Toxic passivity: What it is and how it can hinder your career development

One of the subtle limitations of coming from a religious or cultural background that values modesty, humility and respect for authority is that it can hinder your professional progress.

There has been a lot of talk lately about toxic positivity and toxic masculinity. I would like to add another one of these seemingly harmless attributes/actions that can become toxic. Toxic passivity is the passivity and laid-backness that comes from thinking that we should only respect those in authority and never assert ourselves particularly professionally. This is toxic because stepping up into leadership and advancing in your career requires some measure of assertiveness and it impedes our progress. Toxic passivity views all this assertiveness as selfish ambition and therefore not something we should aspire to when in fact you can be assertive without being disrespectful.


I come from an Africa and Christian household. We were raised with very strong family ties and family plays a central role in our lives. Taking care of family members is a given and an expectation - almost to a fault. Through my own eyes and in observing folks professionally, I want to offer that sometimes that timidity and shyness can work against us in the workplace. It's not fair that the loud and boisterous often get picked to lead things. Sometimes though, we are at fault for taking a back seat and waiting for opportunities come our way.


Ways in which toxic passivity can hinder your career progress:


1. Not proposing yourself to lead/take on a project

Being passive because you are waiting for someone to propose your name or for someone to ask you to take the lead or even take on a project. Being the support person and never the point person. This often comes from both a cultural and personal place. However it does not serve you in the professional setting.


Instead: Take initiative

Realize that your career is in your own hands and that no one will come and do it for you. Your employer provides you a job - you need to have the road map and the vision on where you are trying to go. Don't sit and wait for someone to do it for you - do it for yourself.


2. Not speaking up during work meetings

Being passive and or non-reactive and basically disappearing into the team without really building that internal confidence to speak up. Perhaps you grew up in a household where children were to be seen and not heard and where having a say was not welcomed. This is something you will need to unlearn


Instead: Speak Up

While it can be nerve wracking to really speak up within your meetings as a team or your division, find your voice and use it. The irony is that the more you speak the easier it becomes. Know that your input is valuable and don't always wait for someone to seek your opinion, become comfortable with sharing your opinion.


3. Not applying for jobs because you don't think you are ready

There's so much to say here but women often talk themselves out of applying for jobs. I put a whole blog post together on why you should apply to jobs even when you don't have to. Next time you're looking at jobs pay attention to whether you're talking yourself into it or out of it


Instead: Apply for jobs

Stop waiting until you meet all the requirements in order to apply for a job. Apply for practice, apply even if you don't get it, apply apply apply. I have a whole blog post on Why you should apply for a job even if you don't qualify for it


4. Not raising your own opinion on how to do things differently

This is both cultural and personality based. Again you may be working against cultural barriers, where you are not to question authority as this may be seen as disrespectful or inappropriate. Voicing your opinion doesn't have to be insubordinate or disrespectful.


Instead: Present & Defend your ideas

Take speaking up one step further by proposing alternatives. While something may seem obvious to you, your point of view is informed by your unique experiences and those bring value to the team. When talk about diversity, it goes beyond physical appearance. Your worldview is influenced by the context within which you were educated at home and professionally. Get comfortable questioning things but also proposing that folks look at things differently


5. Loyalty to a job that doesn't treat you right

This often looks like staying in a job that is taking you no where because you feel it is your duty to stay so you can learn patience, or whatever virtue you think you ought to learn. The workplace of your parents and grandparents doesnt exist anymore. Staying in a job for 30 years is not even relevant to the current context where some companies don't even last 10 years. Your employer will drop you like a hot potato whenever they can.


Instead: Leave toxic workplaces

A lot of us have been brought up to put up with nonsense and be grateful for being somewhere. This is not worth the mental and physical toll this will have you on you, your body and your family. Know that you deserve to be happy and fulfilled, professionally, personally and in every aspect of your life. Refuse to settle and don't think for a second that you need to be loyal to your employer. When you leave they will replace you without missing a beat so look out for yourself, and yes, seek more and better work conditions, salary and environments/benefits.


Overcoming all of these issues will require a lot of unlearning internal affirmation. There will likely be a culture clash where you are having to go against what you were indoctrinated with for years. There may also be a personality clash, if you're more passive and less active/proactive then this will also likely require you stepping out of your comfort zone. Finally there will need to be some internal work to really get to the bottom of some of the things that are holding you back especially when those things are tied to not feeling worthy, thinking that you don't deserve the progress or even overcoming negative self-talk and the voice of others who have previously not seen you in the light of capability.


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