Bullying at work is one of the biggest challenges any business leader could face. It messes up the workplace culture and causes serious imposter syndrome to many. For Dr. Jennifer Kwoon, bullying is nothing but mere power dynamics. Joining Dr. Santor Nishizaki, the Co-Founder of Illumentia explains how people should be taught to wield their power in a positive way to minimize or eliminate bullying. She discusses how leaders could address this problem today when business models are overlapping, the number of Generation Z professionals is on the rise, and the Great Resignation is changing the market trends on people management.

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Leading Within An Organization: Understanding And Preventing Bullying At Work With Dr. Jennifer Kwoon

Dr. Jennifer Kwoon is an Organizational Psychologist and Cofounder of Illumentia, an organization that creates and delivers programs on leadership, multiculturalism, and DE&I learning. She has worked in a variety of industries, including nonprofit healthcare, mortgage banking, and themed entertainment. She earned a PhD in Business Psychology in 2018, focusing her studies on power dynamics in the workplace and how the positive use of power is vital to building creative, innovative, and ultimately, more productive working cultures. You can find out more about Jennifer and her partners at Illumentia at www.Illumentia.org. Let’s hear what Dr. Kwoon has to say about bullying at work or as she calls it, power dynamics in the workplace.

Dr. Kwoon, thank you so much for joining the show. How are you doing?

I’m doing so great. Thanks for having me here.

I brought you on to this show to talk about what you studied when you got your PhD or what you specialize in, which is bullying at work. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you studied? After that, I would love to hear about your story, and how you got to where you are now.

Thank you so much for asking. I finished my PhD in Organizational Psychology in 2018. My dissertation was called Power, Domination, and Control: The Commonalities Between Workplace Bullying and Domestic Abuse. At that time when I first started my study, workplace bullying was considered a fringe topic. Most people went to work and said, “There are certain things I don’t like about it. I’ll have to put up with it and move on like generations before me.” By the time I finished this dissertation in 2018, power abuse and workplace bullying were newsworthy. It was front and center.

At that time, the news stories came out about Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and all these high-profile stories where the word power kept on coming up over and over again. The original idea when I first started studying this topic was that because workplace bullying was a fringe topic, I thought that there were some commonalities with how someone experiences domestic abuse at home. If I could make a viable comparison between these two, then I can elevate this topic as an important thing to talk about at work.

That’s fascinating and relevant, Dr. Kwoon.

Call me Jennifer. It’s okay.

Jennifer, I saw an article that came out about this whole remote work, and that remote workers are facing harassment at work, and 38% report that. It’s important to have this discussion and understand what power dynamics or bullying at work mean. With different generations, we’re starting to see this. In my book Working With Gen Z, we found that approximately 70% of Gen Z-ers are concerned about bullying at work.

It’s shocking and disheartening when you look at the different studies and the estimated percentages of people who have either experienced this directly themselves, seen it happen, know it’s happening, or even admitted to being a perpetrator of workplace abuse. In the years since I did my study, I am moving away from the terms of bullying because power dynamics is more of the term that I’m working with now. It doesn’t always have to be a negative thing. When power is used in a negative fashion, then it becomes abusive. Power is also an extremely powerful tool that has a lot of capacity to build as much as it does to injure.

It’s almost like a spectrum. Good power and bad power.

I consider it like any other tool that has either inherently good or bad qualities. It’s what you’re doing with the tools that build or injure. I think of it in terms of the actual power tools in my garage. If I don’t know how to use this tool, then I’m liable for injuring myself or injuring someone else with it.

I love that metaphor. To backpedal a little bit here, being that it’s about Millennial leaders or leadership in general, this show is for people who are transitioning into a leadership role. I know you’ve had amazing leadership experience within your careers. When you dealt with your first leadership experience or in general, a new job or a new organization, have you ever felt like having an imposter syndrome? I felt it for sure. How did you deal with it, Jennifer?

Everyone I know suffers from imposter syndrome in some way, regardless of age, gender, race, title, rank, and years of experience within an organization or profession. How you feel about it and how it affects you and what are the things that influence those feelings are dependent upon stuff like age, race, and gender. It may be worse for some people than others. For example, young people or people who are from a minority status or people who are changing jobs or something like that probably get a lot of opinions and definitions pushed onto them or imposed onto them by other people for good or bad reasons.

Having this barrage of other definitions being pushed upon them can mess with the person’s ability to self-define, find their own thoughts, and come up with their own perspectives and opinions on things. It lays fertile ground for feelings of insecurities, and not being comfortable with not knowing when everyone else around you seems so sure of their definitions, and then making sure that they are putting their definitions on you, and trying to influence you to absorb these definitions on your own.

The problem with that is pressing your definition onto someone else, they start feeling like these are the only definitions out there, which leads to a lot of insecurities and feelings like, “This is not how I feel about things. This is not my perspective. There seems to be fundamentally something wrong with this,” and not having that surety of your own voice, which leads to feeling like an imposter.

Would you say that sometimes, “This person is a leader so I need to look like them,” when you need to look at yourself as a leader?


It’s what Jennifer looks like as a leader versus Santor or anyone else.

Learning from other people or from other generations is certainly powerful. Those are lessons that hopefully you don’t have to learn the hard way again. There are some situations where some people are more vulnerable to having opinions pushed onto them, not just presented like, “Here are the various ways where you might think about doing something.” It’s having an opinion pushed onto you. Therefore, you’re like, “This doesn’t feel comfortable to me. This type of leadership doesn’t feel comfortable to me.” Yet it seems as though this is the only definition for it.

Power has a lot of capacity to build as much as it does to injure. Share on X

If I could give another example, if someone says, “You need to rule with an iron fist,” and you say, “That’s not my style.” Is that what you’re saying?

Yeah. To some degree, we’re seeing that good leaders are like this or you need to meet these leadership milestones in order for you to be successful. Everyone has got a different path. There are a lot of ways to do things. When you feel like an imposter is when you think, “I’m not doing things in the correct manner.”

It’s like, “That may have worked for you, but I’m a different person.” As people move up the corporate ladder, they need to understand that when they’re trying to give advice to maybe Gen Z or the next generation and say, “This worked for me. It may not work for you, but this is what’s helped me.”

Encouraging people that the mile markers are not all the same for everybody. It’s not this standard uniform thing. Whatever you’re doing, you’re discovering and learning on your own. As long as you keep moving forward, pushing forward, learning for yourself, and learning from others, it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s hard for us to get over to it’s okay to make mistakes, but then you have to make them right.

We may be on different tracks or running different races. Thanks, Jennifer. The next question I want to ask is how have you dealt with adversity throughout your career. During the pandemic, I put off doing this show and even interviewing leaders for my book. I interviewed 100 Millennial leaders before the pandemic and then the pandemic hit. I said, “Let me put a pause on this project.” Now that we’re two years in, I wanted to hear how have you dealt with adversity throughout the pandemic. What advice would give to other folks?

It relates a lot to the Imposter syndrome question. I feel like throughout my career, I’ve had some challenges in figuring out how I fit into this equation. My original undergraduate major was Biology. I was supposed to be on this dental pharmacy hard science track. At the end of it, I was like, “This is not what I want to do, but I don’t know what to change my major to.” I finished it and I entered business school immediately after without job experience. It was a way to hide in school. I did the academics for a few more years while I was trying to desperately figure out what to do with my life and career. I fell into Finance because that’s where a lot of jobs are.

I did not choose Finance on my own. I could do it but it’s not a particular passion. It is the source of imposter syndrome and insecurity for myself, whether I am doing what I am the best at. If not, then what am I the best at? There are a lot of people who suffer from this where it’s like, “You’re good at a lot of different things, but you’re not excellent at one thing.” It’s hard to make a choice about what you should be doing, and therefore measure yourself against the performance of others. Even the idea of whether you have to measure yourself against the performance of others becomes problematic.

As far as adversity goes, it sounds like you were dealing with figuring out what we want to be when we grow up. I’m still figuring it out.

“Am I grown up?” I’m still trying to figure that out. I would like to describe myself like a Swiss Army knife. I can do a lot of different things, but then if you’re working in an industry or something that wants you to be a specialist on something, it may be a little bit more difficult for you to figure it out. Also, what is required from you as you grow in your career is different. Maybe at the beginning, you are required to be a specialist when you enter a company. If you go to management, then hopefully you have more diversified skills. That people skill becomes your strength rather than any specific skillset.

Technical skills can be taught too. I would rather hire someone with strong interpersonal skills so that I could teach them the technical skills as we go. I’m going to use the term bullying again but I know that’s not the correct term. It’s power dynamics. Have you seen anything generationally as any trends there for Millennials? You said earlier about the older generations may put up with that. What have you seen generationally of being less tolerant towards that?

Millennials and Gen Z are fantastic. I’m not either one of those. I’m Gen X. They’re fantastic in the way that they know more of what they want, or at least they have a clearer understanding of what they don’t want from their workplaces. They want flexibility and freedom. They want to be able to perform at their job whatever it is, and not have to climb over the hindrances that are set forth by poor company culture, poor management system, or poor leadership. They’re passionate to engage in the work if only you take away the self-imposed hurdles or the organizational hurdles that are there.

This bodes well for their health and happiness at work. Organizations that are able to understand and flex that quickly are the ones that are more aligned for success. We talk about the generation gap and the way that different generations see work, and therefore the friction that happens between those things. It’s fantastic that there’s a clear understanding of the word bullying. It’s something that they were aware of in school and will take with them into their professional lives.

Also, would you say that it would be helpful for employers to provide mental health support for these generations, especially as we’ve seen Gen Z becoming the most depressed and anxious generation coming out of college?

Health benefits should be there with a lot of emphasis on mental and emotional health. You sent me an article talking about harassment at work. This article is speaking about providing an anonymous ability for people to report harassment, which helps organizations in reporting abusive behavior at work. Taking that a step further, organizations are able to provide the backend clinical healthcare or mental care, but examine why it’s happening in their organization in the first place. What is it about your process, your systems, the people that you hire, the things that you’ve put up with, and your company culture that allows abuse to persist?

If we think about abuse and we compare it with other types of abuse, abuse begets abuse. The number one predictor of whether person abuses other people is previous experience as a target. This is emotional contagion. Let’s say you only have one individual who can be termed as abusive or treats people in an abusive manner. That behavior is spreading to other people. The fact that that person gets to exist in the workplace and is tolerated, and the behavioral norms say it’s okay for him to be there means that you have a disease in your organization.

It’s cancerous. That’s anything from low performance, bullying and about the culture. I don’t know if you’ve read The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team. They talk about that. If we tolerate that, then it kills the team, the morale and everything else.

I want to talk about the word tolerance for a second. There’s a distinction between a celebration of abusive behavior, which is obviously bad. The tolerance of it is the silence that comes with it if somebody does something. Everyone may leave the meeting afterwards and whisper to each other, “I can’t believe that happened.” It happened and it was allowed to happen that this person felt comfortable enough to do whatever they were doing in a setting. People are whispering about it afterwards. Even though it may make them uncomfortable, it’s still a part of your culture because it got to happen in the first place

They’re not reprimanded. I don’t know what you’ve seen in your research of people having a lack of self-awareness too. It’s like, “I don’t know what you mean. It’s how it has always been.”

“That person’s tired. That’s not who they are.” If it wasn’t who they are, then who were they? Did they all of a sudden climb into someone else’s skin? That unfortunately is a person inside that they spend all their time suppressing, and it gets out and gets loose.

Power, when used positively, can build bridges, protect people, shelter individuals, and allow others to shine. Share on X

What advice would you give to new managers? Imagine you just got promoted. You’re in your twenties. You’re still figuring this out. You’re dealing with this imposter syndrome and then you’re dealing with another coworker who’s on the negative power dynamic spectrum. What advice would you give to them?

That is rough. This sounds so cliche but it’s true. The first thing to remember is to be kind to yourself because you’re learning as much as everyone else. We’re learning at the same time. We’re all collectively learning together. At every phase and every day of our lives, we’re learning something new hopefully. Learning to be a good leader or a good manager takes time. It’s a honing of the fine craft.

The second thing I would like to say is to pay attention to this word power, and understand it. Power is something that when we think of in terms of negative words is like bad power, powerful people, abuse, and stuff like that. It can also be extremely useful for building bridges, protecting people, sheltering people, and giving other people an opportunity to shine.

In what ways can you use positive uses of power? It’s difficult for one person to enact change, but together, if you can change what can I do to what can we do, that is a great thing. It’s establishing allyships, coalitions, and anything that you can include other people in so that you could change whatever cultural norms that you like to change together.

It’s also setting the tone. If you take over a new team, this is how you could get the best of me. It is to treat each other with respect. Setting clear expectations and maybe taking over a team from the beginning.

As you grow in a career, sensibly, you become more powerful as you achieve more titles, ranks, promotions or whatever. There are a lot of studies about powerful people who are in their power positions for a long time. There’s brain chemistry that changes for them. With long-term exposure to power, they lose their ability to empathize and to think about life from someone else’s perspective. One of the ways to remedy that is having someone to help you keep it real. That’s somebody in your life that is not going to be the “Yes, sir” or “Whatever you say, sir” person, or do whatever you ask. That’s somebody who is able to stand up to your power regardless of what it is, to help you see the truth and empathize with others, and to remind you of a time when you weren’t powerful. That is extremely effective in being able to remember how to empathize with others.

Sometimes that’s the job of our partner or spouse. I’ve seen that as well. Within your team, you want to surround yourself and have an inclusive environment where everyone’s voice matters. As a leader, you have to be able to take constructive criticism.

It hurts. Even constructive criticism stings, but accept it, think about it, talk with people you trust about that criticism, and self-evaluate.

The value of having a coach too.

Professional coaches are worth their weight in gold.

Talking about the power dynamics, what advice would you give to leaders to create a better sense of belonging? Belonging is a popular term right now. They’re adding that to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Can you give us some tips? As emerging leaders, how can we create a better sense of belonging on our team or within our culture?

The sense of belonging at work is not that different from the sense of belonging in your personal life. It’s about making time for people. Imagine your own family, when you come home at the end of the day, you ask them how their day was. You’re listening. It’s not just like, “How is it going?” It’s making time and allowing them the space to speak. There are leaders that want to be able to impart their experience and knowledge to other people for good reasons. It may not be what they’re asking or what they’re needing from you. You can learn a lot from other people.

Leaders also should include the question, “How are you doing? How am I doing? How am I doing as your leader?” Get that feedback from people who may not be of title or rank or comfort level with you to express that as freely. Maybe you can provide them with an avenue for it. Also, in terms of power, there’s something that I wanted to address. There are many uses of it like protective power, cooperative power, oppressive power, and collusive power.

I would like to submit that there’s another power that I call, and I deliberately give this a clumsy name. I call it vacating a space for others’ power. Meaning that you have all this power, but you pull it back so that there’s this empty space to allow someone else to come in front of you and shine on their own. When I talk to different leaders about this, they’re like, “Protecting power or supportive power.” I’m like, “Not quite because protecting power and supportive power imply that you need to be there for that person to shine. What if you help a person build their power structure all on their own and independent from you?” That is the next level of use of positive power. They don’t need you to be there for them to have their power themselves.

Can you give an example in a workplace of what that would look like?

This occurred to me one time when I was watching a presentation. You and I used to work in media and entertainment. I was watching a presentation where there was a producer talking about the film that they just completed. It was a film about a culture that was not this producer or not her own. It was well done. She brought an archeologist, language experts, and cultural experts. She made sure that this culture was represented.

She was gracious on stage, making sure that she called people out by name, giving them credit and stuff. I thought, “That’s nice but what would happen if she said to the interviewer, ‘That’s a great question. Why don’t we get the answer from the person who worked on that part of the film?’ Call that person up on stage so that person has the microphone and gets to answer the question directly themselves.”

This producer being up on stage doesn’t catapult her career to any new place. She’s already powerful and famous, and great at her job. What would happen if she allowed a space, pulled back her power and her time to speak, and allowed someone else to speak that person’s name? Her career would go someplace different at that moment.

That’s a great example. Outside of the entertainment industry, if you’re in a meeting and you produce this report and you’re sitting on the side of the room because there are not enough seats at the conference table. Let’s say someone says, “That’s interesting. Jennifer, what do you think about that since you did the work?” They get a chance to get exposure to let’s say the CEO of the company.

The sense of belongingness at home is no different at work. It's about making time for people and listening to them. Share on X

Just give them a heads-up beforehand.

People might be like, “Maybe they’re not ready to talk in front of 1,000 people.” At least, give them a chance to prepare.

Coaching them through that moment. Let’s say I was this person’s leader and I would maybe set up the question in a way that I know that they did know how to respond. Creating an environment for them that’s going to be a little bit scary, but also welcoming. I’m going to be there to support them and then grow them so that eventually they don’t need my support, and they’re shining stars on their own.

That’s such a great example, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing that. It’s important. Especially right now, how do we create a sense of belonging virtually? That’s another thing too. I have a question later. We could even jump into it now. What’s the future of work? Is it going to be hybrid? Is it going to be virtual? Is it going to be in person? What do you think? How do we sustain a culture of belonging based on your answer?

My personal preference would be to be remote. That being said, only for convenience’s sake. As an organizational psychologist, you need to have your fingers on the pulse. It’s harder to do that when you’re remote. I know that for my role, being in-person would probably be the best. In general, hybrid sounds pretty good to me. The ability for companies to engage employees all across the world from wherever and whoever is best for the job is a fantastic leap.

There’s a lot of bad stuff that came out of the pandemic, but the silver lining is the opening up of candidates and qualified people around the globe. Also, in our movement towards globalization, it’s not just the global audience anymore. It’s the candidates and your employees are also a global audience. There are talents from everywhere. The upside of this is the ability to comfortably access it now.

What advice would you give to leaders on remote work? If they do have to work remotely, what advice would you give from an organizational psychologist’s point of view to help them feel connected to the team and the company?

Having regular meetings with people or Zoom meetings. It feels weird to me now when somebody says, “I’ll give you a call.” I’m like, “Why aren’t we Zooming?” I’ve become accustomed to Zooming somebody’s face online. It hearkens back to that earlier response or discussion about making time for people, making sure that you’re setting aside time to let them talk, to let them tell you what they want from life out of their work, and encouraging that open discussion.

Even if the response is, “My hopes and dreams are outside of this department or maybe even outside of this industry,” they’re good things. It’s somebody being truthful with you. It’s an opportunity for you to help empower them. If you want to look at it the other way, it’s an opportunity to find a person that is passionate about this job as you are ushering somebody into a different career. Your network then has grown into this other industry or this other company. There’s a silver lining in everything.

Not only that, but let’s say they want to move to a different type of field. If you’re working for a large organization, you got to keep them and say, “I care about you. You’re important to this organization. If you want to go over to this department.” I know that was one of the great things about the company we worked for together. They’re good at lateral moves or invested in their people.

My director was the best at that. When I was in finance, I can do the role but it wasn’t that particular passion. I’m passionate about organizational psychology and people and how they work. I could not have found a more supportive leader. I was like, “Finance is great but this is not where I shine.” He was like, “How can I help you?” What a relief that that was the response to essentially me saying, “I don’t want to do this job.”

They got to keep a great employee.

When I left the finance role in my new position, I was able to advocate a lot for my former department. There’s a lot of misunderstanding that happens with the finance professionals and stuff. Particularly in a creative organization, there’s that push-pull between the finance and the creative. I was able to advocate for my old department and be able to essentially behave as an ambassador for them in my new role. Back in the day, it was the reason why royalty made sure to marry royalty from other countries so that they could have those relationships.

Now we’re seeing it with different departments. That’s another great metaphor. This Great Resignation, we’re seeing that happen right now. What advice would you give to employers on how to keep their people? You gave some right there, which is the impact of leadership. What advice would you give to employees during this Great Resignation?

It has been fascinating for me to see this Great Resignation. On one hand, I want people to feel stable and comfortable in their job’s ability to pay their rent and eat food, but it’s people seeking out something better suited for themselves. Deep down, I celebrate that. We spend more hours with our colleagues in our workplace than we do with our own families throughout our whole lives. I can’t name another person I spend more time with other than my boss and my coworkers at any point in time in my life. You better like what you’re doing. You better find some sort of fulfillment out of it. It’s not just a paycheck. What we’re talking about is pride in your work and a feeling of purpose. If you need to quit your job to find a purpose and find a company that’s more suited for you or an organization or whatever the mission of that organization is, then good on you.

From an employer standpoint, if you’re losing people and you’re seeing this swap out of people, and you’re getting people who are more aligned with your mission, then all that discretionary time that somebody spends at work or the hours that’s required for you to complete your work, and then the hours you spend surfing the net and getting coffee and stuff, those hours that are not spent on work goes away because this person is passionate about what they do. You and I came from a company that had oodles of people who are passionate. If I look at that, it’s a blessing when people are so dedicated because they’re interested and they have pride.

Not only that, they love the leaders. They appreciate them looking out for them. Hearing your story, I have plenty of those stories too from my direct supervisor. It’s that saying, “People leave managers, not jobs or companies.” You’re starting to see the requirement of what we want. Everyone had a chance to stop during the pandemic and work remote. The requirements of what we want from an organization, which is to be passionate for them to care about us have gone up. The best leaders and organizations were able to communicate that. It’s going to be interesting as a lot of people are going back into the office.

The workplace is not that different from your personal life. I want to be in a relationship with a person that wants to be in a relationship with me. That’s half the work. If both parties want to be there versus if one person is always checking out how to exit, then you’re not getting the best out of them, and they’re not getting the best out of you.

To wrap up the show, I want to ask you this last question. If you could give one piece of advice to Jennifer when you first started in a leadership role, what would that be?

Good on you if you need to quit your job to find purpose or a position more suited to your mission. Share on X

To come back full circle, it’s the Imposter syndrome question for me. It’s like, “Take it easy on yourself, Jennifer. It’s okay. When you screw up, the world didn’t burn down. If you hurt someone else, you apologize. That’s all we can do.” My imposter syndrome shows up in a way that I don’t want to hurt other people and I don’t want to mess them up in any direction professionally or personally. Those points of friction will happen whether you intended them or not because of how life is or our own limited ability to see how someone else lives their life or how someone is going to take your actions or words. Things are recoverable. 99.9% of the things are recoverable. You can screw up and get up, make amends and do better tomorrow.

You’re rude to someone not even on purpose, or you’re multitasking and you send an email and you’re like, “I didn’t mean this. It sounds rude.” You’re thinking about it the whole day, “I didn’t mean it.” I completely understand.

I’m notorious for putting the wrong dates on things. It’s 2018 and I was like, “This year for 2017.” You’ve been in 2018 for ten months. I feel silly from them. This is an indicator of my lack of being detail-oriented or that I wasn’t paying attention to my work. Those mistakes become projected into these giant personality flaws for me. I could take it easy on that.

I worked with you and you’re awesome. I never thought of anything like that. It shows. The people you work with probably never notice. We waste all our energy on those little things.

They thought it was funny or something like that. That’s a small example of ways that you screw up minorly or majorly. You got to keep on going tomorrow. You learned just as much as everyone else is learning. Learn from other people’s mistakes. Sometimes when I see somebody else make mistake, I think, “Thank you, universe, for teaching me this lesson that I didn’t have to learn directly for myself.”

One of the best leadership lessons is to observe and then learn from other people’s mistakes. I love that. Jennifer, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. I look forward to keeping in touch and seeing all the great things you’re doing.

Thank you so much. This was a pleasure for me.

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About Dr. Jennifer Kwoon

TZL 17 | Bullying At WorkBusiness strategist with 20+ years of identifying and solving persistent organizational and operational issues. Senior leader capable of leveraging both quantitative and qualitative information seeking root cause issues and deliver strategies that transform an organization from disparate efforts into a high functioning team.