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Too Many Words For Charles; Too Much Toxicity For Us

Picture this scene, gentle reader, if you would- a large conference room with twenty colleagues, leaders, and executives seated about. The founder and CEO, who we shall refer to as Charles in this illustration, watched the various slides with amusement, disdain, and boredom.

Charles would interrupt the presenter often, focused on one data bit or another, to make various inquiries. Some questions were completely valid ("Why is that result 20% lower than forecast and this is the first I am hearing of it?"), while other inquiries were delivered in his sneering cadence, a slightly musical note to his voice, placing the presenter on immediate alert, awaiting the trap. The room would start to swirl, forced into a spiral from collective heads bouncing from the presenter, to Charles, to the presenter, and back again, with increasingly furtive glances across tables as if to silently transmit a message similar to, "Dead Man Walking!"

The trap, however, was not to catch a discrepancy in the numbers or to validate an answer. The trap was set to establish a baseline of extraordinarily toxic behavior- belittling the target, screaming, name-calling, etc.- that went on for several minutes. No answer was satisfactory in these situations- including the truth; no one was spared these games- if it was not your turn this time, it would surely be next time. It was the reason meetings with Charles were attended with the esprit de corps of an ill-equipped platoon cuddled in a foxhole- you knew there would be blood spilled today, you were powerless to stop it, and you selfishly hoped it would not be your own that soaked the ground red.

We have lived with the brutality of the lies; our faces still sting from the deceptive eirenicon that assaulted our trust.

A reasonable person may think this story to be a bit far-fetched, and I cannot fault one for thinking along those lines. The trouble is, there was no reasonable person in those meetings- one was either a hapless spectator, too afraid to speak, or a piranha swarming at the fresh blood in the water to aggressively or passively consume what was left of the target until only the bones remained. At times, Charles could be so cruel that one would wonder if he was the reincarnation of Ghengis Khan until one remembered that even Ghengis Khan operated under a set of rules.

If this scenario rings familiar, you have our sympathy and our nod of recognition. We have spoken at length of these toxic personas on this podcast- from the overblown rodomontade to the psychopathic tendencies in nearly a quarter of CEOs. We have advocated for self-advocation; we have raised our fists in defiance. We have lived with the brutality of the lies; our faces still sting from the deceptive eirenicon that assaulted our trust. We recognize there are still so many things to fix and that some things will never be fixed. We know that there are so many Charles and Charlenes that breathe the souls of the well-intended only to spit out their remains like chicken wing bones, collecting on the ground near their feet.

I had a Charles once, too.

I wondered at that moment if Charles was stuck in a mental circus funhouse, surrounded by mirrors that distort and stretch, unsure of which reflection is the real Charles versus the comical visages he must have imagined we all saw.

Charles screamed at me to the silent horror of some in the room, and the silent delight of others. "TOO MANY WORDS!" Charles bellowed at me, "Too many big words!" This was particularly interesting as I had spoken a mere five words in response to one of Charles' infamous trap questions before Charles kicked off on the latest rampage- with me as his target this time.

I recall how ludicrous the rant became- suddenly he was raging about how he did not want to hear about the invasion of Ukraine (no one brought it up), the rapidly deteriorating market prices (we were all frustrated at that), projects I had never been a part of, and projects that had yet to begin (as Charles had personally killed several of those same projects). He raged on and on for a good several minutes about these topics that I had no assigned responsibility, no control over, and of no relevance to the topic I was presenting (all while parties that did own some of those areas were in the room with us). Soon I started withdrawing into my mind, scripting a little vignette in which the leader of our company was seated on someone's lap, with the controller's hand up his back, enabling this satirical soliloquy, because there was no universe in which an allegedly successful human being could put on this level of a show and be taken seriously.

The thought of our CEO as a marionette made me chuckle, which I quickly realized I did out loud. Some wide-eyed sycophants stared in horrified awe; the piranhas stopped circling, mid-swim, to reassess the situation in light of my small outburst. Whatever scenario anyone may have thought would happen next- including my own shocking ideas- we were all surprised. Charles did not even notice my chuckle. He did not even pause. He literally had no idea that I laughed as he raged.

Charles was chest-pounding and eye-scratching an opponent with every word- but I was a mere proxy for the opponent he was fighting in his mind. I could have been anyone or no one and it would not have changed a word in his ego-fueled rage.

"I could look around this room and see at least three people that are useless." I wondered at that moment if Charles was stuck in a mental circus funhouse, surrounded by mirrors that distort and stretch, unsure of which reflection is the real Charles versus the comical visages he must have imagined we all saw at that moment. Perhaps Charles feared he could be counted among those very three useless individuals in that very room.

I could never look at Charles with respect after that day- not as a leader, not as a businessman, not as a person. I understood that there were only too many words when someone else was using them, when someone could articulate the issues at hand and propose a path forward, and when those words came from someone who was not only unafraid of him but found him amusing. After all, how could I fear someone who resulted in verbal abuse of individuals that, as the CEO, he could easily dismiss if said individuals were as incompetent as Charles wished to portray? Charles did not want to use his power to develop individuals or separate those individuals who could not move the company forward. Rather, the Charles in my story used his power to elevate his own status by grinding his foot on the throats of those in his charge, demonstrating his shallow spirit, unresolved anger issues, and talent sorely left wanting.

Charles was a weak CEO. A weaker visionary. The weakest, most frightened man.

I say all of that not in vengeance, but in victory. My assessment is blessed with the gift of perspective, resilience, and the confident knowledge that no matter what Charles may think, say, scream, rage, punch, claw, lie, steal, or whatever suits his fancy on any given day- that he and he alone is a reflection of all that he casts. Congrats, Charles.

The lesson I wish to impart here is not how to belittle your boss- I did not intend to belittle Charles, either- much less laugh at your boss in a meeting (oops!). Rather, I would hope you take from this a lesson of self-worth. Don't seek validation from gelatinous blobs under a thin veneer of humanity- those people lack the structure to support themselves, let alone you. You are not only more than enough- you are better than every spectator, orchestrator, false negotiator, and imitator cowering to the weakest person in the room. You can stand on your own without standing on someone else; you understand that when a candle uses its flame to light another candle, it loses none of its own. You understand that compassion and empathy are strengths and unapologetically display both proudly. You are the antidote to toxicity and the Charles and Charlenes of the world hate you for it.

But we love you for it. :)

There may never be a fix for every Charles in the toxic workplace.

But there is an instant fix for you- and you already possess it.

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