Have you ever felt belittled in the workplace? Some people may not recognize your own accomplishments and expertise. In this blog, I share an experience I've had with these feelings, and some lessons I've learned.
I was a Scrum Master for a team with a very involved Engineering Director. We had little representation from the Product Owner team, and his hierarchical attitude had already been negatively impacting the teams. I had no idea how much until after this situation…
HOW I REACTED WHEN UNEXPECTEDLY TOUCHED
This Engineering Director traveled to my home office for a week for some in-person meetings, conversations, and planning events. I had arrived early that day at the office and was hard at work with my huge over-the-ear headphones playing music while I caught up on emails. Abruptly, I felt someone come up behind me, grab my ponytail, and shake it around lightly. I turned to see this Engineering Director grinning and chuckling while I removed my headphones and froze, speechless, for about a minute. I was startled. I'm not used to being touched, especially on my head, especially at work, especially early in the morning, and most especially by a manager. He joked "Oh I figured out how to shut you up for a minute". I felt embarrassed, belittled, and insecure. After some time, I shrugged it off and figured he was just trying to be friendly… and I tried to move on with my day.
HOW I REACTED WHEN FEELING BELITTLED
Fast forward to that afternoon, this Engineering Director said he wanted to talk to me. I agreed, and he walked me to a conference room and closed the door. He started the conversation nicely enough: "I need your help to increase collaboration on the team". I excitedly started to respond, "I agree! This is one of our biggest issues we are currently facing," and started to outline some of the things I've been doing to encourage the team in open and honest communication. Shortly, I brought up the infamous Harvard Business Review study cited by Scrum Masters, to suggest that our team of 10 developers might be too large, and that we should consider experimenting with smaller focus groups … but I did not get too far into my pitch. He interrupted me with a guffaw and an eye roll. He said smaller groups don't work, and that we need to have everyone on the same Scrum events so that each developer is aware of the daily tasks being accomplished by each other developer. I tried to respond by saying we don’t have to officially split the team, we can start with smaller experiments by dividing the Backlog Refinement, but I was cut off.
As the "conversation" proceeded, the Engineering Director interrupted my every sentence. I attempted to listen and to retain my professional attitude. He asked a few questions, and as I answered, he interrupted me to tell me I was wrong. At one point in the conversation, he brought up another issue and then sniped "You read so much, you tell me what to do with this". Of course when I started to respond, he cut me off yet again. Admittedly I lost my composure at one point and complained he was interrupting me a lot. He responded, "I already knew what you were going to say". Needless to say, at some point, I stopped responding and honestly stopped listening. By the end of the hour, I felt belittled again and even bullied. He wrapped up the meeting by saying "Oh and by the way. I'm just looking out for what's best for the team. You shouldn't get so defensive."
WHAT OTHERS HAD TO SAY
Diana S: I have dealt with a very similar boss for years. I would prepare careful bullet point topics, prep with statistics and great news, but every time he would hijack the conversation and make me feel belittled. I wish I spoke up more about how I felt, and not just for my sake, but for the sake of my team which went through a ton of turnover, partially due to this aggressive, non-appreciative behavior. I also wish I Ieft much earlier, and didn't get stuck in this abusive work relationship because the money was so good. I think my upbringing had a lot to do with accepting this treatment, believing that authority is always right and that I need to put up to survive.
Aruna: This is indeed a difficult situation. I've had the ponytail situation happen to me as well in a professional setting. It was startling and an invasion of my personal space to say the least. My body anxiously and naturally responded by flicking his hand away from my head. With an assertive voice, I responded, "please don't touch my hair again". He apologized. I was comfortable saying that because I've known this coworker for a while and he wasn't one of my superiors. But in this case, I guess I wouldn't know what to do. I'd keep my proximity in check from there on.
As a Scrum Master, it's also vital to try to create an environment to allow every member of the team to be able to voice their concerns and ideas fearlessly and comfortably, especially for the SM themselves. I am almost wondering if reverse psychology would work in this case and confuse him. What if I am not bothered by the conference room incident? What if I am "not" intimidated and annoyed by his loud behavior and carried on my business as usual. And perhaps during one of our meetings (on a good day), discuss the "collaboration" concerns with the entire team and get their thoughts, strictly with the intention of helping the team, not to belittle or "attack" anyone indirectly. And with no references to the prior incident. I'd be curious to see the outcome. I guess I am practicing being uncomfortable and doing things anyway, with the intention of helping the team.
In the past, I have sent emails to my superiors about needing the opportunity to speak out about my issues as I'm repeatedly being interrupted, but I have never received a reply. Once I sent the email, I went ahead and did what was requested. They weren't concerned with that either.
Luba: There are a few things to unpack. My first thought when I read that he touched your ponytail was actually "so what?", meaning I had my ponytail tagged on many times and it never bothered me. However, I also realized that something else triggers me. I cannot stand it when someone touches the back of my neck. I mean absolutely no one is allowed to come near my neck, not my kids, not my husband and for sure not someone at work I barely know but it did happen to me in the work environment on a few occasions. With that said, I don't remember it ever happening again after my not-so-subtle reaction and asking to never ever ever do that again. I would first ask to stop politely and if it never happened again, I would most likely let it go. It is a must to give feedback and be honest because some people truly don't mean to upset you and it is just a lack of awareness or sometimes common sense. As far as interrupting and being loud and just an overall negative environment, that's a tough one. I would look into the topics of psychological safety, and communication styles and work with HR and the Learning and Development team to perhaps roll something out on the organizational level. We also need to realize that sometimes we are not in the position to coach someone and perhaps need to get some coaching from the HR business partner on how to best approach this type of situation.
HOW I HANDLED IT
I could let the head-touching pass. But seeing the direct effects of this belittlement on the team, I knew I had to stand up and say something. I documented my concerns and went to the Engineering Director's supervisor. He heard the concerns and made a plan to address them through coaching. As a result of this coaching, over the next few months, I saw the Engineering Director become more distant from me, but also more professional in shared environments. I still felt belittled, but he was getting the coaching and feedback to improve. I finally felt at peace knowing that not everyone is going to respect my opinions as I hoped … but good can still come from these experiences.
Sometimes people don't care to have a conversation but are only here to be heard. I could have asked at the beginning of the conversation "Is the purpose of this talk to have a dialogue, or for you to make your expectations and opinions clear to me?".
Some people have been promoted based on their ability to solve problems. They may think that they are the best at solving these big hairy problems, and they may not want to listen at first to any new person who approaches a different view of an idea.
Documentation is your friend! Document concerns and share them with people you trust, with a focus on impact statements. Collect as much data as possible to share, so that your message is heard and can be actioned on if needed.