Leading Without Power - Emotional Triggers · ShiftWorkPlace

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S1 Leading Without Power – Emotional Triggers

The Incident

I was once hired as a contractor in a tech company to write curriculum. I observed a lot of racist jokes being made between the white managers and the visible minority managers and employees during day-to-day interactions and team meetings.

The Initial Reaction

I identified the issue as racist and unjust, and I didn’t find the jokes funny. In my opinion, those jokes were creating a climate of toxicity at the workplace.

The Goal

I wanted to increase a sense of psychological workplace safety, which was demonstrably undermined by the racist banter.

The Professional Relationship

I worked under one of the white managers and was subjected to constant scrutiny and micromanagement. He was much younger than me, didn’t have the same amount of education or experience as I did and felt the need to prove he was better than me. I was the only person on the team from a non-technical background, and the only woman. This put me in a difficult place in an already power-imbalanced situation.

The Obstacles

The people on the team had been working together on a number of projects, albeit remotely, for over 3-4 years. I walked into an established climate of conflicting relationships and power dynamics, as a naive newbie. The work atmosphere was one of viciousness and one-upmanship.

Actions Taken

At first, I tried to divert attention away from the racist comments by complimenting those who were being frequently targeted. I would publicly praise them, drawing attention to their good qualities.

The Result

This action backfired and those people were further targeted. I was also made fun. The perpetrators of this behavior thereafter made more of a concerted effort to make racist jokes.

The Principle

When racism or bias of any kind exists within a workplace, it is an indicator of social dominance. Racism, even when disguised as a joke, is unjust, poisonous and creates a toxic atmosphere.


When racism exists, other kinds of negativities exist too. Narcissism, sexism and hateful conflicts are also by-products of social dominance. These are dangerous and must be handled delicately. Social dominance feeds on a toxic power hierarchy, where the ‘alpha male’ type of people feel the need to exert authority and put other people down, especially if they are not bowing to their will. Such people enjoy hurting others’ feelings.


I felt emotionally triggered by this incident. When my attempts to improve the situation backfired, I tried speaking to a few women in other departments. However, they did not want to indulge me because I wasn’t a permanent employee and did not understand the complexity of the political environment like they did. Eventually, I emotionally shut down, feeling intimidated and dismissed, and left the contract.

Possible Alternatives

I could have spoken to the people at my workplace and communicated that the humorous insults being exchanged were not creating an atmosphere of safety in the workplace. Using the label racist would have instigated people to undermine the behavior and prove it doesn’t exist. I could have made a statement of personal preference stating I didn’t like the comments and they made it difficult for me to work.

I could have addressed this issue with my managers stating that such comments were not funny and that coming from them, were compromising the sense of safety in the workplace and the ability of all employees to do their jobs well, what with them having to watch their backs all the time. I would have taken care not to make them feel humiliated, but would have expressed my belief in their capacity to be encouraging and supportive.

The Emotional Trigger

I felt ashamed that I hadn’t thought of the possible alternatives which existed, much less chosen one of them. Although I felt very strongly about issues like racism in the workplace and had dealt with them effectively at other times in my life, I couldn’t understand why I emotionally shut down in this situation. I realized that if one is facing an incident which seems unable to resolve, it must be attached to a trigger reminding one of some difficult, unresolved life incident. I spent some time trying to unearth the emotional trigger.

As a 6-year old, I was bullied by a 10-year old boy who used to beat me for a year before the situation could be resolved. The intimidating white manager I directly reported to reminded me of this boy, making me feel like that 6-year old girl being beaten up – powerless and small. Once I identified the trigger, I realized that I didn’t have to have the same responses as an adult who was perfectly competent, educated and experienced. I could calmly explain my situation and work towards its resolution without being emotionally triggered. This realization set me free, allowing me to resolve many other situations of powerlessness in my life.

Lessons Learned

Even though this situation did not conclude well, going forward, I learnt to consider my emotional response carefully and create a strategic action plan without shutting down. I garnered that in situations when one is trying to lead without power, they may cognitively identify actions which could be taken but be emotionally frozen into inaction. When I stepped out of the situation which was triggering me, I was able to introspect and understand that even though I have shown courage at other times in my life, this particular situation hit a raw nerve.


The following list is a compilation of all possible strategies, should you find yourself in a similar situation. Consider how each one makes you feel, and then pick the one you can execute with confidence.

  • Build your social capital by having discrete appreciative conversations with team members over a course of time.
  • You could widen the conversation by including one more person, asking them to say one thing they appreciate about the other person.
  • To build a climate of encouragement, suggest a 5-minute activity to end team meetings where team members say what they appreciate about each other.
  • At a team meeting, state that your observations of certain kinds of comments are interfering with your capacity to work. Confronting the issue in this way makes it impersonal yet impactful.
  • Privately but confidently, express to the perpetrators of this behavior how it is affecting you and your team members.
  • Talk to a higher authority about how such incidents are keeping people from doing their work because of fear and low confidence.
  • Share the legislation regarding psychological workplace safety with your employers without mentioning the incident, and monitor their response.
  • Quietly document the incidents and file a complaint. You could also do this once your contract is over.
  • People who speak against bad behavior are typically targeted further, but it is because they were powerful enough to do that. If going through this hassle doesn’t seem worthy to you, you could consider looking for another job.
  • If you are surprised by your emotional reaction, ask yourself what the trigger is. Usually, emotions sabotage the best strategies because we are feeling beings. However, the less we face our emotions, the more likely it is that we are going to be sabotaged by them.

Have you faced an issue with leadership in your professional life? We want to hear your story! Email your incident to marie@shiftworkplace.com.


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