The Smile Story: My First Encounter With Hidden Toxicity in the Work Place

3danimation animation industry productionmanagement toxicity Dec 21, 2022

Hello everyone!

I am Virginie, and I am a happy producer. I have been passionate about live-action and animation production for the past 15 years.

I only know one way to smile: BIG!

Needless to say, I choose joy. But my career was not always full of day-to-day happiness. I had to face a lot of toxicity and bad intentions to truly discover how primordial mine and the team’s happiness were to me. There was a defining moment for me about seven years ago, and I think this is how it started. 

The first spark. The seed of The Happy Producers.

I was so excited when I got a position at a high-end renowned local studio. I was convinced it was my dream job, and I could not have been more proud. I would get to work on some of the best projects in the world with wildly talented artists in beautiful facilities in a stimulating environment. Plus, they were known for throwing THE best wrap parties. I was hired to work on my absolute most favorite TV show ever, and it seemed like a dream come true! As good as it gets, right?

At my interview, they had me hold the Emmy they won for that same series that year. It was my first time seeing an Emmy in real life; it’s SO shiny and pretty. True love at first sight. I held it like a baby for much of the conversation.

I was stoked! And so grateful. This was it!

My first day came, and something felt off. Way off. The atmosphere was tense; the friendliness was kept to a minimum, the team seemed exhausted and short. Finally, I called my best friend at night and told her that I would not be going on a second date if this had been a first date.

But I am working on my favorite show in the world, I thought. This is a dream job! 

I had to give it my best shot, and every day I showed up with a positive mindset and a willingness to conquer.  Time soon accelerated as I started working long hours most nights, sacrificing my personal life like everyone else in my team. I was not feeling fulfilled at work, but I could not put my finger on it. I figured many of it was expected; maybe I was expecting too much out of my career. Weeks turned into months, and I delivered projects, shots after shots, made friends, and by all means fit in. The team won big flashy awards, and we attended awesome parties. I felt like I should have been happy, but I had a moment of hesitation every morning before going in.

Then one day, out of the blue, my supervisor summoned me to the room where people go to get yelled at. 

Oh no.

I hesitated before getting up from my desk. As I made my way reluctantly, a million things went through my mind: the possible mistakes I could have made with the team, the schedule, the client, the content, the deliverables. 

When I got there, she wasn’t alone. The human resources coordinator was also there, looking uncomfortable and grim. This was not faring well.  As I sat down, scared and anxious, my supervisor told me that we had to talk. She looked agitated and wanted to emphasize how important of a conversation this was. 

There was a long silence before she brought herself to say it. 

“The team likes you,” she said and paused.

“But, you smile too much.”

I was confused.

What? I asked, bewildered.

The team liked me”, she said. “It’s a problem.” 

Longest pause ever.

I was confused.

“The people under you,” my supervisor added, “should be scared of you’.

“The people under you should be scared of you.”

What? Why?

She said that’s how it was at that studio.

I was floored. I thought we would have together in this dire room; I could not have seen that one was coming.

I mean: this is not the rudest, meanest, most inappropriate thing I have ever been told by a supervisor, like 
at all. But it was the most shocking. I will forever remember how I felt in that moment: like a happy mindset was a weakness. And like being myself was shameful.

I mean: I was delivering my shots on time, under budget, and to the client’s satisfaction. I built trust with my team and continuously showed up. Isn’t that what mattered?

Was I allowed to get to this result using a tone that was more loyal to my true self, I asked?

No, said my supervisor.

I disagreed. Hard.

So I was let go.

And at that moment, I remembered what I told my friend on the first day. I would have never really picked this for me. So why did I have this narrative in my head telling me this was my dream job? The stories we make up for ourselves and of ourselves can be so powerful.

I was grateful that they let me go because now I could only be myself.

But also be because it forced me to rethink the notion of a dream job

Most of my colleagues at that studio were overworked, anxious, scared of getting fired or screamed at, quitting once their project was over, and lacking overall joy.

This situation helped me understand that from a social standpoint, and we build our dream job around external circumstances: the amount of money we get paid, the significant title, how cool the projects are, how it looks on IMDB, the red carpet, etc. 

to create meaning and happiness, we have to look at our habits and behaviors from the inside out. Our talents were given to us to be put to the service of our community and industry. If there is a purpose to what we do, there is no limit to the money and titles we can hold.

The following job I decided to take ended up being a proper dream job. My leaders chose me for who I am and then gave me the space to operate. They loved my smile, and they wanted the team to be happy as much as I did. Over the years, this studio enabled me to produce tens of thousands of shots in a balanced environment that promoted prioritizing your and your family’s happiness. I got to bring in new projects, resolve significant issues, and lead hundreds of people teams while always keeping my and my colleague’s happiness as my one big non-negotiable. I delivered projects under budget and built authentic, life-lasting relationships with clients and partners. I went up the ladder organically while making all of my colleagues shine and promoting them to soar. Sure, my friends were not as impressed with the projects I was working on, and the wrap parties were smaller and more intimate.

And I got to test my production philosophy, 
my human approach to leadership, a transparent outlook to partnerships and client relations, as well as proof-tested project scoping and scheduling technics built around happiness.

It got me on the path to being with you today, sharing my inspiration, methodologies, and insight so that we can build a happier workplace together.

It insight, here are major red flags that should have told me this was not an honorable place for me to work at:

  • In our relationships with others, including our colleagues and employers, both sides must be equally benefiting from the situation. This is what makes a relationship honorable. Remember that YOU are choosing the employer; it needs to be a match on both sides. Once they pick you, maybe ask around or read feedback on the company online. This is a big decision.
  • Some laws protect workers, don’t be afraid to get information! If you are under a 40 hours a week contract but are expected to work extra hours without logging time or being paid for it, that’s illegal. Not having good boundaries with yourself and your employer will not help your career in the long term. Be a hard worker, but in a loyal context that respects the law. 
  • Ask yourself: what’s in it for me? 

Have you ever encountered toxicity and were able to learn from it?

I would love to hear about it in the comments!


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