Speaking Up Meant Standing Alone
“Leadership means one day, looking around the room, waiting for someone - anyone, to do something, and realizing you are that someone. “
That was how I felt the very first moment that I stood up; that I spoke out against unacceptable behaviour, and gained a true appreciation for the loneliness of leadership. The price for my speaking out was steep. This is not the story of what happened. It is the story of what happened next. When my fear was replaced with conviction, when I found a voice I hadn’t expected and the transformative impact one decision had on how I would see myself, and others from that day forward.
I was in disbelief. Driving home, shaking. Had that really occurred? That day I attended an event with dozens of my peers, leadership of all levels were present. We had endured/bore witness to a spectacular display of repeated, inappropriate behaviour – including blatant sexism, with a dash of emasculation thrown in for good measure. I was in disbelief because it was dished out by a top executive in our organization. The insults, inappropriate comments, and disrespectful tone were consistently sprinkled throughout the day-long session he facilitated, often directly targeted at specific individuals. After the second jaw-dropping moment that morning, I started taking notes. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I am glad I wrote things down in the moment.
My shock and confusion created a swirl of thoughts as I drove home. I had never seen an exec act so poorly, so publicly. ‘The room was full of leaders, surely SOMEONE would do SOMETHING?’ That phrase kept repeating. There were far more senior people than me in the room. Leaders whose own direct reports had been singled out, so they wouldn’t let it slide. I could not be the only one fired up about this. I saw the reactions of my peers; they knew it was unacceptable. As I continued to reflect, I realized I was expecting someone else to stick their neck out, to be a leader. I wasn’t looking to myself. I was in attendance that day because I was a leader yet I still viewed myself as ‘less than’; looking to more senior, more experienced people to step up.
What if NO ONE does ANYTHING?
All those thoughts started to be drowned out by a small, fearful voice, persistent in the background. ‘What if NO ONE does ANYTHING?’ I thought about my peers who had been targeted. All but one of the people on the receiving end were female. I consider myself a champion for gender equality, specifically in leadership and STEM. Could my conscience handle remaining silent? The pairing of those thoughts proved to be where my line in the sand was drawn. I drove on, anger and disappointment slowly turning to resolve. Someone was going to act on their behalf. It was going to be me. What the hell was I thinking?
I felt sick. I barely slept that night, my stomach twisted. I didn’t know what to do - any action was likely a career-ending choice. No one goes on to future success in a company after calling out a top exec’s bad behaviour. Was I really willing to go through with whatever it was I was going to do (had not figured that out yet) and risk ending my career at a great company?
It was clear to me the next morning that I was not backing down.
I remember walking through the doors, wondering if it was for the last time. A sense of isolation started to set in. I chose to act with discretion – not go out in a blaze of glory. Professionally and personally it suited who I was. I was not going to rally the troops. It was my decision and mine alone. That doesn’t mean I did not get support. I sought guidance from a trusted advisor who was familiar with the situation and understood the dynamic and power imbalance I was up against. My gratitude for their support cannot be overstated. They suggested I communicate via letter, addressed directly to him, written in a neutral voice, sticking to the facts. That is what I did.
OK, that’s what I thought I had done. What I actually wrote in that first draft was a letter so fiery that I’m surprised it did not spontaneously combust. Many, many rewrites later I was able to strike the right tone. After taking a very deep breath, the letter was finalized and delivered through an intermediary.
Soon enough I found myself in a closed-door meeting, face-to-face with this executive. The man I had called out for very unprofessional behaviour.
Walking in I was filled with uncertainty. I am not a confrontational person and had no idea if he was going to fly off the handle. Should I have had someone else in the room with me? Had I blown things out of proportion? Was I going to regret speaking out? I had my answers as soon as he spoke the first words of his non-apology. “Thank you for being so courageous. Clearly, YOU were offended and misinterpreted what I said…” The more he continued the stronger I felt. It was clear he had prepared the (non) apology carefully. I suppose he assumed I would be satisfied by that, after all, I was in way over my head here. Who was I to challenge his actions? I produced my notes from that day. He grew visibly upset as I methodically read each statement he made, named who it was directed to and asked for clarification. I felt almost robotic at that point. Trying to remain as calm and emotionless as possible, as I watched him literally turn red in the face like a cartoon. This he had not prepared for. The meeting came to an abrupt end and I was asked to leave. I exhaled. Had I been holding my breath the entire time?
That was that. I wondered how long it would be till I was fired. I had only been let go once – from a high school job at the public library where I was fired for reading too much, (hello irony). Should I start packing up my things? My brain had temporarily switched from conviction to practicality – checking off an imaginary ‘to do’ list for my imminent dismissal.
If this were a Hollywood film, this is the moment he would have been tossed to the curb and my colleagues and I would be shown celebrating during the end credits montage. That’s not how things work in the real world.
What happened next was…nothing.
He avoided me and though I was not fired immediately, I knew I was not going to be considered for a promotion anytime soon. As fate would have it, an organizational shuffle soon occurred, I found myself reporting directly to him and that was the end of the line for me.
You might be asking yourself what’s the point of all this? David fought Goliath and lost. No surprise there. Looking back, my biggest regret is that I did not speak out in the moment. It bothers me to think that some of my peers suffered embarrassment and think to this day that no one stood up for them. To demonstrate publicly that inappropriate behaviour is not acceptable regardless of who does it. I cannot be too hard on myself though, I had a lot of growing to do. I really hadn’t lost. I just didn’t know it yet.
Over the years a shift occurred. My perception of workplace dynamics was altered. I gained a confidence that has served me and my teams well though admittedly it has sometimes frustrated subsequent employers.
That day I began seeing myself in a different light. I was no longer ‘less than’.
Maybe there is some strange confidence gained through negative experiences?
It was not my goal, but here are the changes I have seen in myself:
A willingness to respectfully challenge the status quo was already present, after that day it grew exponentially. I was more inclined to ask questions others avoid. I more easily distinguish between remaining silent out of respect for the situation versus out of fear. I am no longer afraid.
Workplace dynamics can be a messy combination of personalities, egos and politics. I now realize how often the power dynamics at work confuse respect with protecting egos. Successful workplaces are filled with people at all levels who encourage questions and promote understanding. Bruised egos are no longer my concern.
I don’t believe all leaders will experience truly sticking their necks out, nor do I believe you have to do so, to be considered a ‘true’ leader. I don’t wish that experience on others. But understand that when someone has walked the walk as I have – they can spot the ‘talkers’ a mile away.
I still despise confrontation. I’m not attracted to that dynamic and am frankly ill-suited for it. There is, however, a quiet calm that has settled in around me. That day I had nothing to gain and lost a great deal. But that very specific fear – ‘what if no one does anything’ – no longer takes root in my head. When the occasion calls for it, I know I am now the ‘someone’ who acts.
My line has been drawn.
Glendalynn Dixon guides business transformations focused on culture, leadership & data management. She is a freelance writer, speaker and mentor who champions women in technology and uses stories from her wild ride of a life to challenge preconceived notions. She is also the creator of The Successful People Manager, a no-nonsense online management training program for leaders committed to professional growth.