Vivianne Castillo left counseling to become a UX researcher. What she found was an industry that talked a lot about empathy—but wasn’t very good at practicing it. Now she’s building a company dedicated to changing that.
Vivianne Castillo left counseling to become a UX researcher. What she found was an industry that talked a lot about empathy—but wasn’t very good at practicing it. Now she’s building a company dedicated to changing that.
Vivianne Castillo is a UX researcher, humanity in tech advocate, and founder of HmntyCntrd, a masterclass for people in UX and tech that was just named one of Fast Company’s most innovative companies of 2021. Vivianne uses her background in counseling and trauma to educate on and advocate for the trauma-informed workplace, empathy in the face of capitalism, and justice for all. At HmntyCntrd, she helps people from companies like Apple, Slack, and Spotify become advocates for equity and change in the tech industry.
I think a lot of UX and design professionals can have this tendency of, "Well, if I don't do it, who will? If I don't advocate for this user, who will? If I don't care about this person who will?" And you know, I have just learned that it's not all on me, and that I can't save everyone or everything. And that is such a freeing gift to realize, and just step into the reality that it's not all on you.
—Vivianne Castillo, founder of HmntyCntrd
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Plus: in this week’s You’ve Got This, Sara talks steps for assessing when it might be time to leave a toxic work situation. Ask yourself: what are the costs of leaving? The costs of staying? What am I risking? If I stay, how can I set boundaries at work? For all this and more, head over to https://www.activevoicehq.com/podcast.
Vivianne Castillo 0:00 I think with UX and design, we talk a lot about being empathetic. But we don't necessarily talk about the barriers that get in the way: fear of exposure, fear of admitting that you don't know, that you've messed up.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher 0:27 Hello and welcome to Strong Feelings: the podcast all about the messy world of being a human at work. My name is Sara Wachter-Boettcher, and I'm so excited to share today's interview with you—because today we're talking with none other than Vivianne Castillo, founder of HmntyCntrd, a masterclass for people in UX and tech. And we talk about something I'm super passionate about: the personal work we each have to do to do our best, most inclusive, most ethical professional work. So things like investigating and understanding our own emotions, dealing with our shame, with our own trauma, not letting those things leak out all over the place when we're showing up in the design world. Things like having hard conversations, talking about issues directly, not just skirting around them. So it is a juicy conversation.
Before we get to that interview, though, I want to tell you a brief story, because it's a story that really illustrates the kind of personal work we need to do, that I need to do. And I bet some of you do, too. So here's the deal. As some of you might know, maybe you don't, back in 2017, I published this book with W.W. Norton. It's called "Technically Wrong," and just before it came out, we were trying to fix the subtitle. So I had this vague working subtitle, and we were looking for something clearer and spicier. And so an editor suggests, "Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Racist Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech". And I was like, "Yes. Love it. Yes."
1:57 And then really, shortly after that, we get some more feedback from the publisher. And some folks at Norton were uncomfortable saying "racist" in the subtitle. They wanted to dial it back, because they were saying, you know, "Well, do we actually have evidence? Can we prove that it's racist?" And I remember thinking, "Huh, nobody asked that about sexist. Why can we say that something is sexist, but we can't say racist?" And the thing is, by this point, the book was written, and I'd been speaking about these topics for a while, which means that I had gotten fairly used to having uncomfortable conversations about race with white people. But I got scared. Because W.W. Norton wasn't just anyone to me. I felt intimidated because they are this larger, more mainstream publisher. You know, they've got this big office on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. They've got authors who've won National Book Awards, they've had bestsellers. And I mean, I just felt really out of my league, honestly, I was like, "This is not something I've ever experienced. I feel lucky to be here." And so when they told me they were uncomfortable calling something racist, I fell back, and I went along with it. And so what we ended up with was the word "biased" in the subtitle instead.
3:18 Now, I still like the subtitle, but I think a lot about that experience, about how hard it can be to speak up and to be courageous, to choose direct language and not soften words just to keep other people comfortable. I think about it because I am pretty used to speaking up and yet, speaking up is still hard sometimes, because it's so vulnerable. What happened there is it really tapped into my sense of shame. It triggered all of these feelings about, you know, being out of my league, not belonging, not being worthy. I had these thoughts like, "Who am I to push back?" And so that shame and that fear, it kept me silent. And it keeps so many of us silent. Now, I've learned that the more that I've sort of faced some of those feelings, the more that I've worked through them, the less control they have over me. But it is not easy. It is a process y'all. And that is why I'm so excited about this interview with Vivianne because her work gets right at the heart of these issues, and I know that so many of us need that. I know that I still need more of that. So let's get to it.
SWB 4:28 Vivianne Castillo is a user experience researcher, a humanity and tech advocate and the founder of HmntyCntrd, a masterclass for people who want design to live up to its ideals. It was just named one of the most innovative companies in design by Fast Company. Vivianne, thank you so much for being here today. And welcome to Strong Feelings.
VC 4:46 Of course. Thank you for having me.
SWB 4:48 So first up, for those of our listeners who haven't heard of HmntyCntrd yet, can you give us the scoop on what it is and who it's for?
VC 4:54 Yeah, so I would say HmntyCntrd is a professional growth community for UX and tech professionals who are interested in doing the personal work required to do our best professional work. You know, I come from a background of counseling and human services, and when I made my career switch into UX, I was kind of surprised about how much we talk about being human-centered, but how little we talk about the personal work and commitment that it takes to actually have that become a reality. And so with HmntyCntrd, that's what we're about. We're about going deeper into that human undercurrent when it comes to these issues. Things like how do you introduce a mature framework of ethics at a team and organizational level? What are the barriers and resistances to cultural humility and competencies in design? And so that's what we're about.
SWB 5:45 You mentioned doing the personal work that it takes to do good professional work. And I'm curious if you could say more about that. What are some of the kind of internal barriers people tend to have that keep them from being the ethical, responsible, inclusive, etc, designers they might want to be?
VC 6:02 Yeah, I think a part of that just starts from this belief that as long as you think you're a good person, as long as you think you are kind enough, then you are human-centered. But really, when it comes to being human-centered, when it comes to building skills and empathy, and having a vision and having insight into things that are inequitable and unethical, that's a skillset. That's something that takes intentionality. And so I think people tend to get caught up in their own perspective of how they view themselves, and that keeps them away from investing in potential blind spots and in deepening their growth.
SWB 6:39 Mmm, yeah. One of the things that you've talked a lot about is what you see as being sort of the misapplication of empathy, or misunderstanding of empathy in UX.
VC 6:49 Yeah.
SWB 6:50 And I mean, I remember in...I don't know, I guess it was like, 2013, I started noticing the word "empathy" cropping up everywhere. And I was like, "Yeah, yes, yes! I was so excited about it. And then I had this moment, I actually founded, I wrote this post about empathy and vulnerability. And I wrote about how I had realized that empathy is very challenging when you're unable to be vulnerable and how hard it is to be professionally vulnerable. And I'm curious, you know, if you can talk a little bit about your experience with empathy in UX, and sort of the way people talk about it, and the gap between that and what's needed.
VC 7:25 Yeah, no that's a great question. I think, first, it makes me think about this quote, by James Baldwin, author, activist, I just love his work. And he says, "Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. And as long as you're sincere in what you say, you haven't got to know what you're talking about. These are the American virtues, two of them anyway. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue too." And I think with UX and design, we talk a lot about being empathetic. But we don't necessarily talk about, to your point, the barriers that get in the way: fear of exposure, fear of admitting that you don't know, that you've messed up. You know, we talk a lot about "fail fast and quickly," but we don't really mean that, as an industry. We actually don't necessarily encourage a culture to fail in a way where there's grace to do so, where you can admit that you're still on a learning journey, but you're being intentional about that learning journey. It's more than just admitting, "Hey, I'm learning," but you're able to point to moments of growth within that experience.
8:29 And so for me, you know, my experience of empathy and UX, and again, coming from a counseling and human service background, I'm always interested in the topics and the things around empathy that people aren't rushing to talk about. So when it comes to...I think one of the main things that I hear a lot about is, "Oh, like, this is gonna take a lot of time." And I think a lot of people just kind of sit in that, of like, "Oh, this is gonna take a lot of time." And they kind of use that as a way to steel their apathy, to feel their lack of commitment to doing the work and understanding, "Hey, like, I might have some blind spots, I'm gonna mess up," and just stuck on that you're gonna mess up and learn how to own those mistakes and to apologize for it.
SWB 9:09 Yeah, I think you're right, that there is such a fear of failure, even while we talk about how great failure is because I think the stories about failure are more like, "Oh, I failed my first startup, but now I'm a billionaire."
VC 9:24 Yeah.
SWB 9:24 And there's, like, these stories of like, the overcoming part but not the story about the learning and not the story about being vulnerable, about like, where you're still in a vulnerable state.
VC 9:34 Yeah. And I think that starts to poke at, again, some of the issues around how we talk about empathy and being human-centered in that this stuff is messy, and painful, and burdensome. Like when we actually sit and think about what it means to be close to the complexity of people, there's pain there. There's suffering. There's mistakes that are gonna be made because we're relational beings that aren't perfect. And I think that that's an aspect of the work that a lot of us aren't talking about. We want to skip to the very nice, "Hey, made people happy, beautiful experience, everything's equitable and inclusive. Kumbaya." But there's actually a lot of soul-searching that goes into this work. There's a lot of pain that will be surfaced in this work as you learn to grapple with ways that maybe you have caused harm or been implicit in that harm.
SWB 10:26 Yeah, you've talked a bit about how you come from a background prior to being in UX, working in human services, working in counseling, and you did a lot of work with trauma, right?
VC 10:35 Yes.
SWB 10:36 How does that play out in sort of the lens you bring to UX now?
VC 10:40 I think in its most simplest form, it's helped me to be more intentional about my needs, and my wellbeing in the midst of the work. I think we talk a lot about being advocates for other people, etc, etc. But you don't necessarily get into how that work can impact us. So when I think about trauma specifically, and even just from working with UX professionals, I often see what I'll just say are, like, three forms of trauma: acute trauma, which tends to result from, like, a single stressful or dangerous event. Chronic trauma, you know, this tends to result from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events, hashtag 2020. And then you have complex trauma, which results from exposure, again, to multiple traumatic events that tend to agitate older traumas. And so what I'm noticing is, because we're not having conversations around, how do we have a trauma-informed, not only workplace, but a trauma-informed approach to work, to engaging with participants, to colleagues, especially in light of the trauma of 2020 and ongoing, I'm seeing and noticing a lot of UX professionals who are losing passion for their craft. They're wondering if they can even continue in this career. Is this a sustainable thing that they're able to pour themselves into? So this is a part of one not only caring for participants, colleagues, but also making sure that we're caring for ourselves so we can have a sustainable and enjoyable career.
SWB 12:08 Yeah, you mentioned a "trauma-informed workplace" and "trauma-informed work."
VC 12:12 Yeah.
SWB 12:13 What would it look like if our work were more trauma-informed?
VC 12:19 At a larger organizational level things like, "Let's update our bereavement leave." Trauma requires the space to grieve. And we also aren't recognizing the ways that we have lost rituals to grieve in light of the pandemic and in light of everything that's happened in 2020. So when I'm thinking about that at, like, a team level, I'm thinking about, you know, what would it look like if managers managed bandwidth when it comes to projects and things that need to get done versus time? This is something my friend talks about, the importance of managing bandwidth over time. Knowing that there's going to be ebbs and flows of highs and lows within the emotions that we're experiencing, that we're bringing to work. Because trauma isn't this linear, steadfast path. You know, there are moments where it's heavy, we're deep in depression, we don't have the energy to do our work, we're feeling incredibly hopeless. And then there's highs where we're like, "Okay, I think I have some energy, I think I can put some time into this work."
13:20 So I think as a manager, it's about how do you create space for more of that ebb and flow. And another way to do that is, you know, I see a lot of people giving recommendations around, "Hey, if you need something, and you need to have something to take off your plate, just let your manager know." But I would actually challenge managers and encourage them to be more proactive and go to their directs and say, "Hey, here are the things that I can do to give you some space to take things off your plate. Here are some things that actually aren't priorities, you know, that meeting, we have set up? 100% could be email, don't worry about it." Like, just things like that, where we're able to just even just have more space just to feel and to be present and go a long way when it comes to having a trauma-informed workplace.
SWB 14:02 Yeah, I think what I notice there is so much of the conversation around getting support at work and sort of working through difficult times is all about putting it on the individual to ask for things. And while that sometimes is a really helpful skill to have, it sort of assumes that you feel safe, and like you're allowed to do that, and somebody's listening to you when you do do that, and all of these other things that, you know, may or may not be true. And I love this emphasis on putting it back on the organization and putting it back on leadership to say how are you making it feel possible for people to have this? How are you opening up that door and not expecting them to open up that door? You know, I think that those kinds of conversations around the community responsibility and the leadership responsibility versus just the personal responsibility maybe we don't have enough.
VC 14:50 Yeah, exactly. I think it's also just not acknowledging power dynamics. It's not acknowledging organizational trauma and the ways that organizations have ignored or not addressed harmful things that have been done. And are like, "Let's just move on." That's not how that works.
SWB 15:07 Yeah. I mean, the avoidance response is strong for a lot of people. And absolutely for a lot of organizations.
VC 15:15 Yeah.
SWB 15:15 When you think about how do we actually, you know, address the "real stuff" at work, whether it's trauma, or whether it's, you know, addressing our complicity in structural racism, or just in general facing things, like, what does it look like to have the real conversation that needs to be had? And what does it look like to do that deeper work?
VC 15:36 Well, I think a part of it is just being real and honest with ourselves that capitalism is kind of banking on you to not fully acknowledge your own humanity. Because that requires work. That requires investment. That requires eyes off the prize of making more money.
SWB 15:55 Right, it requires time not spent being a productive robot.
VC 15:58 Yeah, “productive robot,” you know, what is productive in the eyes of capitalism? And in 2020, it has been, "We know you're stressed, sniff some lavender and get back to work." So when I'm thinking about how do you actually begin to do that work, I think part of it just starts with just being honest with yourself about the environment that you're in. I think I noticed a lot of people who, they're in these incredibly toxic and abusive environments, and they’re like, "Hey, how do I push growth here?" And it's like, you're probably not. You're probably not going to grow an abundant force in the desert, you have to just kind of be honest with yourself about those things first. But I think really, this starts at the team level. It starts with being able to create space for people to be vulnerable and to share their thoughts. So one exercise that we've taught folks in HmntyCntrd of what to do and how to manage this on your team, as you know, we do things called "check in check ins" or "if you were to truly know me."
16:53 And so an activity that I've done, and I've done this to at, you know, previous workplaces, is one person goes first and they start with the line, "If you were to truly know me..." and then they just have two or three minutes to talk about what's ever on their mind. It could be work related, personal, "I made this great, you know, do it yourself cake, got locked out of my house, I'm really stressed about this project," whatever it may be. You give them two or three minutes to do that, and then give the team about two minutes to respond and say, "Hey, when I heard you say this, it made me think of whatever. It made me think of my dog, it made me think about this funny sitcom I was watching over the weekend." And it's just this moment where you can just kind of get a quick pulse on where everyone's at, but also, like, share a little bit more of yourself and get an idea of those people that you're working with. Because I think a lot of times, we tend to view this work as a solo journey, when in reality, it needs to be a shared one, you need community care, to bolster those moments of discouragement, to bolster those moments when you feel like your voice isn't enough, or you don't have something necessarily to contribute. And so things that you can do in practice that help shift that mindset from a solo one to a shared one is going to be a huge aspect towards moving towards growth and change in this area.
SWB 18:07 Yeah, that's so powerful. So often, what I find when I run, like, a group program at an event is when people start talking about their experiences, experiences that they thought of as being very lonely experiences where they never told anybody, people will immediately go like, "Yeah, me too. Yeah, I felt like that, too." And it's so freeing for people to hear that they're not the only one who has talked themselves out of speaking up during a difficult conversation by you know, telling themselves that they probably aren't gonna say anything worth hearing. It's like "Oh, my brain does the same thing. Oh, right. It's not just me." And I feel like one of the things you're really speaking to is creating environments that not just allow that to happen, but really, like, encourage more of that to happen.
VC 18:53 Yeah, exactly. Like, I think for me, we've over-indexed on what does it mean to be human-centered, in quote-unquote “design” and under-indexed on what does it actually mean to be human-centered towards ourselves and to each other. And those are interdependent on each other and they relate to each other.
SWB 19:10 Yes. Okay. So tell me, when you think about being human-centered with each other—being human-centered as people first and then as designers second—what changes then? How does that impact our ability to be human-centered in the work?
VC 19:23 I think it gives people more permission to say no, to say, "I actually can't lean into this right now because it's going to exasperate my bandwidth." I think it gives people the permission to take care of themselves, to actually sleep, to eat well, to rest. And that's a huge part of us being able to even have empathetic fitness and endurance. You know, we talk a lot about empathy, but we don't necessarily talk about the holistic nature of empathy, and that includes working out, that includes eating well, getting rest, and so it creates more space for ourselves. Actually taking care of our bodies and seeing the implications that that has on design and in work. But also, what I think it does is it teaches us how to let other people in, how to let other people support us, how to admit that we don't know things, that we need help. I think that that is a sorely missed skill the UX community needs to lean more into: how to ask for help, how to admit that you don't know something.
SWB 20:26 And I think that's so hard for people in a lot of work contexts.
VC 20:29 For sure.
SWB 20:29 Because it's like, as soon as you admit you don't know something, if you admit lack of certainty, it's like, "Oh, they're not very confident. They need to be more assertive. They need to be out there being more visible." It's like, you get all of this feedback that somehow you're not doing your job. And what I'm hearing is, it's like, "No, no, no, no, no, like, vulnerability is actually part of the job. It's part of what lets you be good at the job."
VC 20:50 Yeah, you know, I often talk about how we can learn so much from human service professionals. You know the American Counseling Association, in their code of ethics, they talk about the importance of being able to recognize the thing yourself but also within other people: mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual impairment. And when they talk about spirituality, they talk about the things that ground us and give us purpose and meaning. And what I love about that code of ethics is the community care and accountability that's tied to it. My hypothesis around why I feel like, especially within UX, we really struggle with not admitting that we don't know something or that we need help is I think you know, I think UX still is a pretty relatively new and younger industry. And I think the first wave or two of UX leaders, really their main focus was proving and showing relevance of UX.
SWB 21:46 A seat at the table.
VC 21:48 Yeah, this is important. And so a lot of people knock Amazon. But to be fair, Amazon is actually just kind of doing what the first wave or two of UX leaders taught, which, it's all about the end user. It doesn't matter about the warehouse workers, doesn't matter about the neighborhood, doesn't matter about society's impact. It's really about the user. So Amazon has actually just kind of, you know, followed and played to the book. But I think we're at this moment in UX, where we need to start shifting from the pursuit of relevance to the desire for maturity. I think that's where we're starting to see more conversations about ethics, about accessibility, about inclusiveness, and even just context about how the workplace impacts our work as UX and design professionals.
SWB 22:31 Yeah, I hear this sort of distinction between, like, elbowing your way into the room versus having that more holistic viewpoint on where do we need to be considering the experience of everybody along the chain, right, in this sort of more complex way?
VC 22:46 Exactly.
SWB 22:47 I want to come back around to HmntyCntrd, because it's absolutely about all of these things. And I know that you were working on the curriculum and the launch for the very first cohort of it last summer when George Floyd was murdered. And then suddenly, every tech company posted some kind of, mostly terrible, statement about Black Lives Matter. Maybe they would express actual support, maybe they say something even vaguer than that. But suddenly, there was this huge moment where the conversation had really shifted, we were in the middle of the pandemic, conversation shifted to being focused on racial justice. And there you were creating this course. And I'm curious, what was it like to put this program together in that moment? And how did that shift what you were thinking and doing with it?
VC 23:29 I don't know if it necessarily had a huge impact in that moment. I think a part of that is because being Black in tech, being a Black woman, you just kind of get used to these moments and swells of folks, and the majority caring, and feeling guilty, feeling a bunch of emotions, and you know, joining book clubs and stuff, and then it dies out. And I feel like with summer, I think a lot of things added to what made that moment feel unique. You had international response to it, you had, you know, brands finally admitting that they're racist, and they need to change their logo, or they need to change their slogan or whatever it is. But I think when you are marginalized and underrepresented in society, in these industries, you kind of learned to deal with the ebb and flow of people's care and commitment. So it didn't necessarily make me feel like I needed to rush to get content out. If anything, it just reminded me that we need to lean more into this work. That I already knew that there's gonna be a moment where it was going to be less bookclubs, people are going to be tired, less commitment to doing this work. And so it was important to me for HmntyCntrd to develop and to grow so that we can continue offering support for folks who are doing this work because again, it's exhausting as a solo journey. It's more sustainable, doable, and manageable as a shared one.
SWB 25:02 Well, so since you launched the program, you've had a couple of cohorts for it. And meanwhile, the world still keeps being what it is. And I'm curious, what's the response been like? And what has it felt like to bring people through this program?
VC 25:18 You know, generally, it's been a really good response. I think people feel like they have a space to have these tough conversations and to have them with people who are interested, who care. You know, I think a lot of times in corporate settings, we're exerting so much energy just to get people to even open their eyes to it. And so now you're in a community with other folks who are wrestling through this internally. They're experimenting internally, you're sharing ideas, you're sharing thoughts. And so I think it just has allowed people to feel seen. I think that as well, like, we were incredibly intentional and making sure that the community was diverse. And even as we're building this business, how do we build this business in a way that we wish other companies were like, that we wish we were able to experience, you know, working at these large tech companies?
26:07 So you know, my team and I, we're thinking about, yeah, what does it look like for us to manage our workload based off of bandwidth and not time? You know, we do "check in check ins" before every meeting. We'll message each other through the week, "Is there anything, support or encouragement that you need done?" And within the community to you know, we're being intentional, we want to better sense and respond to the needs of folks and where do you want, you know, expert guidance in? What topics and issues you want deeper dives into? And so, it's something that we've given ourselves permission to experiment with and to build on our own timeline, and not necessarily how everyone expects us to build HmntyCntrd.
SWB 26:47 Okay, so you just got this Fast Company award as a most innovative design company. Yeah. Which is huge. Congratulations.
VC 26:53 Thank you.
SWB 26:53 I'm also wondering, you know, how do you resist the pressure of doing things the way that is expected, maybe, in the tech industry? The like, "We have to scale really fast, we have to go 10x, whatever, hockey stick growth." How do you resist that? And say, "No, that's not what we're about here?"
VC 27:11 Yeah, I feel like since we've gotten that award, I've been asked a lot, "How are you thinking about scaling? How are you thinking about growing?" And my answer is, I'm not. I'm focusing on how to really provide a quality experience, how to provide value to the community. I'm working on HmntyCntrd full time now. We have two live cohorts, one in May one in September. Could I add another live cohort or two since I'm full time? I could, but for us, and I told my team,this the other day, we are people on purpose-driven first. Profits will come, but people and purpose-driven above everything else. So we are leaning into how do we better sense and respond to the needs of the community? What is the infrastructure that we need also on the back end in order to better support people and their needs? How can we provide content training and resources not only for folks internally, within HmntyCntrd and HmntyCntrd members, but for people who are outside of the community. So we're viewing this year as really focusing on taking care of the community and taking care of ourselves. To that end too, I was really inspired by The Nap Ministry. They're on Instagram. I love them. And they had recently posted how they're taking a two month sabbatical. And they're doing that as a practice of resistance and viewing rest as resistance. And I saw that and just, I love it. So I told my team, I was like, It'll probably at the end of the year, but we'll probably take 45 or 60 days off, and you'll be paid for that. But we need to practice rest and taking care of ourselves. So I just...Yeah permission to take care of my team to take care of the community. And we'll build it on our own speed and pace. But regardless, it will be beautiful.
SWB 28:59 Okay, on that note, where can folks get more info about HmntyCntrd and maybe sign up for that May cohort coming up?
VC 29:06 Yeah, so you can go to HmntyCntrd.com. If you also type out the word "humanity centered .com" it will reroute you to that website. So you can go there to learn more information, sign up for our next cohort. Registration closes on May 7. And then the cohort starts the week after. So there's still time. Seats are filling up fast, and we would love for folks to participate.
SWB 29:36 Yes, absolutely. Definitely check out HmntyCntrd. I've had friends go through that program and tell me that it really changed their perspective on their work and sort of blew their mind in some ways they didn't expect, so that is my unsponsored endorsement from real people I know who loved it.
VC 29:52 Yeah, no, I love that. We're putting out a self-paced version of the course next week. And we're also building more courses and content right now to support people and even topics and issues like workplace trauma and injury and how do you bring truly your authentic self into the workplace and things like that.
SWB 30:11 Okay, I will definitely be on the lookout for those.
VC 30:13 I love it.
SWB 30:13 Yes, so much good stuff coming out of that.
VC 30:16 Yes, Yes.
SWB 30:24 Okay, so Vivianne, I want to change gears for a minute and ask about something a little more personal, digging into some of your recent experience with Salesforce. Because you left Salesforce earlier this year, and it was pretty public. You posted a resignation letter from when you left, and it made the rounds online. And you know, you talked about Salesforce having this gaslighting culture for underrepresented groups. You talked about feeling like there was manipulative marketing but not a lot of action behind it. And you talked a lot about your own experience of harm while you were working there. And I'm really curious, what made you finally decide that, "It's time I'm writing the letter."
VC 31:06 Before I wrote that letter, I had actually taken about two-and-a-half months of leave from work. I had gotten to this point where I started to sense that I was losing myself. And I wasn't sleeping as well. I just felt truly running on E and took two-and-a-half months of leave. Probably one of the greatest things that I got from that leave was clarity. Clarity around what I'm passionate about, clarity around who I am outside of what I can produce, clarity on the amount of effs given towards corporate America things. But really, I got a taste of what it was like to operate out of freedom instead of fear.
31:51 So I go back to work at Salesforce, and at the end of my first week, I was just like, I can't do this anymore. I can't do this to myself, can't do this to my body or to my spirit. I started writing this resignation letter, probably wrote it over the course of like a week and a half, it was much shorter, the first draft like three-fourths of a page, but it's been right on it, sleep on it, tweak things. And for me, you know, I am a firm believer in the power of your voice. And I don't think we should let anyone, or any entity take that away. So I've viewed, you know, sharing my resignation letter internally across all of Salesforce as a way to hopefully encourage other people to use their voice to help other people see that they weren't alone in their experiences. And as someone who has a counseling background in education, you know, I didn't use words like "gaslighting" lightly. I know the harm that can come from being in environments and systems like that for a long time. So I wanted to give language to some things people might be experiencing, but hopefully give some people encouragement that they're not alone in this.
SWB 33:01 Speaking of encouragement, I'm wondering for those listeners out there who are maybe also in a toxic workplace, and I guarantee that's at least some of them, knowing what I know about workplaces, what would you say to that person who's kind of trying to think, like, "Can I leave?" or "How do I leave?" What advice would you give someone?
VC 33:18 Yeah, to the question of, "Can you leave? Should you leave a toxic workplace? My answer is yes. I think a lot of times we try to think about, "How can I manage it and deal with it better?" And an illustration I often give people is, let's say you had a friend, and they came to you, and they were like, "Hey, I'm in this relationship. And the person that I'm with, you know, I don't feel like I can fully bring my whole self around them. I feel like if I say something wrong, I might be retaliated against. You know, I'm worried about what this person might do to me if I really share what I'm thinking." Hopefully, you know, if a friend came to us with that, we'd be like, "Get out of there, have better boundaries. This person is not healthy." And I think you know, when it comes to work, we're kind of, you know, in a similar vein, we're like, "Okay, but how do I deal with this abuse?"
SWB 34:15 Yeah.
VC 34:16 "How do I better manage the harm that I'm experiencing?" And I think that we need to realize that we have a lot more freedom over environments than we realize. Yes, it's hard and it's work to find a new job. But it's also about counting the cost. And the reality that a lot of us are and have experienced trauma at the hands of these different entities and organizations because we decided to stay and deal and normalize and minimize the trauma and its impact.
SWB 34:49 Yes. Oh, gosh, I talk to people so much about how we, like, we'll think about all of the fear and the risk of leaving because there's an unknown and so we'll really, like, hyper-focus on that, and completely discount, well, what are the costs of staying? Oh, the cost to your brain and your body? Oh, you just discounted those entirely? Hmm.
VC 35:11 Yeah.
SWB 35:11 And I think, you know, when we really look at that, and we say, "Wait, wait, sure it costs me to leave, like, finding a new job costs or figuring out how to work for myself, that's gonna cost something." But if I don't ask, "Well, what is it costing me to stay?" it's like, how can you make a good decision?
VC 35:24 Yeah. And you know, I think 2020 has had this impact on people where it's caused people to pause and be like, "Wait, why am I doing this?”
SWB 35:33 Yeah.
VC 35:33 “Why am I just doing this?” And it's also changed people's values. I really value family. I really value my wellbeing, and being seen, and feeling more whole. And so I always encourage people, even though it's pain, and trust me, like, leaving Salesforce, I think a lot of people, they look at that letter, they look at in general how outspoken I am, and they're like, "Oh, you're so brave. Wow, that's so great. You're so courageous." Don't get it twisted. There's a lot of pain that is tied to this. There's a lot of grief and anger that goes into that. And I'm still on my healing journey. But it's about perspective. It's about understanding the cost of what it was going to do, not only to my emotional, mental, and physical well being but to my spirit. Like for me, one of the greatest offenses is someone breaking your spirit, or allowing an entity or organization to break your spirit. And that for me, that cost wasn't worth it. Given what 2020 has shown us, how we aren't promised tomorrow, and how short of a time that we have on this side of eternity. And so I opted to choose my wellbeing over capitalism.
SWB 36:47 I want to say that one again: "wellbeing over capitalism." And I know it's a hard choice, because the capitalism part feels like a lot of pressure. But what I hear you saying is that you made it work. And it's possible to come out the other side of that.
VC 36:59 Yeah, yeah.
SWB 37:00 You talked a bunch about choosing courage. And something that I've heard you say a lot of times is asking people to choose courage over comfort. And at the same time, you're also talking about, you know, wellbeing and taking care of yourself. And so I'm also really curious about what that looks like. Choosing courage takes energy. And it takes vulnerability and risk. How do you take care of yourself, so you're not burning out or breaking yourself while being courageous?
VC 37:30 Yeah, I mean, I am incredibly fortunate, grateful to have an amazing support community and network. And especially folks who aren't in my industry. Let me tell you, it is lovely to have friends who are not in your industry who care for your spirit, and how you're doing, and your well being. So I have a great support system. You know, I'm definitely someone who is always moving a million miles per hour, I have a really hard time staying still and truly resting. So I have folks who check in on me and hold me accountable. And who asked me like, "Hey, how you doing in this? Have you been taking care of yourself? Are you still doing a, b and c?" So I always encourage people: find folks that you trust that will call you out on your BS, and when you know, you aren't prioritizing yourself in wellbeing.
38:23 I think also for me, I'm able to afford therapy. So I have a really great therapist, I'm a Black woman. For me, I wanted a therapist, she was also a Black woman. I did not have the time or the energy to ramp up a well-meaning white person on my experience as a Black woman in tech. But I also wanted a therapist who was experienced in counseling other therapists, because I told her, you know, because I'm a trained therapist, I was like, "Your BS radar needs to be on a whole ‘nother level with me because I know how to give the illusion of depth." So therapy, really great and amazing support group and community, but also just leaning more into play, leaning more into things that don't need to have an end result and is truly just for me. And I think that's a part of my journey that I've been on of, "Who is Vivianne, outside of what she can produce?" and just leaning into exploring who that is and having fun with that.
SWB 39:23 I'm so glad that you're doing that. I hope that it inspires more people to do that.
VC 39:26 Yes.
SWB 39:27 And you know, I want to ask one last question about that, about that balance of courage and self-care. How do you decide where your voice is most needed, where you want to put that energy and when you're like, "No, not worth it. I'm protecting my time here"?
VC 39:42 I think for me, I kind of gauge it against anger and anxiety. And I think anger is healthy. I think if you are doing the work of becoming more human-centered, anger is appropriate because you're going to see the ways that it lacks. So for me, depending on how angry I am about something is usually a good measure. I'll often sleep on things. If I feel like, "Okay, I know myself, if I address this or give energy to this in this moment, it's not going to be helpful." But also I just have learned, I think part of this too, is I think a lot of UX and design professionals can have this tendency of, "Well, if I don't do it, who will? If I don't advocate for this user, who will? If I don't, you know, care about this person who will?" And you know, I have just learned that it's not all on me, and that I can't save everyone or everything. And that is such a freeing gift to realize, and just step into the reality that like, it's not all on you. Not everyone needs to be receiver of your Twitter fingers. Take time away, and breathe, and lean into things that add to your peace and to your calm.
SWB 40:57 I think that’s the perfect note to end on. Vivianne, thank you so much for being here. Again, HmntyCntrd is enrolling right now through May 7th. And people can get all that info at hmntycntrd.com. Thank you so much for being here. This has been an absolute joy for me.
VC Thank you. I appreciate you having me.
SWB 41:20 Okay, so if you have not read Vivianne's resignation letter from Salesforce, we'll link it in the show notes. It's a must read. It's powerful. And this whole conversation about leaving a toxic environment, it really got me thinking about all of the friends and clients I have had who've felt similarly, felt really stuck in workplaces that were abusive, harmful, hurtful to them. It is a lot of people. And so I want to focus on that for today's final segment, which is called, “You've Got This.” That's where we break down some of our guests’ advice into practical steps that you can take because, “You've got this.”
41:59 So when Vivianne talked about the costs of staying in a toxic environment, that really resonated with me. So often, I see people focus on the cost of leaving their job, like, “Oh my gosh, I'm going to have to find a new job,” which let's be real. Yeah. It's not the most fun thing, and it's not always easy. But we start telling ourselves these stories that I think really amplify the risks of leaving. Like, “Well, the next place will probably be worse, or I won't be able to find anything” or also things like, “Oh, I'm giving up. I should tough it out.” Our brains like to do this because change is uncertain, uncertainty breeds fear. And that's okay. It's okay to acknowledge being scared. It is totally normal to feel some fear when you're looking at making a change. It is risky. But I think the issue is when all we do is listen to the fear. We tend to stay frozen. And we need to listen to some other perspectives as well. And so it's not about saying, “Oh, everything's going to be fine. Don't be afraid.” Instead, it's much more about pausing and getting out of that fear spiral and saying, “Okay, yes, there are costs to leaving. And I feel nervous about that. I'm scared of that, but what are the costs of staying? What am I risking? If I continue down this path, what is the impact going to be on my psyche, on my emotional state, on my health?” And then also, what might you gain by leaving? What are some of the possible benefits of leaving that you haven't even explored in that scared state?
43:23 Here's an example: I was just talking with a friend recently who was trying to decide if they should leave their job. And they're a manager, and they really felt like if they left, they'd be abandoning their team, kind of, like, leaving them to fend for themselves in this toxic place. Now I will say that is a lot of pressure to put on yourself, but it's also pressure I really relate to. I mean, I've had those feelings. I know what it's like to feel like you need to protect people. So what I did is I offered her a little bit of a reframe. I said, “You know, sure, when you leave, you're not there to protect them. But when you stay, when you put up with abuse at work to protect other people, you're also sending the message to those people that this is the kind of behavior that can just be put up with that. That this is something that they should have to put up with. You're modeling for them that that's just how it is.
44:12 And I find this reframe really helpful because women particularly are so trained to serve and to please others, that it's really common to feel guilty when we set boundaries. As if it's selfish, but A) it's okay to take care of yourself, and that's what setting boundaries is. And B) it's actually good for everyone when you set boundaries. It's good because it shows people that boundaries are okay, the boundaries are allowed. It shows people what boundaries even look like, because trust me, a lot of people have a lot of issues with boundaries, self included. And so what I find is that when you set a boundary and when you say “This is not tolerable,” that can actually inspire other people. So if you're in that place, that place where you are burning out, you're feeling unsafe, you know your job is bad news, but you're scared to leave, I really encourage you to set aside some time. Ask yourself some of these questions. I've compiled them and some other resources for leaving a toxic job at activevoicehq.com/podcast. And I'm going to say, write your answers down too. Write them down because it'll help you slow down that fear response. It'll help you really explore the space and figure out, “What is it truly costing me to stay”. And then you can compare it. It doesn't mean it's always time to go, but you can start comparing, “Okay. What's the cost of staying versus what's the cost of leaving?” You might find that some things suddenly get a lot clearer. You've got this.
45:45 That's it for this week's episode of Strong Feelings. I’m your host, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, and Strong Feelings is a production of Active Voice. Check us out at activevoicehq.com and get all the past episodes, show notes, full transcripts, and more at strongfeelings.co. This episode was recorded in South Philadelphia and produced by Emily Duncan. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Philly's own Blowdryer. Check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Vivianne Castillo for being our guest today, and thank you for listening. If you liked our show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. See you next time.