It’s easy to stay in an environment that fosters peace, creativity, and amity. But more often than not, workplaces are a home to toxicity. Be it the stress of having to beat deadlines, or simply just interacting with different personalities, a toxic work environment can, one way or another, take its toll on you. Dr. Kevin Sansberry sits down with The Introvert Leader, Terrance Lee, to talk about navigating through toxicity in the workplace. Taking an introvert’s perspective, Terrance shares how he flourished as a shy, timid guy in the industry and how he empowers others to tap into their own inner leadership potential. If you have ever doubted yourself, or ever thought that you had to be extroverted to be successful in a toxic environment, it’s time to awaken the leader inside you because the truth is; your introversion is your superpower.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
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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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.
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How Can Introverts Navigate A Toxic Work Environment? With Terrance Lee
Introversion is a personality trait characterized by a distinct focus on internal feelings rather than the external environment. As it relates to leadership, there are countless materials and books focused on introverted leaders. This episode is focused on how introverted individuals can navigate toxic work environments. During this episode, I had a conversation with introverted leadership expert, Terrance Lee. We discussed various aspects of introverted leaders including examining how they can excel at work and breaking down misconceptions that might exist. Look out for his upcoming book, Quiet Voice Fearless Leader: 10 Principles For Introverts To Awaken The Leader Inside. Let’s get to it.
We have Terrance Lee, the Founder of The Introvert Leader. How are you?
I’m doing well. How about you?
I’m excellent. I’m happy that we’re going to be able to have a conversation about introversion and being introverts. What a lot of people might not know about me having a show, being a keynote speaker, and being paid to talk a lot is I’m introverted. I’m so happy to see somebody that’s focused on introversion, especially as it relates to leadership.
I appreciate you having me on. When I saw your show, I was intrigued. Your content is great, so it’s much needed.
I appreciate that. Tell us a little bit more about who you are and how you got into the work that you do.
I like to start at the beginning. When I was a kid, I was very social. I was always the first one in class to raise my hand when the teacher asks a question. I go to the chalkboard and write out my answers. I always had a lot of friends, talked a lot, did a lot of different activities, and things like that. That all changed when I got to middle school. At the age of thirteen, I was in a choir at school and I was also playing basketball and doing different things. A choir director says something to me one day at school that damaged my confidence in a lot of ways.
After that, I changed. I started to sit at the back of the class. I would know the answer to the questions and I wouldn’t raise my hand. When I was around friends and different people, I got a lot more reserved and timid. I’m thinking about things before I would say them. That continued from the time I was thirteen, going through high school and even going into college. I would have my friends and my social groups and everything like that but they would be a lot smaller. I would have my tight-knit group of folks that I was close to. As far as any type of leadership opportunities or speaking in front of people or anything like that, I wanted nothing to do with it.
I majored in Engineering in college at Florida A&M. When I graduated, I took on a role at Lockheed Martin in Dallas. I got in situations where it was sink or swim. I was in these opportunities to speak up in meetings and present in these rooms with these smart engineers and people. I was super nervous to do it. In one instance, I got forced to in a way because somebody put in their two-week notice and he was going to give a presentation one day and I was his backup. It was like, “Terrance, you are going to do this or you know what’s going to happen.” I ended up doing that presentation and it went very well.
Don’t try to be anyone else. Just be authentically you and come to acceptance with that.
I gained a lot of confidence from that. Fast forward to where I am now, I’m a Functional Manager for a team of engineers at a Fortune 500 company. I’m also a Program Manager, so I manage a multimillion-dollar program for a very large team of engineers, contracts and finance teams, all while continuing to have an introverted nature. What I learned through this journey is that I am introverted. I have a personality that is not like the person that is the loudest voice in the room.
The one that’s going to burst in a room and start giving orders and things like that, that’s not me. However, I’m an effective leader and a good leader. The whole purpose for Introvert Leader, my platform and what I do is to empower people that have introverted personalities to realize that not only are there strengths to being an introvert, but it can be a superpower when you learn how to use it right. That’s the purpose of my platform and what I do.
Were you introverted before the sixth grade and the choir or did it manifest based on the comment?
In the process of writing my book, I’ve done a lot of thinking about that. I always had an introverted nature because I was always the type that when I would be by myself, I would draw a lot. I used to like to write and do a lot of different things by myself. Even before that incident, I always enjoyed that alone time. I always enjoyed that time to be creative and have that time to myself. It was always there. What happened was that incident, in a lot of ways, made me go into a shell. As opposed to enjoying the alone time and everything, I was in a space where I don’t want to have anything to do with leadership or speaking up. That’s when the shift happened.
Based on the comment or what have you, it heightened something that was probably already there. That’s great to hear in particular because I’m introverted and I grew up with a stigma that if you know the answer you need to speak up, how you are going to be heard, how you are going to be seen type of deal. What do you think about that stigma that manifests in a lot of introverted people?
That’s a very common thing. I heard it a lot with kids. My family is majority extroverted people. Back in the day at my grandmother’s house or uncle’s house, everyone is talking and cutting each other off and interrupting. There are loud conversations. If you’re not like that, you’re in the room. Society puts a lot of focus. They assume that people that talk a lot are leaders. That person talks a lot so they’re more outspoken or a go-getter. There are all these labels that are associated with people that may talk more, and then this pressure gets put on introverts too, “You need to speak up or you need to say something to get your voice heard.”
Sometimes we just might want to think. Sometimes we might be thinking about what we want to say. Sometimes we may not have something to contribute to the conversation. It doesn’t mean that we’re not attentive or listening. It’s just we’re taking everything in. We’re observing or watching what’s going on. It’s a big misperception that society has because people can take that to mean we don’t have value to add. That’s a very big misperception and myth that’s out there around introverts.
To piggyback on that, we also design work to favor extroversion. If you had a problem to solve, people might create a meeting to talk it out where I might not be an extroverted thinker. I might be an introverted thinker where I need to process before the meeting, but we don’t design for both modalities. Being on the show, you know a few of the episodes. You know the vibe of the show. We’d like to talk about what many shows don’t talk about. I wanted to know first off, what is your experience or foray into the topic of toxic leadership when you hear that?
I’m in the defense industry, so working with military contracts and customers. I’ve experienced a number of different types of leaders, very effective leaders and bad leaders to be honest. Some were extremely extroverted, some were more introverted, all over the spectrum. From a toxic leadership standpoint, there are a few stories that stick out to me. In one prior program that I was on, I was a project engineer and I was a technical lead for a large team of engineers. It was a lot of pressure. There were tight deadlines to meet and different things are going on.
There was a particular chief engineer that we used to report to one of the programs. Day in and day out, we would be working, going to check on these different aircraft, running around the facility, talking to different people, me and the other project engineers getting all these things done. We would go to these meetings and we would brief him on what we had done for the week and status him on how things were going. After some time, I started to notice that he was typically in his office when we would be going around doing all these different things, running around, getting the status, and making things happen.
We would come to this meeting and status him, and then he would be in the office, drinking his coffee and reading the newspaper. I started to notice that. It was interesting because one day, he came to me after a particularly hard day. I had breached some slides to a customer and he printed the slides off and he showed me that I had missed putting a period at the end of a sentence. He’s like, “Terrance, I’m going to need you to get this together. This reflects on our group and the company.”
I’m sitting there thinking to myself, “Are you serious? I’ve been working since 3:00 AM. It’s now 5:00 PM. I worked a complete full day. I’m exhausted. Not to mention, I had a one hour commute at the time and had a brand-new son to take care of with my wife, and you’re talking about a period at the end of the sentence. You’re not giving any kudos or any thanks for any of the things that have been done. You’re focusing on this and you’re not in the trenches with us getting stuff done.” That experience rubbed me the wrong way, but it also was good for me because it showed me the exact opposite of what I wanted to be as a leader.
You have to learn to push boundaries and step out of your comfort zone to a certain degree.
I appreciate you sharing that vulnerability and that story. That’s helpful because I’ve experienced where many leaders who have inclinations of toxic behavior will point out, “You’re missing a period. It’s quality. Excellence.” We got a spell check for that. We can fix that. That’s easy. My take on that is a lot of people may be missing the big picture of what you said.
You were breaking your neck to get the 99% of the document and deliverables complete while also the team was watching that the leader was not in the trenches with everybody, and was not reciprocating the work that you all did. You didn’t get help at the onset of creating it, but you also didn’t get any kudos for all the work that you did. All you got was criticism. That is a message that a lot of people need to hear about related to leadership. Leadership is not just the title one has or the fact that they have the office.
I talk a lot about the difference between management and leadership. A lot of people can be managers. You can get the title of being a manager. Their name is on an org chart and people look at them as they’re in a certain position, but a leader is something different. A leader gets in the trenches with their team. A leader puts their team first. A leader is always looking for opportunities to help people grow and succeed. Leadership and management are different.
One of the things to think about psychologically is managing is what you’ve experienced. You were being managed. I would guess that you weren’t being led because it doesn’t sound like people followed this leader. You do what they said but it was because you were being managed. You weren’t following. You weren’t actively and proactively following. You said, “I learned what not to do it. I want to operate the opposite of what I experienced.” I like that story because it shows a turning point in your leadership career. One of the things I’m curious about as we talk about toxic workplace environments and toxic behaviors, how can introverts navigate those environments?
Having an introverted personality, this first thing may sound a little cliché but it’s so key. It’s that if you have an introverted personality, accept and love the fact that you’re an introvert. The reason I say that is because for so long, I thought that something was wrong with me. I thought that I had a problem, and I had to be someone else. I had to be the loudest voice in the room because that was my perception of leadership, to be honest. I thought I had to change who I was to be successful in my career. A lot of it was the success that I had on that aircraft program.
They would tell me that they appreciated my leadership and what I was doing. I was doing this while maintaining my type of personality and the way that I am. It gave me the confidence I didn’t have before. The first step is to love who you are. Don’t try to be anyone else. Be authentically you and come to an acceptance with that. One of the other things that I will say is to a certain degree, we do have to learn to push boundaries and step out of our comfort zone. When we say this, a lot of times as introverts, we hear that to mean, “You’re telling me I got to be an extrovert.”
That’s not necessarily what it means. In my case, I didn’t want to do that presentation. There have been a lot of times where it’s a room full of people and I’m nervous. I’m like, “I don’t want to do this. I’d rather sit in the crowd and watch someone else do this.” I continue even now to push through those thoughts and moments. Every time I do it, I feel glad that I did it. I’m happy that I did it. I learned something from it and it’s a good experience. Even if I don’t do the best job in the world, I’m always learning with every single experience.
As an introvert, we have to find that balance between, “I’m going to be who I am. I’m going to be authentic. I’m introverted and I love that. At the same time, I’m going to look for times to push my boundary and step outside of my comfort zone. If I don’t want to speak up in a meeting, if I’m nervous, maybe I’m going to go ahead and speak up this time. I’m going to get that thought out to the world that I have. I’m going to add that value.” It’s being willing to step out of the comfort zone at times but balancing that with being authentic to who you are.
One thing to lift up here as it relates to introversion and extroversion is introversion is not necessarily meaning someone is a bad speaker or bad at speaking. They could be more talented than the “extroverted” folks, but it’s more so an inclination or an innate predisposition. I started as an introvert me. This is how I show up. That needs to be said because some people may make that assumption about others as we talk about introversion.
Being confident in general, that’s a big misperception also. It’s like, “Introvert means not confident or introvert means somebody can’t be a good speaker.” That’s complete nonsense. That’s not true. Some of the best I’ve ever met and heard were very introverted. That was their personality. I’m glad you said that.
Tell our readers a little bit about in situations where an individual has a toxic leader or work environment that they might not be meeting their needs, what can an introvert do to voice that? What are some things to think about? The answer would probably be similar to what an extrovert would do, but it’s going to take a little more for an introvert to do it. What advice would you have for them?
That can be a tough one because I know that sometimes those situations are uncomfortable because I’ve been there. I know those situations and what they are. I’d be honest and say that in the past, there are times that I was in toxic situations and I kept working through it and accepting it. Where I am now and what I would tell someone at this point is situations like that are going to take away your peace. You don’t want to stay in situations like that. The choice is to either stay in the situation and work through ways to correct it or to leave the situation. If you’re in a situation where you’re going to stay there, then there has to be some correction or change in course in the situation.
Even if you don’t do the best job in the world, you’re always learning with every single experience.
That can be done in a few ways. I’ve had to have some direct conversations with people on my team, not about the ways that I was being treated, but the way that I saw someone else being treated on my team. I had to have some tough conversations like that. Those conversations are uncomfortable. Some people don’t want to have them. As introverts, we have to value our peace and the peace of our situation over that discomfort. The best way to do it is to have very direct conversations, “Just so you know, when you said X, Y, Z or when you did this or that, that made me uncomfortable. I appreciate it if next time you can try to do this or that.”
Some people are completely closed off to changing. They’re set in their ways and they’re not going to hear you. There are a lot of other people that maybe they’ve never heard someone be honest and tell them that. You being direct and letting them know that, they might say, “I never even thought of it that way.” They’re going to appreciate the fact that you told them. That’s the two approaches. It’s having direct conversations because you don’t want to affect your peace. If the situation is so toxic and bad, the person is bullheaded and you know there is not going to be any resolution, then sometimes the best answer is to leave and go in a different direction.
Using that example that you gave out, let’s say you were in a work environment where every conversation or decision has to be a meeting, and you might want to contribute in a different way. Maybe have a one-on-one conversation, so it’s less extroverted, “Can we have a one-on-one conversation? Is there a way that I could submit my feedback before the meeting like ahead of time so I can get time to process it and think about it on my own versus having to brainstorm because I want to show up the way I want to?” That would be a great technique based on how you talked about that. What do you think?
That’s something that I do now. The other thing too with many introverts in our personalities, when we’re in these meetings settings where it tends to be more people, the brainstorming may be different than when I get to think to myself. I get to have that time to myself. Maybe I have a one-on-one conversation with the person that’s leading that meeting, and we talked through my thoughts in that way. A lot of times, I’ve had conversations with people on my team. When I talked to them and it’s just us talking, it’s amazing the thoughts that come out.
There are certain things that they’ll say or talk through and I’m like, “This person is sharp.” They get in a meeting setting and maybe they don’t say anything. It’s not that they’re not sharp and don’t have ideas. I know that probably more because I have a similar personality. People in the room or on Zoom call may assume, “That person has not a thing to add.” It’s not true. It’s just in different settings and we may operate in different ways. I agree with you on that.
The lesson learned here for leaders that you alluded to is leadership should try to get to know how their employees process best. One of the things about introversion and extroversion is that extroverts like alone time too. Introverts like people too. It’s what drains us and what gains us. It’s not like you’re unable to but as a leader, how can you find out how your employee processes best, and then how can you create an environment where they’re going to get their peace and be able to speak up when it’s comfortable, and how it’s comfortable for them? That’s a great exercise for leaders all across the country. Talking about introverts and those who are seeking to climb the corporate ladder, those who are seeking leadership positions and more from their work, how do you think introverts can excel at work? What are some things they can do and think about as it relates to their career?
There are a few strengths that I believe introverts have that are an advantage to advance up the corporate ladder and make certain steps that oftentimes we don’t even think about. One thing is the gift of observation. This is one that I use all the time and people don’t even realize I’m doing it. As introverts, we’re natural thinkers a lot of times. When everyone else is talking and these conversations are going on, the feverish pitch and back and forth, we can be in those moments and observing everything that’s going on.A lot of times what I’ll do is I’ll sit in a meeting or I’ll be on a call and I’ll listen to all the different thoughts and the opinions on the things that are going on. I’m processing. That ability to process, observe and catch things that other people are missing and may not be thinking about is a strength. When you’re able to do that, you step in and you do say something, you do add your value, then that gets noticed. You start to get noticed as being that person that is observing and noticing things that are missed. I started to get that reputation and that was a big help.
There are other people I know that are introverted leaders that have done the exact same thing and that’s what they do. A very big key is using your introversion and your gift of observation as an advantage. Another thing that I’ll say is the ability to be calm under pressure. It’s not to say that every extrovert isn’t calm under pressure and every introvert is. In general, most introverted leaders that I’ve met in my career have the ability when everything is going bad and wrong to have a certain calmness. The way the leader is going to be is the way the team’s going to be.
If the leader is calm, then the team is going to be calm. I believe that having that calm personality helps people in their career and advance. That’s another one. Another thing, and this is something that anyone can do, it’s just effort. One thing that I’ve learned and noticed is whether you’re extroverted or introverted, whoever you are, if you’re the hardest worker in the room and has the most to contribute and is going all out for your team and the goal, then ultimately that gets noticed. Anyone can do that, whether introverted or extroverted. If you’re giving 110%, then you’re going to set yourself up to win at the end of the day. Those personality traits and then mixed with hard work ethic, that’s a big difference that can help you advance.
I love the fact that you’ve so eloquently illustrated how introversion can be viewed as a good thing because a lot of times, most of the leadership research looks at charisma. It’s charisma-driven like what a leader looks like and how they are able to influence others where there is power from an introverted perspective too. Thank you for lifting it up. You’re now my introversion guru because I don’t meet too many introverted leaders. That’s awesome. One of the things I’m thinking about is, what words of wisdom would you leave for our readers?
I’m going to go back to the authenticity. The reason that’s so big for me is that I personally struggled with it for so long. Realizing you are enough whatever your personality is. If you’re reading this and you’re introverted, you don’t have to be anyone else to be successful or to reach your goals. You have some unique skill or value to add to any situation. Focusing and honing in on that is so key. Never compare yourself to anyone else and what anyone else is doing.
Toxic situations are going to take away your peace. You have the choice to either stay in the situation and work through ways to correct it or to leave the situation entirely.
You have power and strength, focus on that. That’s a big one. Tying into the theme of the show, if you are in a toxic environment or you find yourself around toxic leaders, realize that your peace is more important than that job or business. If it’s a toxic situation, it either has to get corrected or you have to get out because your peace is too important.
One of the things as an introvert, I want to ask you this, what is your ideal method of recharging for yourself? What do you do?
I’ve got a routine. The best morning for me is getting to wake up and run. I love getting a good running and then reading a book. For me, that charges me up for the day. As far as recharging, let’s say I’m around a bunch of people or some social event and I want to get away, again, reading. It’s a big escape for me. I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I love to read. Writing is the other one. Those are big things that help me to recharge.
I wanted to ask you that because I wanted people to know that you have a thing. I do too. Mine is working out as well. It feels weird when you don’t do it. You’re off that whole day or week. For the words of wisdom piece, I wanted to add, we should all solidify our recharge whatever our rituals are as introverts. Extroverts need to do it too. As introverts, you talk so much about inner peace because that’s a thing that we value. It’s a tangible thing for a lot of introverts, that inner peace. I wanted to lift that up in this part too. Where can we find you? How can we reach you on social media? What else are you working on that we should know about?
I’m on Instagram, @TheIntrovertLeader, Twitter, @IntrovertLead. I also have a book that’s out, Quiet Voice Fearless Leader: 10 Principles For Introverts To Awaken The Leader Inside. That’s available on Amazon. If you go to my website directly, QuietVoiceFearlessLeader.com, it’s available there in paperback and eBook. I’m also on TikTok, @TheIntrovertLeader.
I want to thank you, Terrance, for having this conversation with me.
I appreciate you. This has been great. I’m glad you had me on the show. This was a lot of fun.
Thank you all for reading.
- Quiet Voice Fearless Leader: 10 Principles For Introverts To Awaken The Leader Inside – Amazon
- @TheIntrovertLeader – Instagram
- @IntrovertLead – Twitter
- @TheIntrovertLeader – TikTok
About Terrance Lee
Terrance Lee, AKA The Introvert Leader had always avoided taking on leadership roles in his life. At the age of 13, an experience occurred which caused him to doubt his ability to speak in front of people, and caused him to shy away from the spotlight. This worked for Terrance until he eventually had to learn leadership skills by necessity at his first engineering job out of college.
When he had been working in his first role for a short time, his mentor put in his two-week notice. Terrance then found out that he had to take his place presenting to a group of experienced engineers and pilots for a highly technical review. Despite feeling extremely nervous, the meeting that Terrance led went well; which gave him a giant confidence boost.
Since then, Terrance has taken on many leadership and management roles as an introvert at several Fortune 500 companies in the defense industry, with proven results. He utilizes his platform to empower introverts to tap into their own inner leadership potential and is never shy about sharing the tips that he has learned throughout his journey.