Female Founders Over Forty: Understanding Toxic Workplaces

I’m back from a week in Italy, yes, it was lovely.  I met some great people, including an amazing woman in my age range.  Another woman with a remarkable past, stellar skills and jaw-dropping experience–and, like so many of us, under-employed, in a toxic environment, having to figure out whether or not we can make it “on the outside” of the place we’re in.   We’re pondering what to do, how to do it, and our chances of  surviving, even thriving.   Making plans for the “next move” often means making an imaginative choice.  It also means confronting an uncomfortable set of realities.  Making the decision to become a female founder over forty can come from needing to move out of an untenable situation–or having few other choices. Today, I’m going to consider what I’ve learned about getting ready to move on.

First Consider Where You are

Often, we are driven to consider founding our own business out of pain, desperate situations, or frustrations.  Since we’re older, we have a bit of knowledge.  One of those is that old adage: No matter where you go, there you are.  If we aren’t careful, we’ll bring those problems we haven’t been able to solve straight into the next phase of our lives.   We’re given warnings all the time about why we shouldn’t change careers.  We’re told not to quit a job before we have a new one already in place.  For some of us, these good, practical advice maxims are useful.  Still, what I see from my vantage point is that women often get trapped into dead-end jobs with no hope of advancement–or they are often the first to go when the company is acquired.  The advice we get that is helpful in our twenties and thirties may not apply to the situation at all when we get older.

Before we get to that, we need to take a look at where we are, how long we can hold out, and what we can do to improve our personal situations.  Just as importantly, we will need to consider how we got to this pass in the first place. And, while we’re still around, start learning how to lead, especially how to lead change. We are going to be called upon to step up into leadership; so we’d better be getting ready.

Also consider where you want to BE. — Don’t Forget That!


Consider How We’re Doing Now 

Sometimes, it’s a question of whether we will survive where we currently are.   There are all kinds of toxic situations.  Some are temporary.  Some are not going to be going away no matter what happens.   Most situations are about people and personalities being in situations of power and/or authority.  If those people are the owners of the company?  Well.  They’re not going anywhere — we are the ones who are going to have to move.  But before we take those big steps, let’s take a good look at where we are–and not just us, the people around us.

Toxic organizations are generally those full of bullies, jerks and other painful people. Learning to deal with them is not a matter of going toe-to-toe with them.  It’s about changing the context  — draining the swamp — so that the environment no longer provides them with the support and cover.

Building a positive network of people who have strong social trust and positive communication is the most important skill we can bring to our next situation, whether as a female founder or as an employee elsewhere.   It’s helpful, if we can, to start where we are, in our current organization or situation.

Questions to Ask

How are other people doing?  Bullies and other types of toxic people usually want to isolate people.  It’s important that no one connects the dots, to reveal the pattern of deliberate harassment, snubs, and other bad behavior that they perpetrate against other people.  It’s that pattern that is important.  Often that pattern may be legally actionable; certainly most companies have policies that can rein in toxic personalities.

Typically, the victim of these behaviors think that it is “just me.”   When we think we see other people in our situation, and ask them about it — we may even get total denials.   No one wants to be on the bad side of an empowered persecutor.  Especially if they feel alone and unsupported.

I thought I alone was the weak one.  But no, shortly after I called up Human Resources  (with a solid complaint, evidence and witnesses), people began sidling up to me to tell me stories.  It’s usually the case that a victim of bullying and harassing behavior is far from being the only one.  Bullying, harassment and other kinds of toxic behavior are like a drug;  addictive and the behavior is usually a life-long pattern. We all need help in getting there. We need friends. We need allies.

For me, my first allies in a completely alone situation began when I first walked into the organization. For years, I told myself I just had to prove myself. But it did not stop. What you permit, will continue. Things ramped up after my husband died, and I was unexpectedly left with bills for two and in terrible pain. I became very isolated in my office, unable to deal with the pain within and the pain without. The toxic behavior and bullying ramped up. I knew I faced a choice to get stronger or to give up and fall apart. I couldn’t do that. I bought some books, got a much better therapist, and eventually worked up the energy to begin addressing the problem in the workplace. There is no happy ending to this story. The bully is still there and she’s possibly even stronger now. But so am I–much stronger and tougher–and happier. Moving forward is a process. We’ll be talking about this more.

For now, I’ll start sharing more books and resources for getting a better understanding of toxic workplaces. Here is an older book that helped me to identify the problems at work more clearly–and a newer one that we’ll talk about soon, on dealing particularly with assholes. But even before that, we need to take care of ourselves and build a network. Definitely more on this soon.

The Business Case for Eliminating Bad Behavior in the Workplace

We have to keep our eyes open for people getting thrown under the bus, emotionally and personally.   We have to question situations.  Bullies impact the entire organization, like a cancer.  They spread toxins of mistrust, animosity, and a sense of helplessness that get into social networks.   Bullies lower productivity.  they’re bad for business.  There is a business case for limiting these people, aside from their human costs.   If you’re interested in making a business case about negativity in the workplace, I recommend Robert Shola’s Making Work Work.  His recommendations for getting rid of soul-sucking negativity in the workplace is a hard, hard solution — we have to take control and take responsibility for turning the tide on bad behavior.

Shola challenges us, no matter what our position is in the organization chart, to become leaders in addressing incivility, primarily by becoming promoters of positivity.   This can be a bit scary.   His book provides guidance and ideas for shifting the emotional / spiritual energy of the workplace to reduce (possibly even eliminate) workplace negativity. This is a book that helped strengthen me, personally, and encouraged me to reach out more.  Negativity is an isolating energy that prevents productive, energizing teaming.   He builds an excellent business case for dealing with jerks in the workplace, including bosses.

What Can We Do for Ourselves?

Shola is considering looking at the problem holistically, as a product of environmental conditions.  Personally, every day continues to be a battle, and working to be that force for civility can be a bit draining– but in my experience, not nearly as draining as doing nothing.  I rely on a therapist myself to help me combat that negativity, but as I’ve been able to enlist others in the fight, it’s gotten a bit easier.  His book is mostly about building a network for positive change–and that can be a very hard fight.   For Shola, the fight is in recognizing the conditions that are making the environment toxic — and addressing them systematically.

This is a hard fight.  I took tai chi classes (in addition to therapy);  now I’m going full on self-care with an improved diet and a gym membership.  

This is a lesson I’ve learned before:  self-care and improving health generally is the first step to having the energy to make important changes in my life. 

This means physical self care and financial self care– as well as emotional and personal care.  I’ll probably raise more on these issues soon.

A Practical Bit of Impractical Advice: Learning to Deal With Assh*les

This has to be combined with more of a personal protection plan against assholery.    For those of us dealing with this sort of issue, there’s a new book called “Assholes: A Theory”   by philosopher Aaron James.  This book is a NYT bestseller and rightfully so.  James distinguishes a spectrum of toxic behaviors, distinguishing between people who occasionally do something nasty, from “mere asses” — those who simply are more fixed in their ways–and the “real” assholes — people whose dominating and nasty behavior comes from a place of ego and an established sense of privilege, of being better than everyone else.

Even if we landed the perfect next job, if we haven’t learned how to deal with jerks and assholes in the workplace, we could find ourselves back in a toxic environment.  Jerks accumulate.  Jerks are the simple unthinking, passive aggressive nobs that make the environment more and more friendly to assholery.

I’ll be writing more about these things soon.  Back from hiatus!

The usual disclaimer:
As usual, I’m an Amazon affiliate.  I get a few pennies for each book or recording or what have you that you purchase through my site.   I recommend Audible.  Listen to these books at the gym!   More soon!

Best, Lola


Author: Lola

Recovering academic, real-life, honest to cornflakes anthropologist (Ph.D. and fieldwork and everything), tech-head and social media researcher.

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