culture and inclusion strategies are a leading consulting service that helps you gain increased retention, increased productivity, and a reputation as an inclusive organization, and unlike competitors, our services are underpinned with unique research and experience in the field of toxic organizational culture and how to create inclusive environments that stick.
Have a question for Dr. Sansberry? Visit askdrkev.com to send your leadership and organizational-related questions.
Listen to the podcast here:
Healing After Leaving Your Toxic Workplace With Elizabeth Perry
I want to welcome Elizabeth Perry to the show. How are you doing?
I am great.
I’m going to give space to let people know who you are and what you do.
I’m the host of the Elevate Potential Podcast, where we talk about escaping patterns, embracing your passion and elevating your potential. Through that, I’m also a coach. I do transformational life and leadership coaching. I work for a company called BetterUp, which is a coaching platform that is based on positive psychology and there, I’m a content marketer. I’m wearing a lot of hats but what I love about it is I’m charting my path in life and figuring out what I’m most passionate about. One of which is leadership and coaching. Both have brought a lot of personal growth but also allowed me to see the impact that you can have on the world and on people by pursuing your own healing.
What I’ve found a lot of times in people who have toxic tendencies is they don’t even think about anything they heal in those terms. They are thinking, “I need to endure, compartmentalize, push it down and hide it, whatever that trauma is.” Talk to me about your progression as a leader and how you got to that point of being healing-centric. I want to hear more about that.
Healing centric or even the idea of recovery has always been in my DNA because growing up, both my parents struggled with addiction. I grew up in AA, Alateen and Al-Anon. There’s this constant conversation of bettering yourself one day at a time and focusing on being the person that you want to be.
In college, I ran a nonprofit and I was leading a lot of my peers. That was a big lesson in leadership in the sense that there is a lot more to this than people think. Some things that are on the outside that can seem good qualities to have like being agreeable and always being willing to lend a helping hand. Those things in excess can be toxic as well.
Reading Confucius in college and learning how to stay within the mean of almost everything in life, that this could be applied like staying in the mean can help you be a more centered and grounded leader that people are able to depend on and also know that they believe in them to do their own work, inspire and motivate people to be their best as well instead of looking to you.
We do talk about toxic traits, toxic leaders and all that stuff in the workplace. What was your experience in that arena? Have you experienced and coached through that? Talk to me about toxic leadership.
Sometimes toxic leadership can be a result of toxic workplaces. I was a part of a toxic workplace early on in my career. One of the things to know about toxicity is good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. You can be pushing people too hard. A lot of workplaces especially the one that I’m talking about used fear as a motivator. I was in sales for the first part of my career. Oftentimes, sales leaders can fall into that trap of using fear as a motivator and using the quota dangling above your head.
Sometimes, toxic leadership can be a result of toxic workplaces.
In my career, I had an experience where I was at quota, performing well but I had closed a big deal and then a couple of months went by, I hadn’t closed anything. I was still on quota for the year but not hitting it for the month. I got put on a performance improvement plan and I was told that I was going to be fired in 30 days if I didn’t do XYZ. The 30 days was quickly approaching. The XYZ was very unrealistic. I called because I was like, ”I’m going to have to bow out of this.” I called my manager and my manager was like, “It’s okay. We weren’t going to fire you.”
I realized they were trying to use fear to motivate me to perform better. I decided that’s not the type of workplace culture I want to be a part of. I want to be a part of a culture where they use reward-based systems rather than fear-based systems. A perfect example of this is Monsters, Inc. The whole premise of it is you don’t have to use fear as fuel. You can use laughter and joy instead. That works in a lot of workplaces, especially a lot of sales cultures could learn a lot from that.
You worked at a sales culture and met your quota for the year. From the quarter standpoint, you weren’t meeting the quota but you were good for the year. You got put on a performance improvement plan related to that. Come to find out, they weren’t even going to terminate you or anything like that. They were trying to “motivate you” as it relates to your performance. Let’s talk about diabolical. That doesn’t sound like a place I don’t think anybody would want to work in. What did that do to your level of trust in that system and the people there?
It was over. I’m the type of person where if you show me that you’re trustworthy like, “I’m with you. I’m like your most loyal fan,” as soon as you show me that you don’t have my best interest in mind, the flip is switched. For me, after that experience, it was no more. I left that week because I realized they were willing to dangle my livelihood above my head and that’s not okay. I grew up with trauma and that was a very triggering experience.
There are a lot of cultural aspects of like, “You’ll never make as good money as you make here.” A lot of elitist and cult mentality. When people would leave, they almost felt shines and people would start talking bad about them as soon as they left the office. What that did to me is I realized how much of my identity I had started to put into this workplace culture being from this company. It took 1 or 2 months and maybe even 1 year to detox myself of that.
I’m grateful for what I learned. In every difficult experience, you learn a lot but it did take a while for me to regain my confidence and realize that the badass that I was at that job, I still am that badass. It wasn’t the job that made me a badass. It was me that made me a badass. Healing from that and the trust that was lost, I had to regain that and it was a little bit more critical when looking for a new employer.
That’s a real lesson learned to a lot of younger employees in particular because it seems like in the workplace, a lot of people get out of college or if they didn’t go to college, whatever they were doing 18 to 22, they looked for that career. Individuals tend to become their job. That’s who they are, their personality and what they talk about. They become their job and it’s like, “Your job is not your personality.” How can we decouple who we are with what we do? If we don’t, your job doesn’t care about you the way you think it does. You got put on a performance improvement plan and you were good for the year.
You’ll see how your job cares about you once you put your two weeks’ notice in. People start talking about you and then things start becoming your fault. All of a sudden, you’re like, “What I meant? We were best friends before.” After you leave, you’ll be blackballed in a way or people will even talk about the idea after you leave.
One of the things that I’m curious about is that organization that uses fear as a motivator, did you bring this up to them? Did you put your two weeks’ notice in? What was their response? As it relates to when they were brought to the carpet a little bit or called to the carpet, how did they react and respond?
At that moment, I didn’t know what I was feeling. I was so emotionally, physically and mentally drained that I bowed out respectfully, honestly, out of fear because I didn’t want to have bad blood. I saw these people as God’s almost. I’m not going to lie. I ran into my old manager before I started a new job in tech and we had such a healing conversation. There were apologies and an amazing level of awareness around what was going on.
When you focus on people and not on numbers, you get the numbers that you’re looking for.
One of the things that I’m passionate about is toxic leadership exists. Toxic people can take it a little bit too far because we all have toxic traits. What I noticed is there was a lot of recognition around it like it wasn’t right to treat you like that. We were focused on numbers and not focused on people. In sales specifically, that is an easy trap to fall into because you’re the livelihood of the business. That weight is put on your shoulders but when you focus on people and not on numbers, you get the numbers that you’re looking for.
I call that relationship over results. If you focus on your relationships, you’re going to get the results. Most people who work in the business would probably know how to run a business. They don’t know how to manage or lead people. The gap is there were lots of types of behaviors. One thing for readers that I want to lift up is the notion that you said that we all have toxic traits and sometimes these traits may be in overdrive. There could be somebody who’s very detail-oriented and yet when they manage people, it comes across as micromanaging and things like that. It is impact versus intent. My intention was X but the impact I’m seeing is Y. What do I do if I see that? What would you recommend?
That’s a constant testing process. You have to be constantly looking at, “What are my intents here? What are the outcomes that I’m getting? How can I maybe change my inputs in order to get the right outcome?” I had a direct report in 2020 and my intent was to be very supportive, help this person through their career and get to the next step. At times, I stepped in to rescue and people-pleasing mode. I started to notice that the outcome of that was that my direct report was coming to me with questions that I was like, “You know how to do this? Why are you asking me this?”
I realize it’s because I had jumped in too many times that my director part didn’t feel they could jump in themselves. I started to say, “What would you do? What do you think my answer would be?” Ask a question versus giving an answer. It’s a constant analysis of who is this person that I’m leading? Every single situation is different. We talked about this in the episode that you joined on Elevate. You have to be present in the moment, look at your outcomes and inputs and see, “Do I need to recalibrate somewhere?”
Also being mindful is important because you’ll miss those little subtle cues. When you’re more in touch with your intuition, I feel you’re more able to stay within the mean, recognize your biases and what emotions might be coming up for you. I know when I step into rescue mode and that’s because I’m stressed, in scarcity and I feel like I have to control the situation versus, “Let’s get back into abundance, mindfulness and realize that this whole team is here to help.
If you’re a leader or in a relationship, whatever that relationship can be with another person whether it’s work or not, no news is not good news in a lot of cases because there are a lot of hidden behaviors or resentment. I don’t know about you but there are plenty of times where no news I thought was good news. When in reality, it was built up aggression or emotion especially at work. It was like, “I wish I would’ve known that.”
One of the things I try to tell people is when you’re working with people, make sure you make a conscientious effort to ask how things are. How are we? How are you feeling? Be proactive about that because sometimes, when you hear something, they could have been thinking about that for months and you’re only hearing the boilover and spillover. In order to minimize these toxic environments, leaders need to be proactive and ask staff, “How are you feeling? How has this initiative impacted you?” What do you think about that?
One of the points I want to add to that is if you’re leading anybody in general but especially if you’re leading somebody who’s different from you that has a different background and you’re not getting feedback about your biases or about something that you did or said that maybe hurt their feelings, they probably don’t feel safe with you. I learned that personally. I have led people who have different backgrounds from me. I was so honored when they brought to me like, ”When you said this, you miss the mark here. I don’t feel like we’re being bold enough here. This seems performative.”
I’m in marketing and social media so I’m getting feedback like, “This copy is a little performative.” If we’re trying to celebrate this month or honor this initiative, this comes across as little performative. If you’re not getting that feedback, people don’t feel safe with you. I always feel very honored when I get that type of feedback. Usually, it’s done in the most kind way but if you’re not getting it, I would question whether or not the people around you feel safe enough to tell you that you have a blind spot.
You’re honored to receive it but a lot of times, what I’ve heard from clients of mine that I coach was they’ll bring up something especially if we start talking about race, ethnicity, gender and identity in the workplace. All that brought something up and they got super defensive. “I’m on a coaching and performance improvement plan because I brought something up.” You use the word honored and I love that for people who are reading. That shows me the amount of growth that you had to go through to let those walls down a little bit and not view it as a personal attack. I appreciate that.
If you’re not getting feedback, you need to question whether or not the people around you feel safe enough to tell you that you have a blind spot.
That’s been a growth process too. The first time I came to LA, I was working in South Central in elementary schools. I maybe wasn’t the best person to be mentoring young students from the Black community because there are better people to be doing that work who might be better role models and I got that feedback and then it hurt. I cried. I realized this was White fragility coming out and it’s not about me. It’s a learning process. I’m going to do things wrong but at least I’m trying and going into these conversations. When I get that feedback, I’m like, “At least I’m doing one thing right and showing up as a place of safety for somebody.”
The lesson learned from that is a lot of people are perfectionists. We try to exude that perfectionism in our behaviors and interactions with people. That’s why we get so crushed when we get that feedback. They’re like, “I thought I was perfect because I read this book and doing all this stuff.” In reality, you can read every book and know all the right lingo about race or gender. You’re not perfect and you never will be.
People like to cry, “I’m a bad person.” Get off of that. It’s not the pity train. We’re not looking for pity. We’re looking for what you stated, which is, “I’m going to keep learning. I hear it. I’m going to try to understand and we’re going to move forward together. I appreciate you being candid about that experience. As it relates to individuals who are maybe in the workplace and there may be looking for ways to separate their identity a little more from their workplace and be more mindful about who they are as a whole person, what words of wisdom do you have for everybody?
Set boundaries. The company I worked for has a healthy culture, honestly but I was at Six Flags and we’re under crunch time for a lot of projects. I get an email asking me to do something quickly. My old patterns come up of, “Do I need to go out to the amusement park where I could get better Wi-Fi so that I could do this quickly?” It wasn’t a quick project. It was a project that would have taken me two hours to complete. I’m thinking, “Maybe quickly doesn’t mean I have to do it now.” Maybe I can respond and say, “This sounds like something that needs to be done and a high priority. What’s the deadline for this? I have a full weekend.” That’s exactly what I did.
I figured out the deadline wasn’t until Wednesday. They realized the work that would need to go into this. They realized it was the weekend and they needed to be working on Saturday. I should have delayed sending that email. That’s a good example for me of like, “I have to have a life outside of work in order to be able to define myself outside of work.”
Leadership is a two-way street. It should never be a one-up, one-down relationship.
In order to do that, I have to set very clear boundaries because leadership is a two-way street and it always should be. It should never be one-up, one-down relationship. That has the ability to fall into a codependent pattern. Make sure that leadership is a two-way street and you are setting boundaries so that your leader knows that’s a boundary of theirs. Setting boundaries is key to not over-identifying with your title or workplace.
Another key is surrendering your identity and knowing that you have inherent value outside of the roles that you play in life in general, whether that be a mom, sister, girlfriend, brother, chief experience officer. Whatever titles or roles that you play in life, you have inherent value outside of all of that. That takes a little bit of surrendering of the opinions that others have of you and instead, surrendering to the idea of, “Who I am is okay and enough. I don’t need external validation to determine my value.”
Everybody likes external validation and I don’t want to say that that’s not good to have or look for. It’s good to have goals, meet metrics and look for that in your life but when that becomes your identity, that’s where it starts to become unhealthy. Surrendering to the moment of, “I’m valuable just as I am and that gives me the power to set boundaries so that I can continue to have a life outside of my job, define myself by the art I create in my free time and all of the different ways that I engage with life in a meaningful way.
Boundaries are what you have to do. You’ve eloquently put that example because there are a lot of people who got that email on Saturday and they jumped right to it. Based on your past experiences, it sounds like you’ve learned what the real importance is and that’s your mental wellbeing how you spend your time.
I feel safe enough with that leader to set a boundary because a lot of times, the onus of setting boundaries does fall on employees and not on leadership. We do have to set boundaries but it is on the onus of leadership to create the psychological safety that people feel comfortable setting boundaries. It’s a two-way street.
We teach people how to treat us by what we allow, stop and reinforce. If we set boundaries, it’s for the betterment of ourselves for the betterment of the company. A lot of companies need to understand that and not get offended when it occurs. I appreciate being able to have this conversation with you here on the show. For all the readers, they’ll love to read it. One of the things that I want to give you the opportunity is how can we reach and connect with you?
I have my podcast, Elevate Potential Pod. You can find me on Instagram @ElevatePotentialPod. Listening and subscribing, that’s one of the best ways to engage in some of the ideas that I’m putting out there on the podcast. I talk a lot about my personal growth because I’m conscious of the fact that we’re all growing and we all have something to add to this community. I also do one-on-one coaching and you can find my website in the bio of my art Instagram page. Even in my coaching, it’s a very collaborative process because I have found that the coaches that I enjoy the most are the ones who ask questions rather than the ones who give answers because it allows space for me to come up with my own answers. I need somebody to help me navigate my own mind and come out on the other side with the answers I’m looking for.
What I do in terms of my leadership and transformational life coaching is I’m there to help you navigate. Both listening to the podcast, going on my website and filling out the client questionnaire to become a client, the first session is always complimentary to make sure it’s a mutual fit. You can also find me on LinkedIn. I’m often posting on LinkedIn and for some reason, LinkedIn gets some of my most vulnerable ideas. It’s counterintuitive but I love posting on LinkedIn for that reason because it is a space that needs more vulnerability and I’m there to be the first domino to fall, as Lovie RJ Jones would say.
I’m so happy we had this opportunity to talk. I want to thank you and hope we can connect again in the future.
It’s always such a pleasure to chat with you. I love your energy. I’m grateful to be on here. Thank you.
Thank you for reading.
- Elevate Potential Podcast
- Episode – Elevate Potential Podcast
- @ElevatePotentialPod – Instagram
- Website – Start With Ep
- LinkedIn – Elizabeth Perry
About Elizabeth Perry
I am a creative storyteller with a background in psychology who aims to make a positive impact on my community and in my company. Being a first-generation college graduate, my mission is to empower people to transcend limiting beliefs by uncovering within themselves the human capabilities needed to rise above.
Currently, I am leading strategic brand campaigns across social channels to drive unaided brand awareness and promote a coaching mindset at BetterUp. Additionally, I am focused on fostering organic viral growth through internal and external community relations programs and events.
As an independent coach, I use a transpersonal psychology approach to help clients escape maladaptive patterns, embrace hidden passions, and elevate their potential. I also host a podcast Elevate Potential on those exact topics! Certified through Sofia University and ICF as an Associate Certified Coach in transpersonal leadership & life coaching.