Over the years I’ve spent countless hours working on toxic behaviours and micro-aggressions in cybersecurity, from building the IN Security Code of Conduct for event organisers to performing ground-breaking research on sexual harassment, supporting those who’ve been victims, and leaders who want to create high performance environments of excellence. My conclusion is sadly this: toxic behaviours and micro-aggressions are getting worse.
Just think about it.
Have you ever experienced (or witnessed) someone making a comment that seemed harmless, but it left you feeling uneasy? Or maybe you’ve been in a situation where someone’s behaviour towards you or someone else was just plain toxic? Both are examples of micro-aggressions and toxic behaviours.
Micro-aggressions are subtle, often unintentional actions or words that are harmful towards someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity marker. Toxic behaviours are actions or words that are intentionally harmful towards others, often disguised as humour, “banter,” or just “how I am.”
In this blog, I’m examining subtle micro-aggressions as well as outright aggressive remarks that we see so often in tech. I’ll be offering solutions on how best to confront toxic behaviours should the situation arise – as both a victim and as a leader. To illustrate these points even further, I’ve compiled some real-life stories that demonstrate success as well as failure – everything ranging from taking action against abusers right through to what not to do if things go wrong – all of which are invaluable lessons for anyone looking to own their voice within a modern workplace.
So, let’s dig deeper into understanding more about micro-aggressions and confronting toxicity so that we can recognise these behaviours in ourselves and others, create healthier, respectful environments for everyone, and achieve successful outcomes.
Unpacking the Underlying Motivations of Toxic Behaviour
There are always underlying motivations behind someone’s toxic behaviour. Perhaps it could be a result of past experiences, insecurity, or beliefs that have been ingrained in them over time. Or it maybe it’s a form of self-protection or a way for them to cope with difficulties. Whatever the case, their toxic behaviour isn’t justifiable, and you are not responsible for their actions. You are only responsible for yours and how you choose to respond to them.
How to Spot the Signs of a Toxic Personality or Micro-aggression
Have you ever felt like someone in your life was just draining all your energy and making you feel terrible about yourself? If you answered yes, then chances are you’re dealing with a toxic personality. Toxic people can be incredibly frustrating to deal with since they tend to bring negativity wherever they go. In my experience, the best way to spot the signs of a toxic person is by looking for patterns in their behaviour. For example, playing the victim, constantly criticising others, controlling behaviour, or wanting to act as the hero. They live in Karpman’s Drama Triangle, see below.
And let’s not forget about micro-aggressions – subtle, often unintentional actions or words that can be hurtful and marginalising to individuals or groups, and add up over time. Here are 10 examples:
- Making assumptions about someone’s identity based on their appearance or perceived nationality. For example, asking a British/ European/ American Asian where they’re “really” from.
- Dismissing someone’s experience or viewpoint because of their gender or race. For example, telling a woman she’s “too emotional” or dismissing a person of colour’s perspective as “divisive”.
- Using language that’s exclusionary or that reinforces stereotypes. For example, using “crazy” to describe someone with a mental health condition.
- Interrupting or talking over someone in a conversation or meeting because of their gender, race, or other characteristic.
- Questioning someone’s qualifications or accomplishments based on their race, gender, or other characteristic. For example, assuming a woman in tech isn’t as skilled as her male colleagues.
- Assuming that everyone has access to the same resources and opportunities. For example, assuming that all students have equal access to technology and Internet connectivity for remote learning.
- Making comments about someone’s physical appearance that perpetuate harmful stereotypes or expectations. For example, commenting on a black woman’s hair or a person’s weight.
- Using humour or sarcasm in a way that demeans or belittles someone based on their identity. For example, making jokes about someone’s accent or cultural traditions.
- Assuming that someone is straight or cisgender (identifying with the gender assigned at birth) and making heteronormative or cisnormative comments. For example, assuming that a person of a certain gender is attracted to people of the opposite gender, or asking a transgender person about their “real” name.
- Treating someone differently based on their identity, even if it’s in a seemingly positive way. For example, assuming someone is good at mathematics because of their race.
My Story on Confronting Toxic Behaviour at Work – Unhealthy Competitiveness, Backstabbing and Gossiping
Years ago, when I was in my thirties and was just about to give birth to my second son, I was working in an environment where everyone seemed to be out to get each other, win at all costs, and the gossip and backstabbing were out of control. At first, I tried to ignore it and just keep my head down, but it was impossible. I dreaded going into work every day and it was affecting every aspect of my life. Finally, I had enough. I knew I had to find some courage, to take a stand, and confront the toxic behaviour head-on.
But I had to forgive myself first, for it was occurring in my own company!
Once I’d got over the shame and blame I felt for not acting sooner and enabling a toxic culture, I started by having frank conversations with everyone involved – hearing out their stories as well as explaining things from my own perspective, and of course setting boundaries and reminding them of our company’s vision and mission. It wasn’t easy to do and required courage but eventually things changed, and I was able to create an environment where everyone felt respected, valued, and understood our company standard. Learning the lesson, I ensured a situation like that never happened again under my leadership.
Emily’s Story on ConfrontIng Toxic Behaviour – the New Manager she’d Hired who was Negatively Impacting her Team’s Performance
Emily had always loved her job and the team she worked with. Her co-workers were friendly, hardworking, and supportive, and they always had each other’s backs. However, things started to change when a new manager was hired.
Unfortunately, Emily was unaware that her new manager, Tom, was known for his micromanaging and toxic behaviour towards his subordinates. He’d often belittle and criticise his team in front of others, and was quick to blame them for any problems that arose. Emily noticed that the team’s morale began to decline, and many of her co-workers started to dread coming to work.
Emily knew that something needed to be done. She decided to confront Tom about his behaviour and how it was affecting the team. She planned out what she wanted to say and even practiced talking to him in front of a mirror. However, when the time came to talk to Tom, she found herself getting emotional and stumbled over her words. Tom brushed off her concerns and told her to “toughen up.”
Feeling defeated, Emily retreated back to her desk and didn’t bring up the issue again. Over time, the toxic behaviour only worsened, and many of Emily’s co-workers began to quit. Emily realised that by not speaking up and effectively addressing the issue with Tom, she’d allowed the toxicity to continue unchecked.
In the end, Emily learned the importance of speaking up and confronting toxic behaviour in the workplace, in a clear and professional manner. Emotional outbursts or confrontations can often lead to a worsening of the situation, and it’s crucial to remain calm and level-headed when speaking with a toxic co-worker or manager. By getting help and approaching the situation with tact and professionalism, Emily could have potentially prevented the situation from escalating further and helped her team to maintain a healthy and positive work environment.
Fernanda’s Story on Confronting a Toxic Personality who Wanted to “Own” Her
Fernanada was a senior tech manager who wanted to move into leadership. She was friends with Alice, who worked in another department at her company, and was more junior to her. Unfortunately, Alice had a tendency towards toxic behaviour, particularly when it came to controlling others and asserting her power.
Fernanada was unaware of this until she decided to develop her leadership skills and invest in a coach. When Alice found out about this, she was furious. She told Fernanada that she shouldn’t be exercising her self-agency and working with someone else. Instead, she should be working with her!
Alice’s behaviour was triggered by her own insecurities and fear of losing control. Even though Alice lacked leadership skills, she felt threatened by Fernanada ‘s decision to work with someone else as to her it undermined her authority and expertise. In her mind, she also thought she “owned” Fernanada and had the right to dictate her choices and actions. She used what Susan Forward, author of ‘Emotional Blackmail’ calls blinding FOG strategies – Fear, Obligation, and Guilt – something that characterises most toxic relationships.
As Fernanada continued to work with her chosen coach and advance, Alice’s behaviour became progressively more controlling and toxic. She’d make snide comments about Fernanada’s abilities whenever they spoke, and constantly criticise the work she was doing. It was clear that Alice was trying to undermine Fernanada ‘s confidence and keep her under her control.
Ultimately, Fernanada recognised that Alice’s behaviour was not only toxic, but also harmful to her professional growth and development. She knew that people always judge you according to who you surround yourself with, and that she had to stand up for herself by asserting her own agency in the face of Alice’s controlling behaviour. This meant speaking to Alice about her toxic behaviour and then severing ties with her.
In the end, Alice’s toxic behaviour only served to harm herself and those around her. Without self awareness of her toxic behaviour, refusing to acknowledge the value of others and their right to self-determination, Alice ultimately isolated herself and lost the respect of those who might have supported her.
How to Handle Toxic Behaviour or Micro-aggressions When They’re Directed at You
The first step to handling micro-aggressions and toxic behaviour is to educate yourself on the topic. Understand what they are, where they come from, and how they can negatively affect both the person affected as well as those around them. Read up on various approaches you can take such as setting boundaries, communicating clearly and assertively, expressing empathy, and using de-escalation techniques.
Take time to reflect
Take a step back and look at the situation objectively. Without judgement, consider the person’s words and actions. Ask yourself what’s really going on here, and why someone might be behaving in this way. What’s triggering them? What’s making them feel insecure or inadequate? What’s their privilege? Remember to keep your emotions in check so you can see the situation for what it is rather than getting caught up in the heat of the moment. Move from a reactive to proactive mindset, freeing yourself, exercising your power, taking back control and responsibility for yourself and your reactions.
Look around your workplace and ask yourself… Is this where you want to be? Do you feel valued? Are you in alignment with culture? Are you thriving or surviving? Do you need to speak up? Do you need to move on?
Check where you are allowing someone to use you, manipulate you, and treat you poorly. Look inwards, compassionately, to find if the relationship is reflecting something in your relationship with yourself.
Once you understand the dynamics of micro-aggressions and toxic behaviour, it’s time to establish boundaries. Boundaries are about protecting yourself from too much of someone else’s energy as well as not allowing someone else’s behaviour to bring you down. State your boundaries clearly and be firm in sticking to them. It may take some time for the other person to adjust, but it will eventually help create more respectful communication and interactions.
When confronted with micro-aggressions or toxic behaviour, assert yourself in your communication. Speak up and express yourself clearly and directly, while still using a respectful tone. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries or call out inappropriate behaviour if needed.
Document incidents that occur, including times, dates, and people involved
It’s important to document any incidents that occur when dealing with micro-aggressions or toxic behaviour in the workplace. This includes noting down times, dates and people involved in the incident. Documenting these details helps to create an accurate record of events which can be helpful if you need to take further action such as involving HR – who are there to protect the company (not you), or escalating the issue with a lawyer.
Seek support at work
If you’re struggling to handle micro-aggressions or toxic behaviour on your own, don’t hesitate to seek support from colleagues, a manager, or HR if necessary. It helps to have someone listening and understanding the situation as well as offering advice. Having an objective third party who can challenge inappropriate behaviour in a constructive manner can also be beneficial, in addition to having someone who can provide emotional support. Seeking support from the right people is a great way to ensure that any micro-aggressions or toxic behaviour doesn’t get out of hand.
Take good self-care throughout the process
Don’t forget to take care of yourself during this process. Taking ownership of your mental health and wellbeing is key to responding appropriately in challenging situations.
Seek outside help
If the situation becomes dangerous or there’s no resolution in sight, consider seeking outside help. This can come in the form of a professional mediator, lawyer, counsellor, therapist or even a trusted friend or family member. Having someone else involved can help keep emotions in check and provide an objective perspective and legal perspective on the situation.
Forgive and move on
Forgiveness is essential, and part of the process. Don’t hold onto negative emotions or grudges, as this will only further fuel the cycle of toxicity. Let go of any resentment or anger so you can focus on creating a healthier environment for yourself and those around you. Journaling, mindfulness, tapping, and moving your body (so you move the energy out of your body) all help. If you need to resign from a company, this doesn’t illustrate weakness. Rather, it demonstrates strength. It’s you using your power.
Advice for Leaders Handling Toxic Behaviour and Micro-aggressions
Know the signs of toxic behaviour and micro-aggressions
Leaders can help by acknowledging the signs, making sure everyone is aware of them, and creating a safe environment where victims can speak up and receive proper support. Additionally, they can challenge these biases by setting an example through inclusive language and actions.
When employees experience micro-aggressions or toxic behaviour, they should feel empowered to speak up. Speaking up can be challenging, and many people are afraid of the potential repercussions. But, keeping quiet only allows these situations to persist. Leaders can create a culture that encourages open communication by actively seeking the victim’s opinions, providing a safe space to voice their concerns and promoting empathy among the team. When a micro-aggression or toxic behaviour is reported, take it seriously and address it appropriately.
Create a plan
Creating a plan for dealing with micro-aggressions and toxic behaviour is essential for managing these situations effectively. Leaders should set clear policies and guidelines outlining what constitutes micro-aggressions and toxic behaviour, how to recognise them, and how to report them. Employees should not only know what is expected of them, but they should also understand the consequences of their actions. Leaders should also provide training to educate employees on what constitutes a micro-aggression and equip them with the tools to address it in a healthy and respectful manner.
Learn from mistakes
Inclusivity doesn’t mean that mistakes won’t be made. Leaders and employees should take responsibility for their actions and learn from them. This process involves acknowledging that they may have made a mistake, apologising if required, and then taking the necessary steps to make amends. Leaders set the tone for this by being transparent and accountable and giving the same grace to others. Being transparent and accountable fosters a sense of trust among teammates.
Skill up, rethinking your workplace culture
Toxic environments are often rooted in poor leadership. Often, it’s because leaders don’t know what good leadership looks like or because their practices have slipped, bad habits have formed, and no one is there to hold them accountable. Leaders should therefore evaluate their leadership skills, those of their team, along with their organisation’s values and their own to ensure they align with inclusive and collaborative values. They should review their current policies, procedures and strategies and address the ones that might be promoting toxic workplace practices.
The bottom line is that employees should not be made to feel invalidated or unsafe in the workplace. Leaders must acknowledge the significance of creating an inclusive and collaborative environment free of toxic behaviour or micro-aggressions. As one member of a team, victims and leaders should recognise the importance of speaking up in a respectful and empathetic manner.
Everyone makes mistakes, but it takes acknowledgment, responsibility and taking the necessary action to be able to learn from them. Being inclusive and supportive means taking serious measures in rethinking work practices, policies, and strategies that foster a toxic workplace culture. By implementing these suggestions, leaders and employees alike, can help their workplaces become safer, more inclusive, and fruitful for all.
Now I want to hear from you
If you’re feeling ready to take your leadership skills to the next level and want to develop the tools and strategies necessary to lead with confidence and purpose, it’s time to take action and book a discovery call with me. During our call, we’ll discuss your unique leadership goals and challenges, and explore how we can work together to help you reach your full potential. Whether you’re looking to build stronger teams, improve your communication skills, or develop a more effective leadership style, I’m here to help. Book a discovery call here now.