Original Publish Date: May 10, 2022
I was feeling trepidation as I stood on a stage before a national audience of 800 business leaders in Denver, Colorado. I felt angst about the words I was about to speak in sharing my experiences as an author and consultant in a wide variety of businesses and industries. Although the goal of a speaker is to inspire and uplift others, I began with the words that I was compelled to tell audiences everywhere.
“Unfortunately, today’s workplace is often fraught with pain, suffering, insecurity, gossip, one-upmanship, rivalry, sabotage, insecurity, blame, and, most insidiously, fear.” I added that, “The very place where most people go each day to provide financial security for themselves and their families, is filled with emotional insecurity and suffering for people throughout the country.”
As I glanced around at the blur of faces, you could hear a pin drop. Then I asked this question:
“How many of you in this room know what I am talking about?”
If you are reading this article, you probably already know the answer. One by one, slowly, and furtively at first, I watched nearly every single hand in the room go up. It is always at this moment that I can feel an almost palpable sense of relief as people look around and realize that they are not alone in their observations and secret awareness of the suffering in their workplace culture. For over twenty years I have had the same response in hundreds of conferences and from thousands of people.
My point in sharing this story is to demonstrate that it isn’t easy to talk about, it isn’t just a few people, it isn’t just one industry, and most of all, that it is happening to some degree in businesses everywhere. Though difficult to discuss we must acknowledge the hidden “elephant in the room”—the underlying suffering, internal competition, and emotional drama found in workplaces today. I might also add, although I have worked in many industries, I have spent a majority of my time in healthcare. In my opinion, the people in all aspects of healthcare are experiencing one of the highest degrees of pressure, suffering, stress, toxicity, and pain in their cultures. Paradoxically, healthcare providers, by nature, are compassionate people.
You Cannot Fix What You Don’t Acknowledge
Today there is empirical evidence and undeniable data on the effects of toxicity in the workplace culture, The MIT Sloane Management Review article on March 16, 2022 by Dr. Donald Sull, et al, Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture, provides so much revealing and well-researched data:
“A toxic corporate culture is by far the best predictor of attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in turnover during the Great Resignation.”
In addition, their research summarizes the “Top Five” factors in a toxic workplace: 1) Disrespectful, 2) Non-inclusive, 3) Unethical, 4) Cutthroat, and 5) Abusive. All of these factors are disabling and disempowering. They cause pain that cuts to the core of being a human being.
Workplace culture affects the ability to recruit, retain, and build responsive and successful organizations. In an environment today where businesses are competing for employees, clearly, the workplace culture is of huge importance. In addition, toxic workplaces get more negative reviews on Glassdoor.com, according to the research, making it harder to recruit employees. And it is extremely important for business leaders to know that a toxic workplace creates staggering bottom-line costs for companies.
Sometimes the “boss from hell” is creating a toxic department, sometimes toxicity is found in pockets of an organization, and sometimes the entire culture is toxic. Change must start at the top levels but rooting out toxic people in middle management is important as well. The costs of poor leaders and managers is immeasurable.
Why We Need Relief from a Toxic Workplace
We need relief because the data from the research and my experience of interacting with thousands of people reveals we are suffering much more than people have been willing to admit. Human beings are not cogs in a wheel or parts of a machine. Our need to feel valued, that we belong, that we are loved, and that we are needed are our core, basic human needs. If a workplace is draining our energy and sense of self-worth, that affects us both at work and at home. We cannot separate our lives into different compartments. We take our pain home.
Awakening in the Workplace
The following are my suggestions for healing yourself as well as your workplace. Whether you are a top-level leader, a middle manager, or a front-line worker (or both), you need to start with yourself to clearly see what is really happening. As humans in need of financial security and emotional safety, we sometimes deny what is really going on so that we don’t have to deal with it. Postponing it doesn’t work and suppressing our emotions causes more pain.
1. Wake up and see that you are a participant in a drama.
One of the reasons your workplace culture persists is because you and your coworkers are participating players in it. It is like an actual drama being performed by actors and it only continues to work if everyone agrees to the rules, the plot, and the script. The fear of losing your job, your income, your identity, your title, your window office, or your sense of worth keeps you in the drama. But if you just stop and start looking from a different viewpoint, you will see things from an elevated perspective. When we become truly present, we connect with our true nature, our authentic power. We do not operate from fear, and we finally cease being a victim. Practice throughout the day by deliberately stopping (every hour or more) and doing a mindful, very present pause for at least five minutes.
2. Recognize the fear that is driving all the drama and suffering.
It is fear and the need for power over others that is behind much of the behavior at work. As you awaken to your own true self and perspective you will understand others better. You can even start to see how fervently some people play their roles. One of my most often quoted lines is, “Beware of children dressed as powerful adults. Do not be beguiled.” If someone is a bully, for example, you can learn not to surrender your freedom or right to express yourself. Conversely, if you are a leader, you can see that fear is not the way to motivate or drive performance. Fear is a temporary inducement. Like a horse that is whipped to go faster, it will only work for a while or until the horse collapses.
3. Shine light and love on others from your place of being awake.
We can rebuild relationships by illuminating the workplace stage, so to speak. I call it Project Illumination because the aim is to shine a light on the shadows and hidden stories at work that keep people in fear. Create a safe environment by being authentic, communicative, accessible, and operate from love. I call it the BE LOVE model of leadership because who you are is more important than what you are doing. As each of us wakes up through our own process of self-realization, we help others wake up. Practice every day intentionally saying something kind, positive, or complimentary to at least three people—and more is even better.
4. Make choices to liberate yourself and others.
When you are guided by your true self, your inner spiritual greatness, that is residing beneath your image or role that you play, you are free to make the best choices for yourself. If you decide to create a better workplace culture where you are, you will bring authenticity and power to that decision. If you determine you want to leave, you will find options and opportunities that you didn’t know were available. You will be free. As you free yourself, you free others to make their choices.
After over twenty years of writing, coaching, and speaking on steps for healing the workplace, I know it is not easy to release yourself from the grips of fear. The practical steps and stories in my book, The Extraordinary Workplace Culture: Replacing Fear with Trust and Compassion, can help reinforce your commitment to being authentic and free. There are also many other books and resources for expanding your self-realization. I encourage you to put your attention on yourself and discover the path to feel empowered, happy, and free!
Danna Beal, M.Ed., lives in the Seattle, WA area where she is an international speaker, author, retreat/workshop leader, and executive coach. She has spoken to thousands of businesses and conferences and has been on countless radio shows, podcasts, and webinars discussing “Enlightened Leadership” and “Workplace Culture” based on her book, “The Extraordinary Workplace: Replacing Fear with Trust and Compassion.” Her audiences and clients have included: Seattle Science Foundation--Spine Surgeons Grand Rounds, Swedish Hospital and Medical Groups, Kaiser Permanente Grand Rounds, Oakland, CA, AHRA, Orlando, FL, Federal Aviation Administration, Overlake Hospital Perioperative Conference, Radia, numerous physician practices and hospitals. Her website is www.dannabeal.com.