This episode was great to hear from Melanie Pump‘s personal experience in toxic environments. Hearing the impact of insecurity is an excellent perspective for listeners to learn from.
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Managing Insecurity In Toxic Work Environments With Melanie Pump
This episode is with Melanie Pump. She is an industry-renowned business leader with a strong background in leadership, strategy, HR, accounting and finance. She has supported the success of various companies in technology, consumer services, mining and retail. This episode was great because it was amazing to chat with Melanie as she shared her experiences around toxic work environments. Check out her new book, DETOX: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace. Let’s get to it
In this episode, we have Melanie Pump. How are you doing?
I’m great. How are you?
I am great. Melanie, the author of the upcoming book, DETOX, tell us a little bit about the book.
The book is called DETOX: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace. I wrote it after having been in many toxic work environments myself and seeing the insecurity with one of the most destructive emotions that came out in those workplaces where it’s rarely talked about. That is what got me to write the book.
We’re so excited to have you here. I want to know the author behind the book. Let’s start with you. Who was Melanie Pump and tell us how you got into the work.
I’m the CFO of Plank Ventures. We’re a company that invests in startup entrepreneurs. We fund them and also help support them to grow. My journey to get to where I am now was a bit unique. My family life started out with quite a bit of turmoil right from when I was born. My father went bankrupt unfortunately in the early ‘80s when interest rates skyrocketed up. My family never recovered. I ended up out of my house by the time I was fifteen. I dropped out of high school and definitely had a rocky road.
I realized that I’m a smart person and my family did have good values even though they were having those challenges. I realized I could do better. I went back to school. I got my degree and my Accounting designation. That put me on the path to where I am now. I learned throughout that journey because I started out in a place of significant insecurity myself, coming in as a high school dropout into the corporate environment. I was insecure. I had that imposter syndrome that we all talk about. I had to work my way up, and because of that, I saw the power of a healthy workplace.
I was lucky that the first job I had was at a company for seven years. I had a healthy leader who supported me and motivated me to go back to school and build my confidence. That is how I got to be where I am. Along that journey in my career, I ended up in some toxic work environments and under toxic leaders. That’s where I learned the contrast and the power of when you have a healthy leader. Even someone like me who was a high school dropout and didn’t have a lot of belief in myself, but through the right kind of support, I was able to grow to where I am now from a receptionist all the way to CFO.
Thank you for sharing that context. I want to hear more about your experience. When you think about toxic leadership, what’s your entry point into that?
Lucky for me, it was later in my career, so I already had time to gain my confidence and get my learning about what healthy leadership is. It was quite apparent to me early on when I got into a toxic work environment, all of a sudden I realized that the communication was shut down. There was no transparency. People were fearful of saying what they thought. We only talked about good news. We never talked about bad news. There was significant insecurity.
This is where I started to see this insecurity because, under toxic leadership, people are putting up their defense mechanisms. Rather than thinking about their growth and how they can improve the company, they’re thinking about, “How do I keep myself safe?” Due to the contrast of me having come from supportive leaders, it was glaring to me when I first got into an environment where there was toxic leadership.
You immediately knew something was different. Something was off.In a toxic environment, people think about their safety rather than thinking about growth and how they can improve the company. Click To Tweet
I felt it. I remember walking through that office, the first experience I had with this. Everybody’s head was down. People were fearful of even looking up and engaging compared to the healthy environments I’d been there before, where people would say, “Hey.” They welcome you to their space. It’s very different when it’s a toxic work environment.
When you talk to people in that toxic work environment, did you ever experience the notion that people thought that was normal or they normalized it because you had a contrast? You came from somewhere healthier, but did everybody else just accept it? Tell me what that was like.
One of the big problems is, unfortunately, toxic work environments are so prevalent that there are people who don’t get to experience the healthy ones and think it’s normal. Also, at the same time, we sometimes rationalize that something’s okay, even though it’s not because change is scary. We’ll make excuses for why that person didn’t mean what they said, they’re just quirky or a whole bunch of excuses for why somebody would treat you badly just to avoid having to make a difficult change yourself.
It almost comes up as a defense mechanism. I don’t want to face the truth. I’d rather create reasons as to why things need to stay the same.
I’ve done it myself. Even though I did have this experience, there have been times when I was under toxic leadership. I didn’t want to believe that it was bad for one thing. You don’t want to think that people are being abusive to you. My general belief still, is that most people are good, even the people who are exhibiting toxic leadership behaviors. It’s probably because of the way that they were treated by someone in the past, whether that’s in their personal life or in their work life. I don’t automatically go to this person who is a bully who’s trying to hurt me. I do make rationalizations too. We all do it.
Sometimes we make things seem as though they’re not as bad as they are because there might be a little bit of resentment with ourselves and like, “Why am I accepting this and all that kind of stuff?”
It’s such a good point. When you’re in that kind of situation, too, self-doubt becomes a big thing, especially if you’re under a bully leader, minimizes your success, and points out all your weaknesses. That can really make you start to feel self-doubt and then you can think you’re the problem and your confidence has reduced. You don’t feel empowered to make a change because you feel minimized as a person.
It feeds the imposter syndrome too. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.
That is my belief and what got me to write this book. There are far too many people who are living that way, thinking less of themselves, and going to work every day or now remote working every day, but feeling minimized as a person and lacking confidence because of toxic leadership.
What do you see from an organizational standpoint as you contrast the difference between the healthy environment that you worked in and then the environment you got into that was more toxic and have more toxic behaviors that were prevalent? What do you see that we’re different as it relates to organizational support, HR department and that kind of thing? What do you see relate to a formal structure?
HR is a factor and I talk about this specifically in my book. I call it styles but there’s the old school version of HR and we’ll call it the new school version of HR. I noticed in these organizations that had toxic leadership, the old school HR prevailed. This was a department that was making sure contracts were signed, the policies are put into place, so they could point to if there’s ever a problem, rather than focusing on learning and development. Making sure people were aware of what bullying and harassment were and also empowering the team. There was a stark difference.
The company that I think of the most is one of the best places I’ve ever worked. Their HR department was called people in performance. They had learning development specialists. They had coaches. They believed in empowering their people. Whereas in one of the more toxic work environments I was in, the person who had been promoted to the VP People position has never been in a leadership position themselves. They were very aligned with the CEO of the organization. It was very difficult for them to speak up and represent the people. They weren’t viewed as an advocate for the people. They were viewed more as a protector of the company. Having an empowered HR Department is important.
It sounds like that old-school archetype that you described is more focused on compliance and risk mitigation and stuff like that.
That’s exactly it. It’s interesting because this compliance and risk mitigation is also more about boilerplates, throwing up the boilerplate bully policy because I 100% support having those policies. It takes more than putting a policy up on a shared website to have it ingrained in the culture and have people believe that it would get taken seriously if they were to report an incident.
I’d like to steam up the contrast because you’ve lived in both and worked through both. I want you to explore this one with me. What did you see differently related to management training or management support in their skills and impact. What did you see different in the two organizations or different types of organizations?Most people are good, even the people who exhibit toxic behaviors. They were simply treated harshly by someone in the past. Click To Tweet
The focus is on leadership training and recognizing that leadership is something that we do need to train. Some of us are fortunate to have some. There are some leadership skills that you can combine naturally. If you’re a great communicator, it helps you considerably in the workplace or if you’re naturally more empathetic, that’s also helpful. Many concepts are coming out all the time. Psychological safety is one of them. That’s a newer concept.
Organizations that are staying in touch with what’s happening in the leadership field, and provide training to their leaders, were the ones that I found had leaders who were more connected to their people and the culture. It’s because it was top of mind. Even just having that training shows that it was valued within the organization. The companies where I found had that more toxic leadership. They didn’t seem to value leadership as a skill the same way.
For example, let’s say you’re an engineer and you have that skill set. Just because you’re an excellent engineer, that doesn’t mean that you can lead an engineering team. The organizations that didn’t focus on making sure somebody is ready to be a leader are the ones who are more likely to have that toxicity.
Jumping into that, one thing I run across and I’m sure you’ve run across too, is the notion of people being over-promoted and getting into roles based on their great engineers. It was like, “You become vice president of engineering now.” It’s like, “Okay.” Talk to me about the impact that has on the person and that random organization.
This is a critical topic because I find over promotion as a big problem because when somebody is put into a role they’re not ready for, that can trigger insecurities in them because often even if we don’t want to admit it, we know when we’re not quite ready for the responsibility. If we get put into a role that we’re not ready for, we’ll then also put up our defense mechanisms to protect ourselves because we feel at risk.
The thing about over promotion, sometimes giving people a chance is a good thing. You want to do that, but you shouldn’t give somebody a chance unless you make sure that you’ve identified what their weaknesses are and where they’re going to need support and provide that support and training. You have somebody there to mentor them because otherwise, you can end up with a leader who becomes highly defensive and reduces collaboration because they don’t want their weaknesses exposed.
They tend to minimize the success of their employees because they’re afraid that it can overshadow them. It also has an impact on the whole organization because if you have a leader who’s over promotive, they’re likely to hire people who don’t threaten them. You’re just going to get a less skilled workforce for the team below the person who’s over-promoted. Many factors there negatively impact the organization when somebody is put into a role that they’re not ready for.
It’s almost like you’re setting them up to fail.
Often we think we’re giving someone a chance by giving them a big promotion, but I’ve seen people where that big promotion has created such insecurities because then that also magnifies the imposter syndrome. They carry those insecurities for the rest of their career feeling like they don’t deserve to be where they are because maybe they didn’t want to when they got that initial promotion. Insecurities are hard to shake. Some of us can use them to empower us to create change, but for some of us, it can create a lot of fear that makes us put up those defenses, which are highly unproductive and can be toxic.
Related to that over-promotion piece, I’ve had situations where it’s like, “We want to keep this employee, so let’s promote them.” I’ve had to talk against that with a lot of companies. I’ve talked them out of that plan because it’s short-term gains there.
It’s such a battle because our society places such value on big titles and promotions. I’m not immune to this. When I was early in my career, I, too, wanted that promotion. It usually comes from it. You’re proud to tell your family that you’ve received that promotion, so you overlook that maybe this isn’t the right time for you and you could be hurting yourself. Sometimes employees put their employer in a position where they’re at risk of losing them if they don’t give them a promotion, even though it’s not helpful.
That goes back to when we think about there’s one way to treat people, but then there’s also, “How can we provide clarity for the process and create a process where promotions are transparent on how they occur when they occur and why they occur without the favoritism.”
Very few companies have a great process for that. That is something I’ve identified as well. Not only does that increase the risk of somebody getting into a role they’re not ready for, but it can also create a lot of negativity for people who aren’t getting the promotions. Most organizations are not very good at clearly defining criteria because they’re like, “Why did that person get promoted? My skill set is the same.” Where there’s not a lot of transparency, you create negativity and insecurity on two sides, both in the person who’s getting that promotion and those who didn’t get promoted and don’t understand why. It’s a challenging aspect of the workplace.Don't promote someone unless you've identified their weaknesses and what support and training they'll need. Click To Tweet
It creates unnecessary competition with the team.
There’s healthy competition, but then there’s a competition that creates comparison and jealousy. That can lead to employees starting to talk negatively about their peers because they feel threatened by them so they minimize their success. They can become avoidant of working with them because that person doesn’t make them feel good about themselves. I say this a lot, with the power of our subconscious, if someone doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves, it’s amazing how we find ways to avoid them and not work with them. Therefore, our collaboration will reduce with that person. That’s not good for the workplace.
The lessons learned here are that there are a lot of forms of toxicity that show up in the workplace that aren’t just yelling and the traditional forms of behavior that people think about. We have to think about these decisions like promotional decisions and how your policies are written as to what forms of toxicity can they breed in the workplace?
The ones I mentioned around promotion are titles because sometimes we see this in startups all the time. We give someone a big title because you can’t afford to pay them. That’s also setting people up for insecurity and potential failure later in their career because they have this big title and even though we might deny it to ourselves, we know we’re not operating at that level.
Even when you go to get another job and somebody looks at your resumé and sees you’ve been CEO, COO or CFO, it won’t make sense. It can stop you from getting considered for positions that you truly are qualified for. Titles also can create jealousy and comparison within an organization. If somebody has a title that other people don’t think they deserve, all these little things that are like, “Why does it matter if I give someone a bigger title?” It can have a horrible impact on the organization.
It’s not harmless.
Those are the kinds of things that we don’t think deeply enough in the workplace about the impacts that these decisions can have.
What are these micro levels of behaviors and actions that many companies do to have a macro impact that can be toxic? It’s fascinating to look at it this way because this is lifting the curtain a little bit. When you and I talk about toxicity, it’s not just the big overblown things you read about in the news.
That is what I try to get into in the book is these small things. We think about a toxic leader as an example. When you think of that, typically, people think of bullying, demeaning and somebody who yells, but what about somebody who breaks their promises? What about someone who can’t trust or who mix messages, for example. That is one that I found can be toxic to a workplace. If a leader, for example, is getting up at a town hall and saying how amazing everything is and we’re beating all of our targets and doing amazing.
Whereas when you look under the hood, as you say, you find out the company is losing money and customers are leaving. That is toxic to a work environment because that employee doesn’t have any trust in the leader. They’ll start to feel insecure and worry about their jobs because they know they’re not being told what’s happening. There are many things that toxicity isn’t always 100% evident in a company, at least not what the causes. You might feel the toxicity, but you can’t necessarily point to this mean yelling leader as its reason.
Sometimes that’s more toxic. Since you can’t attribute it sometimes to something as grandiose as you probably heard somebody yelling, you already have imposter syndrome, so you might doubt yourself. “Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m too sensitive.”
You then create self-doubt. You wonder if it’s you. You may not know and that situation is going to create anxiety. I keep pointing to insecurity. There’s a lot of alignment between anxiety and insecurity when we feel unsafe. You might not be able to quite put your finger on what it is and I think that’s more unsettling, because uncertainty in general, creates a lot of anxiety for us. If we feel like something’s not right, that can be difficult on the psyche.
The subtitle of this show is Toxic Leadership: Tales of Transformation, so I always like to leave readers with words of wisdom because as we look at moving away from toxic behaviors, modeling and creating environments that perpetuate that transformational behavior that we talk about. What words of wisdom would you like to leave readers with that you think could be helpful?
As we’ve talked about, sometimes it’s hard to see what’s wrong. One thing I would say to readers is to trust yourself and trust your instincts. If you feel like something is not right in an environment, you’re likely correct about that and don’t be afraid to make a change. I’ve had this fear of myself before when I was in a toxic workplace, for example. None of us want to have a lot of jumping around on our resumé. Sometimes we stay in work environments that aren’t healthy for us longer than we should.There's healthy competition and competition that creates jealousy, leading employees to talk negatively about their peers because they feel threatened. Click To Tweet
What I learned over time is it’s far more detrimental to stay in that toxic workplace than it is to have to jump around on your resumé. When you’re in that workplace that’s toxic, you’re not going to learn and grow because you’re going to be defending yourself. You’re going to be in a protective position. That’s going to limit your success in your career far more than having a few short stints on your resumé. If you’re in a negative, toxic place and impacting your mental health, you need to move on if you’re not capable of changing that environment.
Excellent advice. Thank you.
As I think about the work that you do, I’m so excited about the book. I want to make sure readers have a chance to visit your websites and get to connect with you. How about you share with us how we can reach you?
My website is MelaniePump.com. I’m also on most social media under @MelaniePumpCFO. I’m active on LinkedIn as well. If you check out my website, I’ve got a blog there and information about the book specifically. You can pre-order the book now, but it’ll be available for sale on Amazon.
I appreciate being able to have this conversation with you. There are a lot of insights. I love your perspective and your experience really shines through. Thank you for sharing that with the readers.
Thanks so much for having me. It’s been great.
Thank you for reading.
- Melanie Pump
- DETOX: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace
- Plank Ventures
- LinkedIn – Melanie Pump
- Amazon – DETOX: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace
About Melanie Pump
Melanie Pump is an industry-renowned business leader and the CFO of Plank Ventures, an investment company whose mission is to fund, buy and scale businesses. With more than 20 years of experience, Melanie has a strong background in leadership, strategy, human resources, accounting, and finance, and has supported the success of various companies in technology, consumer services, mining, and retail.
Passionate about sharing her expertise with others, Melanie is the author of “Detox: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace”, where she shares her learnings and experiences on the impacts of toxic work environments. Melanie also aims to provide helpful tips to all in the corporate landscape through her website, which includes insight and advice on how businesses and employees can reach their full potential. Melanie is frequently sought out by media to discuss topics pertaining to corporate and workplace life, and has appeared on CTV, FOX, ABC and Sirius XM. To learn more about Melanie, visit melaniepump.com.