Why We Need to Kick Fear and Toxicity Out of the Workplace

In case you’re new to the blog, my name Heather Newman,  @heddanewman social.   

I am CEO of Creative Maven, CMO for Content Panda, and I'm a Microsoft MVP. I roam the world talking about technology, diversity, inclusion, and personal development and I write about inspiration and motivation on Medium.com. I live in lovely Los Angeles, though I hail from the Midwest. I was a theater major turned technologist and have been working in and around Microsoft and SharePoint since 2001, as a marketer, event producer, and speaker in an amazing community of people.  

This ongoing blog series is being written in response to my witnessing people not being so nice to each other (and some personal situations I've found myself in over the years) as well as the first iteration of a presentation that I debuted last year in the Diversity and Tech track at Microsoft Ignite and have gone on to present at many other events.  

How to Kick Fear and Toxicity Out of the Workplace, A Practical Guide 

Like many of us, I’ve been fired, let go, or had a contract not renewed a few times, but I don't consider those things failures because I have always learned so much from those situations. I have made vats and vats of lemonade out of each of them.  

This series will explore fear and toxicity, first to define those terms, then to show them at work (and all the damage they do), and finally to shed some light on how to kick them to the curb. 

It’s easy to ask and answer why we need to end fear and toxicity, and hard to answer how. But it can be done; it just takes an environment that recognizes these human qualities and offers a platform to work through them. And everyone has to be onboard. We need to change the fear-based workplace into the trust-based workplace, and we need to do it sooner rather than later. 

So, let’s talk about fear. 

Most people lead with fear because our brains haven’t had a firmware update in 7 million years. Our brains can’t tell the difference between a sabre-tooth tiger and a CEO, meaning our “fight or flight” instincts are constantly misfiring, keeping us reacting and retreating, even when we know it’s not in our best interest. We’re afraid of making mistakes because we fear the consequences, whether our lizard brain made them up or not. 

An innocent (or not so innocent) comment can trigger the negative programming we received as children, and we’re off to the races. Not only can’t the lizard brain evaluate relative levels of danger, but it also has no sense of time, keeping it always ready to zap you back to childhood and into the movie where you were told you’re not smart or funny or pretty or good enough… long before your conscious brain developed the ability to question any of what you were hearing. It’s important to know none of this was your fault; you were physiologically unable to defend yourself.  

It’s no wonder society (both at home and in the workplace) is a minefield, what with all of us walking around with so much stored negativity, waiting to strike, but we need to take control and flip these scripts. Let’s start with the workplace. 

Unfortunately, the workplace isn’t necessarily the friendplace. You are forced to interact with people you may never have otherwise met or chosen, and your livelihood depends on it. It’s not enough to do your job, but you also need to cooperate and work with others. Just like you, they’re all working against their bad programming, often with disastrous results. Too many lizard brains in charge, and you’ve got a toxic workplace. 

Here are some examples of how this toxicity plays out: 

  •  A manager or executive makes someone cry or otherwise humiliates them in a public setting.  

  •  Sales and revenue trump all (including/especially a rich culture), and the bully mentality is tolerated and even encouraged.   

  • People's ideas are stolen, credit isn't given when credit is due, and bosses demand you choose your job over family/life to move up, get the promotion or stay employed.  

Can toxic workplaces recover? And if so, what does that look like? 

To me the opposite of fear is trust, so the first step to banishing fear (or at least taking it out of the driver’s seat) is replacing it with trust.   

Here are some things you’ll see in a trust-based workplace: 

  • People respect each other and embrace the diverse and beautiful  mélange we all bring to the table. 

  • People are heard and encouraged to use their voices. All ideas are championed and brought to life collectively by the group.   

  • People pause to thank each other, to understand and acknowledge when stress levels are high.   

One more quick pro-tip, let’s all remove the word BUSY from our piles of excuses. Everyone on earth is busy, and everyone's busy is exactly the same. Busy divides us and pulls us off the task of connecting.  

The good news is I’ve found the workplace can be a big mirror, and a friendplace. If I lead with joy, I create joy. When I trust people, they tend to trust me back. Most people respond to your energy and give it back to you. (of course, there are jerks., let’s hope they are the minority.)  

 As a theater major, I learned about empathy. Good theater lets you experience life as someone else – an excellent intro to empathy.  

 I always say:

Empathy makes us human.

Action makes us warriors. 

 And what is the workplace but another kind of theater? The fear-based workplace is a script that needs a rewrite, starting by adding empathy and trust. There’s a lot more to say on this, of course, but trust is a great place to start. 

Next week’s blog post will be a deeper dive into the lizard brain, followed by a post on impostor syndrome. These two are the big guns, and I think you’ll see what I mean when you read them.  

We may not save the world overnight, but we’re on task, and our numbers keep growing and it starts with each of us. Fear and toxicity, we’re coming for you!