Hustle Culture is something many in the workforce struggle with and can lead to a toxic workplace. Women of color are greatly impacted, causing negative effects in their lives. Melissa Punambolam challenges the paradigm of hustle culture in this episode as she sits down with Dr. Kevin Sansberry. Melissa is a coach and mentor, and in this episode, she discusses counteracting hustle culture, dealing with toxicity, and the need for self-care. Tune in for an insightful discussion on workplace culture, leadership, and the hustle culture that plagues workplaces around the world.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
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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.
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.
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The Impact Of Hustle Culture On Women Of Color With Melissa Punambolam
We have Melissa Punambolam. How are you?
I’m thrilled about our conversation. It’s been keeping me going since I woke up at 6:30 AM.
One of the things I’m interested in talking with you about is the impact of hustle culture, which I’m sure a lot of people know when they feel it but they don’t know it when they see it per se. I’m interested in hearing your perspective on it, the differential impact that it might have on women of color and others in the workplace. I’m glad to be able to talk to you. Before we get started, Melissa, I wanted to give you the opportunity to share with our audience who you are and what brought you to the work that you do.
It got two layers to it, Kevin, but first and foremost, I’m a woman of color myself, a single mom who burnt out. I laid in a hospital bed for a week away from my two-year-old at the time. I have that lived experience. I also have a clinical background. I have a Master’s of Social Work and have climbed the ranks, worked across many industries for over two decades, anywhere from education to violence against women, to healthcare and even to corporate government settings.
What I do now is take all of that experience, education and most importantly, the knack that I have for real system change. I’ve fused it all. On the one side, I support women one-on-one to regain actual time in their life and also create balance without offloading their kids, feeling guilty, and booking escape getaways through a process that I call Life Design.
On the flip side of that, I also bring women together, including women of color, through a platform called The Virtual Retreat-ment, which is a two-day all online experience. It’s a global experience that gives working mothers simple and sustainable solutions to create wellness. My biggest pet peeve around self-care is that we’re supposed to sit in a bubble bath for an hour each week. That’s not feasible, especially for women of color in the workforce.
The third part of that triad is working with organizations. As we know, gender equity, especially for women of color is not an individual’s problem. We can support and empower women of color to change their own habits and patterns, and approach the problem differently based on how they’re experiencing it, but let’s be real. There’s a leadership problem when it comes to gender equity and in the promotion of continuous hustle culture, and the impacts that have particularly on women of color. I have a program that I offer to support companies in improving and changing that culture from hustle to harmony.
Women of color in leadership roles have to fight to stay, and they don’t have the full capacity to provide safe mentorship to those looking up to them.
There had to be some reason why you’re in this work. You mentioned that you’re in a hospital bed while you had your two-year-old and things like that. When we talk about toxic leadership and toxic organizational cultures, what has been your experience related to that construct?
I’ll give you some context here because many women of color can relate to this. There are a couple of things with toxic leadership. It has been around for so long that it has been accepted as normal, but common and normal are very different in my opinion. You and I share that opinion, which is why we get along well. The other piece is after I returned to the workforce, I remember even before while being on my leave this anxiousness and worry felt unnatural about how I was going to manage parenting and not neglecting my little one while carrying a full-time job. The mere fact that I had that mental load that I was carrying was an indication in hindsight that there was a leadership problem because I was the only one worrying about that. When I got back to the workforce, I wasn’t onboarded and I got promoted when I returned.
I was in my dream job. I was managing billions of dollars for the most vulnerable children here in Ontario, Canada. I was in a system leadership role. I didn’t get any training when I came back and I had not been in the workforce for two years. All of a sudden, I was expected to know what I was doing, to do it well and to make zero to very little errors because if I made an error, it would cost the government a lot of dollars. Also when you’re impacting lives, that demand and pressure to not screw up is real pressure.
In addition to that, I ended up inheriting a manager different from the one who hired me. The one who hired me was understanding. She knew that I would sometimes have to leave a little bit early if my little one was sick or something had happened. I was allowed to create some flexibility. She cared about the results and the outcomes, which I’m better at working within. The manager that I inherited came from the old school where women had to suck it up. We had to work within the confines of what we had been given. There was no room for me to be a human and to talk about my motherhood demands. There was no talk about in the middle of winter when my plumbing bursts for me to go home and address it.
That’s where the toxicity began. She took it a step further by doing things like calling me on my sick days and having these random questions, which are abusive in practice if you think about it. She would also tell me that I wasn’t a good fit for the role because I was a single mom. This is where the toxicity comes from. There was such a lack of awareness on her part that what she was saying was outright wrong, the impact it would have on me as a person and on the organization as a whole because she represents a pattern that not only exists but is permeated throughout the organization.
She justified it because it was done to her. She said that out loud that, “I remember managers having meetings with me right at the end of the day when I needed to catch the last train home.” It was a rite of passage for her so she felt like she then had to put me through the same hoops. That’s where the toxicity showed up for me.
I appreciate hearing that because that is a very common occurrence as it relates to what you see with toxic leaders and toxic leadership behavior. Typically it did happen to them. The way they justify it is, “I’m a great person. I love myself. The fact that I went through it must mean I’m deserving of it, which then means other people are too so I pushed the trauma forward.”
There was one leader that had that very same mentality with working mothers. She had an experience as a working mother where nobody cared that she was a working mother. She perpetuated these same negative norms that were done to her by people who report to her because she was now the big boss of her department.
That’s an unfortunate reality but to your point, just because something is normalized doesn’t mean it’s right and how we can go further. One of the things I heard that I want to dig into is that notion of hustle culture. First off, talk to us about how you conceptualize hustle culture. I want to hear in particular from your perspective, what is the impact as we think about women of color in the workplace?
I simplify this because I find that when we speak strategically about it, it’s hard to work with people from a behavioral scale. I want to put that out there because sometimes people are like, “You’re going to talk to me about buckets right now?” There’s a reason for it. Here’s how I think about hustle culture. On the one side, we’re hamsters on a wheel. The reason why we’re on this wheel spinning going round and round is because we believe at our core that there’s an end in sight. I’ll give you an example. We work towards finding that light at the end of the tunnel, be it like a milestone, when the kids get older or as leaders. If we’re aspiring leaders, we have to hit that rank or salary level in the company.
The spinning never stops because we believe so much that the way to do it is right because it’s always been done that way to our earlier point. In addition to spinning, you have the working mom and especially women of color because of the roles that we typically enter, which are service lead roles or customer service type roles. Rarely are we in leadership roles. That’s the first problem. Secondly, we’re working in systems where the “path to productivity is through the hustle.” That’s why we adopted this hamster wheel and we’re continuously running.
If you think about a hamster wheel sitting on your dining room table. Right on the floor, on the chairs facing the dining room table are two big buckets. One bucket is a bucket of power. The other is a bucket of energy. If you think about where women of color fit in, our buckets of power, we are born with a very little threshold of power. You and I can agree on that. Not only are we spinning to keep up with the status quo. We’re also spinning thinking that the harder we hustle and the more we push, that bucket of power is going to fill up.
Here’s the thing though. We have the bucket of energy on the other chair. I’m going to make it a Black and White issue because it’s easier for me to relay the message. You have a White woman who is born with much privilege and power. How that translates behaviorally is confidence. Because she has that confidence, power and perspective, she can easily say no to things, set boundaries, and manage her emotions by expressing them outwardly.
The beauty of self-awareness is that it’s not some fluffy word. There’s a tangible behavioral change that can happen.
Here’s where the energy bucket comes in. She’s draining her energy less because of those specific behaviors, the confidence, the way she manages her emotion, and the way she expresses and identifies her needs. Those are key tangible behavioral pieces. The energy side of it for women of color drains at a much faster rate because we’re overcompensating to fill that power bucket. We’re not saying no because we’re scared to do it. We have been made to feel that we are replaceable and oftentimes, we are replaced or let go, as we’ve seen.
Third of all, we don’t have safe support. We’re also overcompensating for that confidence. If you look at the hamster spinning on the wheel, that energy isn’t coming fast enough to sustain it, nor do we have the power to pull the plug on the wheel. That’s how I describe hustle culture. You asked about the implications of that. Am I right?
Yeah. You said that really well.
Most importantly, to put it for leaders to understand, the implications of those behaviors are productivity goes down and morale sinks. We’ve seen it in 2020 and 2021. One in three women wants to leave the workforce. Imagine that. That’s a big problem. That’s an indicator that something is wrong. This is basic neuroscience. Errors are unavoidable with that amount of stress. It’s costing companies more by promoting hustle culture.
One of the things that come up that I want to add to that is in your example of the dichotomy of looking at a White, Black or a woman of color environment, many White women also have peers in leadership who they can look up to that gives them hope like, “This whole hustle culture is doable because the HR vice president is a White woman or so-and-so in leadership is a White woman. I got hope I can do that.” For a lot of women of color, they don’t have that hope. That’s the invisible and intangible thing that keeps us going because they see nobody likes them in the position. They sometimes feel like, “I’m the only one.”
That’s a day in the life of many women of color. The other thing that happens too and this is where the generational patterns get repeated. I’ve seen this. I had to do a lot of trauma and healing work from this. The women of color that I have worked for stabbed me in the back not because they wanted to, but they thought that was the way because that was done to them. We don’t even feel safe looking up to the women in the positions that we aspire to get to. I loved your example and I wanted to add that layer to that. It’s purely not safe for women of color in leadership roles because they have to fight to stay. They don’t have the full capacity to provide safe mentorship to those looking up to them.
What’s not comically funny but sad is the reward for hustle culture is not getting out the wheel. It’s like, “Here’s a bigger and another wheel to run on.” You stay on a wheel regardless, as the hamster. That light at the end of the tunnel never ends. The reward is more work, weakness, stress and things like that. A lot of people are not putting up with the exchange of trauma for money anymore because, to be honest, the economy in the workforce is shifting in a way where people are looking for other opportunities to make money. It might not be, “I’m going to put up with the toxicity or the trauma that I’m having to in this normalized environment that you described.”
I’m seeing this a lot in the diversity equity and inclusion space where we’re seeing companies do it all the time where they’re all of a sudden creating positions of having an equity lead and it’s a checkbox. Here’s the thing. The people in those roles who are tokens are exhausted because the behaviors, culture and patterns of the companies and the industries in which they exist have not changed.
It wasn’t the lack of a position that was the problem. It’s the culture that’s the issue. I told a group, “Don’t say culture like I’m not talking about people’s behavior. I’m talking about people’s behavior. Let’s not try to play that game of, ‘It’s organizational culture. It is hard to change.'” Organizational culture is hard to change because behavior doesn’t change. A lot of leaders aren’t held accountable for that toxic behavior. To that point, what leadership characteristics would you see that can improve the overall experience for women of color in the workforce as we talk about hustle culture?
I know the response that I’m going to give first is probably going to seem so trivial. It’s going to be look at yourself and your employees as humans. When you do that, it’s automatically humbling and it evens out the playing field to touch, to allow for that space for inner reflection. This is the next piece. That’s self-awareness. You must look at yourself in the mirror as a leader to say, “Am I allowing this pattern to continue? Am I behaving this way because it’s the way it’s always been? Is it time for me to question and change this?” That’s the beauty of self-awareness. It’s not some fluffy word. There’s a tangible behavioral change that can happen.
The other piece is transparency. I’ll use the example with my manager. If she went to bed that night after saying, “You’re probably not a fit for this role because you’re a single mom,” and there’s a part of her in her mind that thought, “I shouldn’t have said that,” it would have been nice for her to be transparent, show up as a human being and say, “I thought about it and I’m going to be open with you. I shouldn’t have said it. I’m sorry.” Because she didn’t do that, it completely destroyed our relationship.
You’re not going to forgive that.
I’m not working for her anymore but I’m still not. That’s the other piece. The other side of it is personal transformation. Don’t think for a minute that the organization, the leadership trends or the way that has been “done in the past” doesn’t start with you as a leader because it does. This is where I imagine it gets so scary for leaders. When you change, you have to make some decisions around who your people are.
If your fellow leaders are no longer on cue with you, they have to go and that’s a hard thing to do. Don’t get me wrong. That is not an easy decision but it becomes a shift around like, “I need to have empathy for my company and the people that work for me who drive me to my bottom line. The way to do that is by having empathy and compassion for myself because then I’m going to have to do some hard and uncomfortable things, but I know the return is going to be tenfold from it.”
Until more of us start to use our voices, it won’t be seen because it doesn’t have to be seen by people in power.
It places the power back into the individual. How can we be the ones to break that cycle and own up to that mistake or to that comment that one has made? It takes a lot of courage and humility to do so. As it relates to this environment, plenty of people talk about self-care. We hear self-care, meditation, 4-7-8 breathing and all the techniques. I always tell people, “You’re not going to meditate the trauma you keep putting yourself into. That’s like a Band-Aid.” What would you recommend for individuals to do as it relates to engaging in self-care in a workplace where people might feel isolated?
It’s both individual and organizational work on this one. I posted this on LinkedIn. There’s a post one day where I said, “Imagine you start off your board meetings with a human-to-human check-in saying, ‘How are you?’” It starts with whoever is leading that meeting saying, “My kids did not want to get up. I was racing here. I had to take my tie off because I felt like I couldn’t breathe.” You start off your board meetings in that way. That would be the dream for me. That’s sounds utopian because I haven’t heard any company doing that.
It starts on that level, which is allowing these micro-moments within the workday to be in touch with how we’re doing emotionally. It augments that self-reflection and self-awareness. It gives healthy outlets to release it in bite-size pieces rather than people ending up on the path to burnout because they’re overworking and stuffing down emotion. It reduces the risk of leaders snapping when they’re not given the right productivity reports or they’re seeing KPIs that they’re not comfortable with. It exacerbates the response when we’re not taking care of the inner human. That’s the first thing.
The other piece is putting your money where your mouth is. My belief is that wellness is our birthright. If I were to be correct, which I do think I am in this case, then there needs to be incorporated budget lines to support working mothers, especially women of color, to attend wellness experiences, to self invest in terms of time and unplugging away from work-life where the work doesn’t build while they’re away. Incorporating that as a habitual practice outside of the benefit packages that are offered.
On the individual side, it’s creating those mechanisms, whether it’d be working with a therapist or a coach to work through that trauma and support that healing process. Otherwise, those cycles are never going to go away. The only way to do that is through healing. We can’t heal on our own. In many cultures around the world, we did so as villages and in community circles. That’s not going to be any different now.
Stop trying to add additional pressure to create self-care. What I teach to my clients is, “Look at your life and look at how much time you do have left. Do you have 30 seconds? With those 30 seconds, take three deep breaths. That’s it. Notice what happens to your nervous system. As you have five minutes, go find the app where you can sit and listen to binaural beats or do a quick meditation. The goal is to support your nervous system first.” That’s what self-care is. Can we create balance for the brain? The brain is the place that signals to the rest of your body whether or not you’re okay.
I love the balance notion of creating balance for your brain. You also create a balance for the solution. It has to be organizational and individual too. We have different levels of accountability there. I appreciate that. What words of wisdom would you want to leave our readers with?
The power of the inner compass. We talk about this a lot in the world of self-improvement. Some people call it intuition, but intuition makes it feel like it’s unattainable. If I were to tell you that you have an inner compass, meaning we have signals in our minds and bodies where the chest tightens, our shoulders go up to our ears, our breathing is a little bit shallow, notice those things because what that is telling us, especially as working women, is some things are out of sync and needs our attention.
Chances are the minute you stopped to ask, “Why does my chest hurt? Why do I feel like I’m constantly sweating or I’m always anxious?” Find out what that is and say it to somebody who is possibly contributing to that issue, and then come up with a solution together. On the work side of things, advocate the crap out of the issue. Until more of us start to use our voices, it won’t be seen because it doesn’t have to be seen by people in power.
I’m sure people want to know how to get in touch with you. How can we reach you?
I am Melissa Punambolam on LinkedIn, whether that means you send me a private message or find me on Instagram @YourLifeDesigner. If you want to learn more about me as a human, my website is www.YourLifeDesigner.ca
I appreciate being able to chat with you and dig into this very needed topic. I can’t thank you enough. It’s been good and impactful because people that I work with across the nation have these conversations behind closed doors. This show exists to be able to have these types of conversations out in the open. I appreciate your candidness.
Congratulations on this show. Everyone needs to give you five stars because they’re real conversations. We’re not talking theory. We’re talking about how we can create change. That’s why I’ve been so honored to be a part of this conversation. Thank you for having me.
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