Toxic Visibility vs. Honest Visibility: Which One Is Yours?

Reading time: 5 minutes

I was recently talking to a client who felt stuck. In her late 40s, she had leadership achievements she could be proud of. She felt she deserved a promotion to the role of her dreams, which was within arm’s reach. And yet… somehow she couldn’t find the energy to ask for it.

When I dug in to understand what was holding her back, there were several moments that stood out. She kept referring to her boss, who constantly took credit for other people’s work.

He is so political. He is always making himself visible on account of others, and yet he gets everything he wants. If I did that – if I took credit for something I didn’t do to make myself more visible – it would break my heart,” she said.

I expressed my gratitude for her honest sharing and I also mirrored back her belief that in order to become visible and thus to secure our next promotion we need to proverbially step on dead bodies.

But what if there was an alternative? What if we wouldn’t need to pump up our egos, step on our values and on other people, and yet still become radiantly visible, influential, and powerful?

My client is not alone. Anytime when I work with women in upper leadership, the question arises: “Should I really ask for more? Do I really deserve it? Yes, but when I do ask for more I will need to become more political and I hate that. I’m better off where I am.”

And this is how we end up with only 7% of women CEOs, while roughly 60% of university graduates in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe are women.

What women such as my client above hate, in fact, is what I call toxic visibility.

Toxic visibility has numerous manifestations. Let’s do an inventory of the most visible ones.

  1. The toxically visible person is incredibly vocal and critical of their surroundings, all the while being very positive and ode-singing to themselves.
  2. The toxically visible person gets strongly in your face through clothing (colors, brands, combinations), accessories, and tone of voice (loud über alles).
  3. Sometimes the body and its various alterations is used as an accessory to draw even more attention to themselves. I will stay delicate about the sexual overtones that usually associate with such behavior.
  4. The person is becoming visible by presenting the results of other people’s work as their own.
  5. The person speaks mainly in first person (“I”) when talking about collective achievements, even though they are part of a group or a team.
  6. The person is addicted to “glory by proxy” – they pull celebrity names from the hat when describing their experiences and / or seeking the presence of celebrities to boost their own sense of self-worth.
  7. The person’s personal space is decorated with celebrity markers – pictures with celebrities, trophies, diplomas from prestigious institutions etc.
  8. The person is emotionally intense. Emotions can also change quite often and escalate fast, taking you by surprise.
  9. The person has issues respecting boundaries (is constantly interrupting and / or deviating the subject to take the conversation back to something interesting to them).
  10. When you ask for factual proof for their claims, the person switches off and / or cuts you off.
  11. The person is presenting other people’s stories and experiences as their own.

I am sure that, at a certain point in time, you all have met someone like that. Because we sensed the phoniness and the danger behind such behavior, we learnt to become allergic to it.


And now the question is: if toxic visibility is something we don’t want, then what’s the alternative?

I call this honest visibility.

In fact, every time I work with fabulous women in leadership, building their personal brands and nurturing their reputations, I feel a deep striving from the part of my clients for exactly this type of strategy: how to articulate their real achievements with dignity and grace. How to stand tall and dignified and ask for what they are worth.

How to become honest visibility.

Honest visibility is, in its essence, the opposite of its polar sister, the toxic visibility. Here are some characteristics that I associate with someone who is intentionally, honestly, and remarkably visible:

  1. They speak positively about other people. If they have nothing good to say, they rather stay quiet.
  2. They avoid gossip and backdoor conversations.
  3. They are aware of the moment when they become too critical and they course-correct.
  4. They are able to dress adequately function of circumstances and are ok with not having an opinion about everything and not being the center of attention all of the time.
  5. They often start their speeches with WHY. They explain to people why they say the things they do, and they do what they say.
  6. They have enough courage and dignity to speak about the results of their own work, but also enough humbleness to honor the work of others and the contributions of others to their personal achievements.
  7. They are equally joyful being visible and being quiet. When they become visible, it’s done intentionally, gracefully, and with kindness.
  8. They are deeply authentic. They own their story and dare to share it in a relevant way that benefits the audience.
  9. They take time to prepare before meeting other people. They empathize with their audiences before a presentation or interview.
  10. They feature good impulse control and they master their emotions without having to bottle them or to act aggressively on their emotions.
  11. They are respectful when interrupting. Yet they are courageous enough to reclaim their space when having being interrupted.
  12. They often quote data, facts, and research to back their claims.
  13. They have no trouble apologizing when they did something wrong.
  14. They feature enough courage to speak on behalf of their team and organization in a leadership set-up: industry conferences, media relations, crisis communications on social media etc.
  15. They understand the value of their reputation and personal brands, and they are wise enough to make time to communicate respectfully and in a nurturing way for all parts involved.

To sum it up: while toxic visibility is often the outcome of unconscious, emotionally immature behavior, honest visibility is the result of wisdom and hard work.

Last but not least, toxic visibility is there to nurture the ego of one person. Honest visibility is there to nurture purpose for people, a team, an organization, or an entire business and social ecosystem.

So, which one do you use in practice? And which one do you want to use to advance your career and leadership?

The best way to figure it out – and to move from unconscious, often toxic visibility into mature, elevated, honest visibility is to join me in VISIBILITY. INFLUENCE. POWER. – the VORNICA flagship course of personal branding for women in leadership.

Book a short 30-minute call with me directly to discuss if you may be a fit for this program. No strings attached – and more, I promise you will come out of this talk inspired, uplifted, and with renewed will to take charge of your career growth.


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