[ARTICLE] Toxic Avengers: How to Defeat Workplace Bullies, Silence Your Own Inner Saboteur and Encourage a Culture of Collaboration


Conversation with Jason William Johnson

"For me as a manager, I’d rather you be ambitious and put forth an idea and fail, than be timid and succeed."  

Forget high school dances, college tailgaters or upscale cocktail parties.

Work can feel like the ultimate test of your social skills.

Think about it: You’re navigating cliques, attending forced after-work events, struggling to stay on your manager’s good side, trying to find someone decent  to sit with in the breakroom and let’s not even think about (dun, dun, dun) client presentations.

You can even face workplace bullies, but what if the biggest bully at the job is (plot twist) inside you?

You witness that conundrum firsthand in our #CubicleCreepshow send-up of Stephen King’s “Carrie.”  A timid employee is compelled by her manager to do a simple lunch-and-learn presentation, but it turns out that her cruel co-workers have a very twisted idea of crowd participation.

Spoiler alert: There will be blood.

Make sure you check that on out as it will better prepare you for the career insights we gleaned from Jason William Johnson, a dynamic professional who is the Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation for the iconic Chicago Urban League, the co-founder of the Konveau (networking-turned realtime performance assessment) app and a contributor to Forbes.com.

Not only does Johnson have the professional chops to help with a range of topics from workforce management and creating a productive team-oriented environment, he knows firsthand how social anxiety can derail your career goals.

In fact, the Chicagoan reveals that it almost snuffed the flame out of some of his dreams.  But with meditation and intentional thinking, Johnson not only overcame his fears, he is creating products and leveraging personality-testing to help other employees feel empowered.

Check out his responses to our probing questions about the soap opera of corporate culture below, and then stay on the lookout for the relaunch of Johnson’s Konveau which will be re-named Leadershyft. Trust us when we tell you: this man knows his stuff!

Q: “Cubicle Creepshow” is about workplace horror stories and centers on co-workers clashing and/or not communicating well. For example, there’s an episode in which a timid employee is trying to get through a presentation and some of her co-workers are hazing her publicly. How would you recommend a manager handle a situation like that?

Johnson: First of all, as far as a manager, you have to give people permission to fail. One thing that creates anxiety is when you set up the environment where people are afraid to fail. You don’t want them to feel that if they make a mistake they’ll lose their job or be publicly embarrassed. For me as a manager, I’d rather you be ambitious and put forth an idea and fail, than be timid and succeed.  You don’t feel empowered to act and make a decision when you’re in that situation.  I try to create an environment of risk-taking, an environment where it’s ok to fail because even in failure, you get feedback on how to do better.

Q: There’s more attention being placed on workplace bullying these days. What can leaders and employees do to create a more inclusive workplace culture right now?

It all starts with the leader; management indirectly or purposely makes things acceptable. Maybe I create an environment of competition, there’s more of a chance for bullying or maybe I don’t manage at all and I’m laissez faire. If you want to be intentional about a more inclusive environment, create policies that don’t condone bullying or competitive behaviors. Create a diverse workplace with different ethnicities in leadership so you get different ideas in the mix.  Get intentional about creating an environment from the corner office to the line workers that is encouraging risk taking and reducing fear of failure.

Q: Have you ever personally been in a situation where you didn't connect with your colleagues?  If so, how did you handle it?

Johnson: [chuckles] Well, I tend to get along with people pretty well, but I can give some advice about that. So, one of the things I always recommend is to come from the other person’s perspective. One of the things people like in other individuals is when they can provide value; they like a person who can make them look good. When you come from a place of collaboration, support, and encouragement, it’s hard to not like that type of person.   It’s the law of reciprocity: they will feel more connected and they’ll trust you, and they may give you additional responsibilities.

Q: Okay, that is wonderful and sounds like a good approach, but to play devil’s advocate here, what if there is a person who doesn’t like you because you have a similar role to them and they see you as competition.  They don’t see you doing a job well as a benefit to them, they see it as you getting a one-up on them.

Johnson: I don’t believe in competition.  Nobody is as good at being you as you, not even if you have the same position. Just the way organizations are set up, team culture is everything. Even in those instances, I might have a way to help a peer.  For example, I might be great at this aspect, the other person great at this other aspect of the role.  Let’s collaborate and look better together.  Start from your area of strength, knowing what you bring as a teammate, knowing what other teammates bring to the table.  If everyone is operating from their strengths, everyone is being valued for who they are and you can create synergy. As a manager, if you see an issue with them competing, it’s important to remind everyone why we are all here.  If one person loses, we all lose.  As a manager articulating the vision, you must articulate where we are going as a team and how each individual team member contributes to that bigger picture.

Q: Speaking of communication, a lot of companies have been using tests (such as Myers-Briggs) to help people with different personality types connect better. How effective is that strategy?

Johnson: I’ve been studying it for 15 years, and yes, that can be a powerful tool.  There are a lot of different ones because we need to create communication language to talk about people who are different. Because if you are not getting along with someone in a work setting, the natural assumption might be “that person is a jerk or an asshole,” but if you think about Myers-Briggs or DISK, that might actually tell you why a person does what they do.   Once you understand how a person operates, you don’t take it as personally.  I wrote about this for my first article at Forbes and it helps demystify the system.

Q: Is there any danger of being pigeonholed if you take these tests?  Will you be labeled and then treated differently?

Johnson: Well, you have to recognize, the tests are not you. They are your behavioral preferences.  It’s just the style that you prefer more often than not.  Being labeled an extrovert doesn’t mean that you are always an extrovert, it just means that you are more comfortable with extroversion but you can be introverted too.  Personality types aren’t monolithic either.  The results just give me a better idea of how to interact.   Two people with same personality type, may resonate and agree on a lot of stuff but there are still subtle differences or not subtle differences. Adolf Hitler and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are the same personality type but their values are hella different.  

Q: Can you talk about how social anxiety impacted your career?  

Johnson: So, my social anxiety story…  I know what caused it.  I had issues all the way back in my life, back at my elementary school.  That experience later impacted my career in a negative way. Before, I got into my current profession, I did rap.  I was even involved with Lupe Fiasco, involved with his album back in the day, “1st and 15th.” I missed out on opportunities back then, even though I was sitting in the room because that is what social anxiety is: missed opportunities.  I was around Kanye West when he was producing and he was saying he was looking for rappers. I didn’t rap for him.  I had that anxiety that said “this is Kanye” and I wouldn’t rap for him.  There were other opportunities where I could have been more dynamic and open and I missed out.  If you’re not willing to promote yourself, you could be highly talented, but it won’t make a difference. If you are not able to be your own social media manager and promoter, you will miss out on opportunities.  


Q: How did you overcome it?

Johnson: How did I get over it? I can’t think of any eureka moment. I just had an epiphany, but I wasn’t necessarily meditating on top of a mountain.  Meditation did happen though, and meditating allowed me to see my thoughts.  Once you create that separation, you can see your thoughts more clearly and consider how you’re thinking. You might have an assumption about how people are going to treat you, but until you try, you don’t know.  If I fail, nobody is going to like me or everybody will think I’m stupid.   One of the things I learned is that your imagination is always worse than real life.  I could always think of more ways that things would get worse and worse.  Reality is finite, but your imagination never ends. I started defining myself: who I thought I was, what I was capable of, and I put myself in positions I was uncomfortable in.  Afterwards, I would think: “Man, it went a lot better than I expected.”  Or maybe I did fail, but it wasn’t that bad.  It’s about repeated exposure of putting yourself in uncomfortable situations.  I found that I had a lot more successes than I had failures. Eventually, I thought, “Okay, these beliefs no longer serve me.”

Q: Was it difficult for you to handle public speaking because of social anxiety?

Johnson: I never had a problem with public speaking as much as other people with anxiety may have.  I do, however, work with people who have issues. At the Chicago Urban League, we have a pitch perfecting program and there are some people who would rather be in the casket than be the person speaking about the person in the casket.  It comes from what is known as catastrophizing, thinking the consequences of speaking would be a lot worse than what they are, so we do a “then what” exercise.  It works like this: You ask them “so why are you afraid to speak in public?” and they may respond “because people will judge me.” If people judge me, then what? “People won’t like me.” Then what? “Then I won’t get another opportunity, like a chance at a new job.” Then what?  “Then I don’t have a job and I end up in my momma’s basement.” Then what? “Then I’ll be pissed off.” What we find is a lot of people, guys in particular, are afraid of being in their momma’s house, in her basement, and not being able to do anything about it.  So that’s when we go back to the result.  Are people going to think you’re stupid if you fail? Think about those answers you gave and push back. What you find is they come to a conclusion that it won’t really turn out that way.