Everyone struggles with insecurity, even those in positions of leadership. When that insecurity manifests in your actions as a leader, its impact snowballs throughout your team and your organization. Joining Dr. Kevin Sansberry in this episode is Melanie Pump, CFO at Brane and author of Detox: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace. She shares insights from her book and breaks down how insecurity can manifest through toxic behaviors in the workplace. Melanie also expounds on how to deal with toxic leaders and empower your self-worth as an employee. Listen to this discussion and get important insights on becoming a better leader, dealing with insecure leaders, and improving workplace culture.
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.
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Toxic Leadership Live: Talking Toxic Behavior, Insecurity and Self-Worth with Melanie Pump
This episode is a showcase where we invited Melanie Pump back to have a conversation with us after the release of her new book, DETOX: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace. Melanie and I had a conversation on The Toxic Leadership Live, which is on Instagram. We talked about toxic behavior, insecurity, self-worth and overall, the impact that toxic leadership has on other people.
One of the things I’m appreciative of is being able to have you on and have a conversation about toxic leaders in general. A lot of people seem to miss the mark and misunderstand what that means when I say, “What is a toxic leader?” I’ve encountered a lot of folks who have accepted certain behaviors as normal in the workplace, unfortunately, until they listened to some of my episodes where I talked to some of my guests and stuff like that. They realized, “I’ve been in a toxic work environment this whole time and I didn’t even know it.”
It is very common. We get used to it.
I know this is not something that’s unique just to the United States. It’s global but unlike countries like Australia, Ireland and the UK, and even in some places in Canada, they have hotlines for workplace bullying. They have legislation against workplace bullying and yet here in the US, we don’t. I wanted to get your thoughts. When we talk about toxic leadership and toxic leaders in itself, what comes to mind for you?
I’ve done a lot of work around this, so it’s broadened my thinking. Like everybody else, I originally would go to a leader that’s a bully, for example. That’s the easy one or the obvious one, but there are other things that are happening there. Leaders who aren’t supportive of your growth. Leaders who aren’t transparent and withhold information. That’s a common one, leaders who are insecure about themselves. When we’re insecure, we do things to minimize those around us. Sometimes they can be subtle. Sometimes they’re not those obvious bullying-type tactics that would instantly come to mind for us.
I love the fact that you mentioned that it’s subtle. It’s sometimes may not be something you can see. I want to call people back to an episode on the show. It’s called Managing Insecurity and Toxic Work Environments with Melanie Pump. Melanie and I had a conversation about insecurity. We talked about how a lot of leaders have that tacit insecurity. They may show up a certain way because of how they feel internally. As an employee, you probably don’t even know they’re insecure until you step back and think about it. What behaviors can you isolate? Let’s say somebody that worked right now, what behaviors you can say like, “This might be a red flag for leadership insecurity. This might be something you need to think about or look at it differently.”
One common one is passive-aggressive behavior. If you’re getting mixed messages, your leader tells you one thing but they do something else, or they don’t directly give you feedback. They drop hints all the time that something may not be right. That can be unsettling to employees because you feel that something is not quite right, but your leader is too insecure to tell you that there’s a problem in the environment or maybe a problem with your work. That can be so toxic because as humans, we’re very sensitive. We can often tell something’s wrong. If you have a leader who isn’t telling you directly, that can be very difficult on your mental health.
Passive aggression like dropping subtle hints in email or even facial expressions in a meeting.
Ignoring certain things that you say. For example, rather than telling you they don’t support an idea or initiative of yours, they might just ignore it. That’s hard on us, especially if it’s something that you’re passionate about and somebody who supports you is ignoring what you’re saying. That may be because they’re insecure and they don’t want to directly tell you.
Passive aggression can also come up as when you bring up things at work and all of a sudden, they’re hostile for no reason. You could tell they’re mad at you about something else, but they’re not even saying it to you.
There’s also defensiveness. For example, anytime you raise something that maybe something didn’t go right, leaders who are insecure might get defensive. That’s another common one for insecurity. Passive-aggressive is a form of avoidance. When we’re insecure, we tend to avoid things that we’re afraid of or that make us uncomfortable.
Another trait that I’ve seen especially with passive-aggression is all of a sudden, the leader is stepping on the toes of the employee in the meetings too. It could be something that employees are passionate about a project they’re working on and the leader takes the spotlight. They’re doing it in a way like, “We’re acting like a team.” You just took all the credit. You took the spotlight away from me.
We all struggle with insecurity. The challenge is that when it comes across in the leader, it has a broad impact in the organization.
It’s because they feel threatened. This isn’t just leaders. This is all of us. We all struggle with insecurity. The challenge is that when it comes across in the leader, it has a broad impact on the organization. As leaders, there’s a greater responsibility to manage your insecurity and reactions to situations.
The conversation we’re having is we’re talking about passive aggression and how that may come across in the workplace. We’ve discussed some individual aspects of it. Let me blow it up a little bit because you and I both work in this space. Taking a systems approach to passive-aggression. One thing I see with passive-aggression is typically you have an organization that is averse to having a conflict of any kind. They want to be toxic-positive. They want to be nice over authentic. Talk to me a little bit about that systems approach and thinking about conflict avoidance culture. What does that look like?
That’s difficult because, honestly, some conflict is healthy. If you have an organization where it’s promoted, you always have to be positive and not say anything against maybe coworkers’ ideas. It almost forces people to use some of that behavior. They feel like they can’t directly say what they’re thinking if that’s viewed as being threatening. Organizations that avoid conflict completely, that’s not how you have innovation and growth either because you need healthy conflict in order for things to progress and for business to grow.
What a lot of people don’t understand is there is conflict when you have diversity. If you value diversity in your company, you have to value conflict. That’s not saying diversity is negative. What that’s saying is diversity brings different thoughts. Diversity might bring a thought you didn’t think of and it might bring a thought you disagree with initially. The solution for that conflict avoidance piece is, how can we be curious? How can we be open to new ideas? How can that be seen all across the organization?
That was part of security. Because for us to not be threatened by somebody else’s idea or somebody may be poking a hole in something that we’re saying, that takes us having some security and confidence in ourselves to not feel threatened by that.
It typically manifests even in hiring. There are some people who don’t want to hire people smarter than them. That sucks.
It works against their success. That’s the crazy part about it. I know where my strengths and weaknesses are. When I’m hiring, I intentionally hire people that I know are better at me in the areas that I’m not strong. That’s led to my career being more successful because my team will have better results.
I do the same thing. When I hire people, I intentionally hire people different from me because I know that’s going to make us a more well-rounded team, and I don’t want to do that work. I don’t even want to spend time on it because that’s not where I came from. For a lot of people who have that insecurity, one thing that they’re missing also is the humility to understand where their flaws are. They think they’re perfect in a lot of different ways.
Their brains aren’t letting them. Often, they’re insecure. It’s self-preservation to overlook the fact that we’re not good at something. We don’t want to bring somebody in who is good at that because it highlights our weakness to ourselves.
It makes us look bad.
Which often leaders just can’t take.
You shoot yourself in the foot for any future career growth or success in your organization. One of the things that I see in these companies is gunnysacking. Have you ever heard of the term?
Gunnysacking is a term where you’re upset about something that happened and you need to address it, but due to the fact of you being conflict-avoidant, you use that time to unleash 4, 5 or 6 different things that you’ve been thinking about the whole time.
It’s essentially distracting from the thing that you’re uncomfortable with.
You’re uncomfortable with one thing, but since you’re conflict-avoidant, you use that as an opportunity to talk about ten things.
I have seen that in many meetings now that you say it. I’ve never heard the term though.
What that does is it distracts the real problem. You’ll be in a meeting about a marketing plan. You’re like, “I had an issue with the marketing plan. Also, you were late to work a couple of days ago. I disagree with the terminology you use in your marketing plan three months ago.” Now that person automatically gets on the defensive because of that conflict-avoidance they manifested.
I can think of many instances that this happened. The interesting part about it is when people do that, sometimes they don’t even realize they’re doing it. They’re just, “I don’t feel good. This thing’s not making me feel good. I’m going to distract and talk about a whole bunch of other things.” It’s not always intentional but I know exactly what you’re saying.
Learning and growth require making mistakes.
What that is a silent resentment of a person or a boss or something like that. What do you think needs to be in place to not have people sit and be stewing about things? How can we have the conversation? What do you think needs to be in place?
It is all about the health of the overall work environment. It sounds simple but if we can create a work environment where it’s okay for people to be wrong, it’s okay for people to make mistakes. When you are pointing out something that can be made better, it’s not considered an insult against that person. That has to come from the very top of the organization. The leader at the top has to be okay talking about their own weaknesses, imperfections or admitting where they’ve made some mistakes. Tone from the top, we’ve all heard that so much, but it absolutely matters. It is critical for the organization to be at a place where people are okay when somebody points out something that isn’t right or perfect.
One strategy that I have seen that helped diminish that perfectionism is they would create a week or an event like the failed event or the week of failure. Everybody gets to be able to showcase where they messed up on something. It allows failure to be normalized because it happens. Everybody makes mistakes. No matter who you are.
We need to make mistakes. Learning and growth require making mistakes. I do think it is on leaders to be okay letting their team know. I do that even with my team. I tell them that I need their help. Just because I’m their boss doesn’t mean that I don’t need their help on some things and it’s okay to say that.
We need to position bosses in a state where your boss shouldn’t know everything because if they did, they wouldn’t need to hire you. How can bosses get off that pedestal and let employees know, “I don’t know the answer to this. What do you think, employee? Help me out on this.” How much more agency or empowerment with that employee feel if that was the norm versus the boss having to be the one with all the answers?
It is going to take a shift which is part of what we’re doing and talking about this. Unfortunately, for people who started out in their careers 20, 30 years ago, this is the way it was. The boss was scary. The boss knew everything. We’re slowly creating the shift where the workforce is going to start realizing that no one is perfect and everybody has value to add.
What we’re seeing now with COVID is a lot of workplaces are creating monitoring systems and metrics that illustrate to employees, “I don’t trust you.” We then expect employees to feel comfortable working there. They’re like, “What’s wrong with our turnover? Why are people leaving?” You have to examine the signals that you’re sending.
I want to ask for individuals working in remote environments because it’s hard to have a difficult conversation over Zoom. If we’re asking people to be more proactive and have these conversations, what are some advice you could give to people who may have not even met their boss in person? They’re working remotely. How can you bring that topic of having a conversation like, “I need to talk about something you did in a meeting yesterday,” or “I need to talk about this?” What would you say to them?
It’s difficult and it takes time. One thing that I’m recommending to leaders is to make sure that you’re having regular one-on-ones with your teams. Have it be sessions where it’s not just focused on a topic. Don’t only meet with your teams when you want to talk about one specific thing because there’s not an opportunity for that to expand into other areas and start to build more natural engagement. I would say to employees, even if they’re not in a leadership position, ask your leader to do that.
Start creating opportunities to build a relationship so that you can have those open discussions. Right out of the gate, you’ve never met someone before to have your discussion be about something that’s difficult. From the beginning, let them know. Every week you want to have a fifteen-minute check-in. That will help you start to build that relationship where you can have that discussion with them.
The perfect thing to say here is results are the relationship. It’s how can you look at results not as what tasks did they complete today but as a leader, how can I continue to build that relationship so they can trust me? What I tell many supervisors and leaders is your employees will do great work if they trust you. They’ll go above and beyond if they trust you. If they don’t trust you, they are going to do the bare minimum, go home and clock out. Leaders need to focus more on the relationship and less on trying to drive performance.
That is why having these check-ins that aren’t always just about, what and when is this due? Have a check-in to see how things are going. People will go above and beyond when they like and trust their leader. If they know that their leader will have their back, then they’ll have their leaders back too. That’s what we need in our team, it’s people who want to help support our success too.
The foundation of it all is, “Do I trust you?” The employee will go above and beyond if I trust that I won’t get chastised for coloring outside the lines a little bit. I’ll go above and beyond if I trust that, “Leader, your original idea wasn’t optimal and here is why.” I can talk to you. I can be able to tell you that stuff and I trust that you’re not going to get offended or get all weird on me because you’re going to see the bigger picture. You’re going to be proud of me.
Also, you’re going to steal my idea.
You’re also not going to go to corporate and say, “Look what I did.” A lot of this that we’re talking about relating to toxic leaders, passive-aggression, and the lack of being able to have productive conflict stems before the leader became the leader. Just because somebody turns eighteen doesn’t mean you don’t still have the child’s mind sometimes. A lot of leaders are still the middle school and high school bullies that they were before they got into the workplace.
No one is perfect and everybody has value to add.
All of us are. That is why I do try to approach this with some empathy because all of us have become who we are because of the experiences that we’ve had. Often, a leader can be toxic because they learned from another toxic leader. With work and having their attention drawn to the fact that it’s counterproductive, they can start to change some of those behaviors, but that awareness needs to be built first.
I was in Milwaukee and we were talking about signals that people are sent. As employees, as parents, as spouses, or what have you, we have to be mindful of the signals we’re sending by our behaviors and with our behavior. We also have to learn how to manage our stress in a more productive way instead of projecting to other things. That’s what I see in the workplace. You’re stressed about traffic, you spilled your coffee or you woke up late and you had to rush, you’re stressed about that, but then you go to work and take it out on other people.
We need to get in touch with ourselves and also realize, it’s okay as a leader if you are feeling that way to go and take a break, go for a walk or take a pause. Let people know, “I need to step out for fifteen minutes. I’ve just had a rough drive.” Do those things so that you can come back and be the positive leader that your team needs.
Another step is, it’s okay not to answer that email instantly. It’s okay not to have the conversation at that moment. If you know you’re in that state, take a pause and say, “I’d love to talk to you about this.” Be honest like, “I’m not in the right headspace right now. Let’s talk in about an hour.” Schedule it because that lets you know you’ve set aside time for that person to have that conversation.
We all have good days. We all have bad days. The other thing that I talked about is this Jacqueline Hyde where you have someone who 80% of the time is great, supports your growth, and all these things, but then 20% of the time they blow up for no reason. They’re highly critical of your work. They zero in on immaterial mistakes. A leader that’s like that, who the employee doesn’t know who they’re going to get, is highly stressful on a team. It is important that we manage our emotions as leaders.
To take that Jacqueline Hyde notion further, I couldn’t agree more. Eighty percent of the time you’re one way, your employee is going to remember the 20% way more.
They’re going to be walking lightly around you all the time afraid of triggering that 20%. Often, the leader who is like that thinks of themselves as the 80%. Their employees think of them as the 20%.
I’m not saying that people hold grudges. It’s the way our brains are wired. We are wired for protection.
We’re watching out for the risks. We’re watching out for when we need to run.
Another thing that leaders do is they don’t acknowledge that 20%. They don’t apologize. They act like it never happened. That’s exactly a fallacy.
They think the other 80% makes up for that. They’re doing the same thing. Their brains want to think about what makes them feel good. That person they are, that 80% of the time makes them feel good. They delete that other 20% from their brain as well. It is all our psychology. Very few people do this intentionally. That’s why self-awareness is so important.
That’s why a lot of the content and why this show exists is because the 20% that you talked about, that lashing out or whatever that may be, that’ll be your story. That’ll be the leader who that leader is because that’s what people are going to remember. For leaders who try to forget it or they’re like, “It will wash over,” and they don’t apologize, that makes it even worse. What words of wisdom would you want to give the readers about passive-aggression? How can leaders be able to cope with not doing that? What words of wisdom do you have?
If you have a leader who is acting that way a lot, I recommend being direct to yourself because when people are using passive-aggressive behavior, they don’t know that they’re doing it. It can be instinctive. If your leader is being that way, ask for clarity. Be curious. Tell them, they said this but they’re doing this. You’re a bit confused about why they’re acting that way. They may not know they’re doing it.
For leaders, how do we stop ourselves from doing it? It’s hard because you don’t always know you’re doing it. Be watchful of your behavior. Listen to your body too. If you find yourself tensing up in situations, maybe that’s because you’re feeling insecure and it’s more likely you’re going to use that behavior. Try to grow and expand your self-awareness.
I appreciate hearing that because I did get a question submitted for you. I want to ask it and have you answer it for the individual who submitted it. Emily Siegel asked a question about a previous workplace that she worked in. It dampened her confidence. Now, she’s in a new workplace with the same baggage that she had from her previous workplace. She still is feeling down and all that stuff based on a previous toxic leader that she had. What advice would you have for Emily?
I feel sorry for you, Emily. That’s tough. I’ve had that happen before and I’ve seen that in my employees as well before, where somebody comes in and they’re highly defensive about everything that I say. I talked to them and I realized it’s because of a leader they had before. For one thing, being open about it and talking about it is a great first step.
If you have a leader that you trust now that you’re working with, let them know you still have some feelings from the workplace you were in before and you’re working through that. They could support and make sure that the two of you have an open and transparent dialogue. I do recommend transparency and openness more than anything because that will help create the environment that you want.
I’m a big proponent of being able to talk to mental health professionals and being able to get it out of your system. One of the worst things we can do is allow the baggage to weigh us down. Emily, I don’t want you to be dampening any progression or promotion that may be on your horizon. It’s important for you to talk it out.
I can tell you for myself, having gone through the journey that I have talking about toxic work environments and some of the experiences that I have has lifted a weight for me. I do recommend that to people. Don’t keep it inside because that’s how self-doubt gets deeper and deeper when we keep those stories inside.
That’s why I call it toxic. We have Melanie Pump here. Melanie, I want to thank you for coming on and being able to talk with us.
Thanks for having me.
People will go above and beyond when they like, trust, and know their leader. They know their leader will have their back, then they’ll have their leader’s back, too.
Check out Melanie’s episode, Managing Insecurity and Toxic Work Environments. We had a great conversation about Melanie’s book. Do you want to share a little bit about your book with the readers?
My book came out. It’s called DETOX: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace because I have observed over time that insecurity can work against us reaching our full potential in the workplace. Leaders can do things to help support their employees to get over their insecurities and to be able to grow their careers. The book talks about that and some of the things we’ve already talked about here like passive-aggressive behavior, and things that manifest when we’re insecure. I also provide tips on how leaders can create a secure and supportive work environment.
I appreciate you being on and being able to showcase your expertise to our readers. Thank you very much.
Thanks for having me.
- DETOX: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace
- Instagram – The Toxic Leadership Podcast
- Managing Insecurity and Toxic Work Environments with Melanie Pump – previous episode
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.