feeling gaslit at my startup - thoughts?

Context: I'm the only designer on a team of 11 in a small crypto startup. I was the only woman up until a few months ago. Leadership is quite green. Data scientist, and two engineers who were late to the game via dev bootcamps. I have the most formal product experience out of all of them.

There have been a few instances making me feel that I'm being gaslit. Can someone double check this behavior?

(1) I've asked to work on a mobile app we've been thinking about building for a long time. CEO gives me feedback in these exact words: "can i give you some feedback? if you want something, you should say it in a way that makes it obvious that myself, (CTO), and (CPO), should give the project to you"

(2) I've been planning a 3 week vacation for a long time, right after my 1 year anniversary, because I hadn't taken many days off in my first year of working at the company. It's unlimited PTO. I blocked off the OOO calendar three months ago in January so they're aware, made sure to tell everyone on leadership in 1-1s continuously throughout January and February, and nailed down official dates which weren't too far off from the original block 1.5 weeks before I go on vacation. I get a very, very long slack message from CTO that he didn't like how I "suddenly" gave the official dates even though there wasn't any documentation on how and when I should provide the official dates, and even though I had continuously been in communication about my vacation. He said exactly on slack: "we would hope to go through a cycle of dialogue"

  1. preferred: “i would like to take X weeks off during Y dates, is that okay?”
  2. not preferred: “fyi, i am taking X weeks off”

(3) I was finally able to work on the mobile app - the first project where I get full creative autonomy over because it's completely feature parity with the webapp and so I can be creative with navigation and page transition. When working in Figma, I asked for feedback on high level work, but I get feedback from the CEO on detail work that I haven't gotten to yet. I do not reply to the comments but still take it into consideration in my next iteration. I get feedback from the CPO that I didn't "thumbs up" the CEO's comments in my Figma file. Honestly I felt that he didn't respect my job, and wanted to provide input so he feels that he's making a dent in a project that I feel like I can finaly have a lot of creative autonomy over. It was also weird how the CPO gave me this feedback, not the CEO himself.

(4) Months ago, we were going to hire another product designer. I wrote up a WHOLE Notion document on the specific skillsets we were looking for in this new designer. I knew that I wanted to work on the mobile app, and confirmed with CTO that I'd be working on the mobile app and he agreed, so we should find someone who has strong product design work on the web so that designer #2 can focus more on that. CEO completely dismisses this document and starts chatting up designers from top companies, particularly one designer from Meta who had a ton of mobile experience.

I feel like I need to be "subordinate", that I have to "ask" for permission and frame my question in a certain way to do certain things that I believe are part of my job.

Would love a second perspective here.

this sounds horrific - you're definitely being put in a really tough situation. is there anyone at the company who you feel like is in your corner?
It sounds like unfortunately you are the victim of a “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge and experience” type of situation where a male peer will just assume they know better than you bc they are the CxO of the startup even though they’ve never done your role and have no clue about its intricacies, they just have opinions and think the world owes it to them to listen to them.Yeah… you’re not imagining it but it’s also super hard to change. Ironically they may actually mean very well so may not necessarily be terrible people per se, just have terrible behavior occasionally. Make a pros and cons list for this job and try to connect with what’s keeping you there to determine if it’s enough to justify carrying on with this. Sounds like they will fully hire other random dudes because of their CV or background or whatever despite their competence. So you need to be prepared to know what are your boundaries- what are the scenarios in which you stay and those in which you go. And once the second case gets close just start interviewing early so you have time to find a different place and are not rushed. But also try to make the best of the role in the meantime. A lot of startups are like this so sadly it’s useful to try and find coping mechanisms as a way to strengthen yourself for future interactions.
Crypto & Gaslighting :)Sounds like the bros who have no idea how to manage a team or run a company but are full of con-fidence. The coin/options/shares they have offered you are worthless until you can sell them which may never be possible. Don't feel as trapped as they want you to be.
It's tricky navigating in the Crypto startup space - particularly as a woman. I'd be happy to invite you into some Women in Blockchain/Web3 communities too. Expand your community support. This workshop on mastering difficult communication might also be useful to you to speak with you one on one if you'd like.
Your experience sounds similar to when I joined a fintech with a considerable amount of experience in a non technical role. On the other side of the coin, I’m also experiencing something like this now from a direct report of a slightly larger business. At early stage startups when inexperienced leaders step into roles with big titles my experience has been that theybehave in ways that reveal insecurities about their position. They may also feel challenged if direct reports behave in ways that don’t show a bit of respect or subservience to their titles ( because the title is so new?). This is even when a startups culture statement is that they want everyone to be “entrepreneurial”. What’s coming through to me in your examples is they’re looking for a chain of command and for you to acknowledge it in your day to day. This is annoying for someone like you when you have that level of experience. On the flipside I’m now a leader and one of my direct reports is defensive with any sort of feedback or direction I give her. The attitude I’m getting from her is she thinks she knows best. However my assessment of her skill level (after 12 year’s experience) is that she has a blinkered and uncommercial approach to her work and my effort to try to coach her out of it is met with defensiveness. I’m sure, from her perspective, she may think I’m being unreasonable or unfair. This experience has made me think of my earlier experience as an IC a bit differently. Having said all of that if your gut is telling you that you’re not going to thrive in this environment, think of ways to either give upward feedback to your managers to reestablish trust. That may mean you also need to reframe what they say to you, and take things less personally (eg. your example 4 - the CEO is free to speak to whichever candidate they wish to speak to. It would have been great if they’d acknowledged your effort in preparing the requirements, but it’s not a recommendation they have to follow). Alternatively, you may need to find a business that better values the skills and experience you bring in the way you want them to. Hope you find a way forward!
I should add it’s always extremely hard to be the only person in your function in a startup. Unless you have a very supportive manager you may always feel like an island trying to go it alone, until someone likeminded joins the team to increase your voice
Wading into this thread because I think this was the best response of the group. 😊This is a complex situation because everyone is a little bit right and everyone is also a little bit wrong. People's needs aren't being met and rather than a conversation about that, we're going to focus on the things that people did that we felt harmed us.You have a couple of choices. You can bring this back to the core needs (I highly recommend Paloma Medina's work on BICEPS) and try to have some conversations with folks to clear up the behavior on both sides or you can start looking for another job. While I'm not condoning their behavior (personally I'd be pretty irritated by your #2 and #4 scenarios), this isn't (sadly) the worst behavior I've ever seen. At this stage, it's still salvageable IF you (and they) want it to be. But it'll take some work because, as you know, they're green and you're not, and you will spend a lot of your time managing up. Ultimately seems like maybe you're ready for a role with better leaders. Whether that's in 3 months or 4 years is kind of up to you in this moment.
This is par for the course at a small startup. Man babies who need you to make them feel important and to remind them of the entire timeline you gave them for that dialogue that they ignored. Keep receipts and stand up for yourself without ever being defensive. Your only play is to act confused about the feedback when inappropriate and show them the receipts. Regarding the vacay, get curious for next time. Is it the length of 3 weeks? Go on your vacation anyways. Small startups are hard. That said, but this is normal & not bullying or abuse to me.
That holiday dates convo sounds like he is on a power trip. Not cool! I’ve never worked in a company where I couldn’t choose my own holiday dates, and can’t really imagine a scenario where his request is normal. It’s either bad planning on his part (ie. He has planned something for the dates you’re away where a designer is critical) or a power trip in my opinion! Points 1 and 3 I’m unsure on, they both sound reasonable I think… perhaps there’s a chance you may be having heightened emotions around these specific scenarios due to not feeling valued, appreciated and secure with these people in general? It may be that some team bonding activities would really be beneficial for everyone in your team, as it’s really easy to assume the worst intentions when you’re not close to someone or don’t like them. For point 3, learning to “manage up” is a skill in itself, and sometimes you do need to learn how to adapt your communications with CEOs who are meddling in an area that isn’t their role (I say this as a former inexperience CEO myself who probably did this unintentionally too!). The CPO could likely be giving you this feedback as they actually have your back, and want to make sure you and the CEO vibe together to avoid any future problems. So I wouldn’t read into this.For point 4, I definitely feel your pain here and this would drive me absolutely mad if I were in your shoes. Unfortunately it might be a case of needing to be pragmatic here - from everything you’ve said (including point 1) it sounds like they feel you don’t have sufficient mobile experience so don’t yet trust you enough to give you this responsibility. I’m getting the impression that perhaps when you are communicating, you may be focusing on how much you WANT it but are not giving them enough evidence to reassure them you’re the safe choice to lead the mobile app project. Find ways to give them evidence for why you should be their top choice for this mobile app instead of continuing to do what you’ve been doing there so far - show data of how you’ve increased stats related to mobile use, etc. If they are underestimating you, put together as much evidence as possible to prove they are wrong. If you have success stories from mobile projects you’ve worked on, maybe even consider turning these into a keynote presentation and finding a tech / startup conference where you can be a speaker… elevating your personal brand and making sure people know about your accomplishments is important when it comes to getting ahead. And then - this may be a tough pill to swallow - but do consider the possibility that perhaps they genuinely do need someone with more mobile experience. I don’t know your background so this may not be the case, but if you don’t have a lot of mobile experience then it could be great to actually learn under a more experienced person who joins the team - so don’t be too discouraged if they do hire a designer with a ton of mobile experience who takes over the project you wanted, as there’s a silver lining in mentorship!Good luck with everything, you’re clearly incredibly smart, high empathy levels and ambitious so I’m sure no matter what happens you’re going to have a ton of success over the next few years - whether it’s within this crypto startup or elsewhere xx
Take your vacation. Do not communicate with them while you are gone. They’ll find a way to deal with it.
I feel like there's a copy of a terrible "How to be a Manager" book from the 1980s circulating, and it's the only book start-up leaders are reading recently! These are such strange, antiquated mentalities for leaders. Is the HR person reasonable? I may start recording these and having conversations with them. To your point, these C-Level people are making up rules as they go along and expecting you to follow them like they should be formal policy (or not). But they can't be capricious & arbitrary and/or not apply to everyone; that's not how (successful) companies work. I'm curious as to when this behavior started to present? Was it all at once? Was it after a board or strategy meeting? Was it one person first and then all of them adopted the same weird written communication tactics? When you speak 1:1 or in person with them, do they address these (or only in written format)? How do they behave when you're face to face (virtually or IRL)? In any event, I hope you have a really fabulous vacation and tune out all this goofy noise on your time off!
I think I might be the only devils advocate but in a good way! I think I'm seeing communication gaps and not knowing how to work with stakeholders, and the priority and emphasis on being in control in certain instances or mainly the lead on mobile design and working this agenda instead of it being given to you. I think overall the single common pattern I'm seeing in consideration. The first scenario wasn't clear to me. But the 2nd one definitely was, even though they offer unlimited PTO - they still want the same process which is to check in and ask. Granted you gave high communication throughout, they would have liked to have the chance to give you approval even though you were communicating dates frequently and they could have important goals for the company and you. The third scenario shows the enthusiasm when the mobile design was given to you - but not commenting was somewhat ignoring them. And treating the CEO's views as an option when they make massive decisions - they simply felt ignored and not valued - when in healthy environments everyone's views is important and we acknowledge their thought feelings and ideas.Fourth scenario sorry the document wasn't reinvented to what the team felt like what was needed. But I think there could have been a lack of communication in the needs or trust. Sounds like the CEO kind of dismissed or went ahead and started seeking what they feel like what is needed or who would have the skills to potential do both and work as a team. The CEO role gives privilege to do these kinds of things, but I don't think it would have happened if the document was created together or there was true team alignment and trust. Try to keep in mind you're pushing the emphasis on being lead for the mobile app. Subordinate/asking or permission - there definitely is a desire to control and make decisions on your own and have weight on who does the mobile app and designs, navigation etc. But I think if we kind of unwind and let go from what we want and work with the ideas of others and be considerate and value their input, thoughts and feelings I think you'll find it a lot easier. You'll no longer be seeking control of the outcome or asking for permission rather its collaboration and team spirit with the interest of "we" or "us" to achieve together :)
Welcome to startup life where the CEO/CTO/CMO/C?? all speak different languages and misalignment is rampant. And, an opinion is like an a**hole everyone has one. Yes, you will have to ask for permission in this company they are clearly letting you know that you don't have control, unless you have a C in your title you are their subordinate and they are showing that to you. What to do? A few things and choices for you. Sit down with the person who on paper is your direct manager. Let them know what you expect and what you need, how you want to be tasked work without being in the middle of decisions that are not aligned, and document it in a follow up email and cc yourself and your personal email for recordkeeping. You've let them know what you want to do in your career. That is either going to align or not. 2- unlimited PTO is often a problem in small companies because there will always be a reason for them to say no you cannot take this now. I would again craft an email document the when you asked for it and reference not taking any previously so that you could do it when you had planned. They may say you can't and then you will have to decide to either stay or go. 3- You do have full creative control however the final inkstamp will likely be the CEO as in a small emerging business the company brand and reputation falls squarely on his shoulders. You can use this to your advantage by offering up what I cal multiple choice options. Say 3 different color choices or versions of what you do and then its yes-no-no vs no I don't like the one thing you showed me. Ask for feedback in writing if possible and definitely drill down into details ahead of what is being asked. You kind of have to predict what you think he might want even if its not been asked for yet. 4- The CEO clearly has his eyes on someone from one of the FAANG companies because he likely admires what the company has done. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but can they attract that person? And if so how would that affect your role, you definitely need to know this and desarve to know this as this may be a limiter to your growth there. I would start asking for direct feedback, be prepared to get some - you may not like some of it but it will help you decide if you want to stay in this cluster where things change radically and decisions are going in all directions. Have you thought about whether you might fit into a place where there is more structure and perhaps a product manager who is overall planning the product with you in alignment? It sure sounds like in your current employer the CEO/CTO weirdly share that role and unless there is a drafted final product roadmap you are trying to hit a moving target. It's not a health environment where you are given how you line out the way you like to work unless you can adjust your behavior to manage them by managing up to the lack of clarity in their thinking. It's complex, definitely think long and hard if there is a path for your happiness working there because they won't likely give you the accolades you deserve if not. Wishing you the best...
Okay here's my interpretation of theses events. I can't really speak to the gaslighting but I think there are some things you can do to avoid that feeling.1. Be assertive. Use "I" statements for something you want to own. best guess is that you're a wonderful team player who naturally defaults to "we" language. You don't have to do it with everything you say, but at the end make it clear that "I would like to own this piece"2. Wtf. Is the CTO your boss? Perhaps they expected you to formally request but maybe they should have put that in a handbook or something.3. Again, who tf is your boss? Sounds like too many cooks.4. Why tf is the CEO doing the hiring if the CTO is the one who confirmed the position?!Your c-suite have their wires crossed and zero clarity on who owns the product process. Get out get out get out. Unless you can herd these cats, it doesn't sound like this will go anywhere. These are red flags.
I am a crypto skeptic ... why would you expect anything other than gaslighting from a 'web3' company? Follow this website for more ridiculous news re 'web 3'. Dishonesty is their business model. Of course they want to hire people from credible companies, appearances is all that matters. Ask yourself does the company treat their own users differently? These are SCAMS. That's what SCAMS do they lie, deceive and disrespect.
This sounds truly horrifying. I am so sorry you are going through this.
Save yourself
This is an excellent article on how to provide design feedback that a designer shared with our startup: sounds like the CEO was trying to give you 50/99% feedback when you were at the 10-50% level. This is inexperience in his role. To cover yourself, though, it wouldn't hurt to give some form of acknowledgment of "we'll get there".It might also be helpful to train your leadership to use the Consider/Try/Do framework when providing feedback. In other words, is something just an idea they want you to explore or are they being prescriptive?On the vacation issue... I honestly suspect this is a case of them feeling your absence when you'll be gone because you're doing so much. I would politely point out how long you've had the vacation and been communicating it to them. If they wanted a dialog they should have negotiated back in January. This one is not about how you handled it.
Also... the fact that your CEO is pursuing mobile designers after they said something else to you is a red flag. You could try addressing it but I doubt you're going to get a straight answer.