By Welter Benicio
Years ago I faced a tough challenge in my professional life: I had to report to an “extreme boss”, defined, based on my perception, as an unpleasable, micromanager, sometimes brutal, emotionally detached, unfriendly in manners and detail oriented individual. As usual, our long interactions were energy consuming and made me arrive at home, at the end of the day, ready to resign in the following morning.
Decided to persevere, I looked for ways to avoid drowning in the “rough seas”. I first grabbed my wife by the neck, or better, by the ears, which she allowed me to use patiently. I also looked for help in the existing literature and found the interesting book “Working with you is killing me”, by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster, that introduced me to useful experience and whose title inspired the one in this post.
Disciplined as I am, I went through it and exercised the proposed methods to avoid the emotional traps, to manage relationships up and down and so forth. In parallel, I was frequently validating my “convictions” through other people and did find some who shared my view and dissatisfaction, making me sure I was not paranoid.
With resolution, equipped with tools and methods, I crossed the torment and reached a safe port 4 years later. From this point on however, as I faced other professional challenges, a different understanding of the experience started to form and consolidate. The focal point this time was no longer “the other”, who had made me “suffer”, but me. My interest was not in how to effectively manage such a difficult situation anymore, but in understanding why it was so challenging in the first place, how I contributed to make it even more difficult and, to my surprise, how it had made me stronger in many ways.
Hindsight is always easier, but my “post-factum” insights could have made my life a lot easier by smoothing things a bit (or a lot). I did not have the luxury of using them when mostly needed, but I decided to share with you what only came later to me, hoping that you find it useful now.
Find, accept and deal with the “mirrors” – No personality trait is more irritating in others than the one we don’t like in ourselves (the opposite is also true). It is easy to demonstrate distaste when we are in front of a “mirror” that reflects the “Mr. Hyde” in us, and the reaction does not contribute at all to strengthen relationships, even more so those that need to be nurtured. One thing is true: it is easy to fall in the emotional trap of becoming irritated or annoyed in these circumstances, and worse, it is hard to avoid expressing it somehow. Learning how to manage these reactions, although difficult, is possible: it requires focus, energy and discipline, but can come to fruition with consistent practice. Learning (and accepting) why you stubbornly let yourself be captured by this destructive twister is the real challenge and is a key step towards mastering the problem, or making you more efficient in dealing with the situation. Unfortunately, the repulse caused by the neglected, denied and suppressed rejected common traits are, in many cases, at the root cause of difficult relationships like the one I describe;
“Even a broken watch is right twice a day” – No matter how difficult your manager is, he/she will most likely give you valuable feedbacks once in a while, irrespective of how he/she does that. The chances of receiving such feedbacks are higher the longer you work together. And, between you and me, it is very unlikely that he or she has reached a senior position after so many years in the company, being a complete, irrecoverable idiot. If you are able to develop and train filters to mine and make good use of the “nasty” feedbacks, you’ll profit from this relationship. In my case, some feedbacks shot at point-blank range, internalized years later due to a refractory attitude of mine, made a huge difference. They helped me develop a hard skin, adjusting my conduct, making me a more efficient manager and a better person;
“A scale only levels with weights on both sides” – You have common traits, not many, but overall you are “different”. Focus then on the positive side of the differences: identify complementarities amid them and make them work in your favor. A balanced team, complementary in many aspects, can be more efficient and can improve substantially your chances of success. So, control your emotions and wish your unpleasant boss success… through you: it can buy you space to breath and time to reenergize;
The onus of the communication belongs to you – Despite technology, nothing works well like a face-to-face conversation to amend a sore relationship. However, depending on how the relationship evolved (or how you let it evolve), securing a window in the boss’ agenda for this type of conversation will require courage and persistence, even more so if you want to (as you should) make these meetings recurrent with a broader agenda of topics. Unfortunately, in situations like mine it is natural and common to observe a reducing frequency in the “live” communication, until we become (intentionally) physically invisible (watch out: invisibility can be dangerous!). So, take the initiative, build the bridge, cross it regularly and remember: you are incumbent on the mission;
“If 3 people call you a horse, buy a bridle” – All right, you checked reality three times with people not necessarily related to the issue and confirmed that you are not being uncompromising, that you do have a point, actually many. Continuing with these validations feels better and better, until you become mankind avenger, trumpeting everywhere your “wins” during the interactions. There’s no need to say it is not recommendable, no matter how right you are, as it only reinforces negative attitudes that sabotage the best opportunities to create a rapport.
Years past the experience I can affirm, without hesitation, that I am lucky to have gone through it. I can also say that I have my share of the responsibility for the goods and bads too, that I keep my eyes and ears open to an opportunity to thank him/her for putting up with some of my less noble attitudes and, most importantly, that I truly apologize for them.