Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone we worked with came into the office and left their troubles behind? And by troubles, I don’t mean worry about a son’s report card or an aging mother. Those troubles are the stuff of life and we all share them at some time or another. Learning to look at and listen to another human being and see the world from their vantage point is the basis of empathy and is truly foundational in helping people connect to one another.
I use trouble here more fundamentally. I use it here to suggest those psychic wounds too many people carry that distort our vision and color the way we see the world and, more importantly, interact with it. If you Google “Is my boss a psychopath?” the search returns pages and pages of results, including tips for handling those crazy bosses. Nearly every article provides a checklist that we can quickly go down, and if our boss meets 5 out of the 10 (or 20 out of 30) it is clear that he (or she) is a psychopath. Put on your kid gloves and handle per these 8 steps.
In my experience life or business doesn’t fit easily into a checklist. Many years ago I worked for a boss who got on my nerves. She corrected everything I wrote – and I mean everything – with a green pen. But a mere correction wasn’t enough. She would leave a green note telling me to “turn to page 37 in The Manual of Style and figure out why this sentence was poorly constructed.” She was incredibly disorganized and literally had two-foot high piles of papers on her desk. She rarely made it to the office before one minute to 9 a.m., irritating the morning person that I am to no end, and never left her desk before 6:30 – 7 p.m. at night, leaving behind piles of corrections for her minions to make the next day. She was indecisive, pessimistic, a bit of a hoarder, REALLY careful with money and never had a kind word to say to anyone who worked for her.
I complained about her to anyone who would listen, until one day, the man who had hired me and had since moved to a different department, got fed up and fired back, “Kathleen Doris Love, I am sick of your whining. You have a very responsible position in a Fortune 500 company. Either stop complaining and get on with your work or leave, because I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
Wow. Talk about real, honest feedback. Since there was no way to Google “How to deal with a difficult boss” back then, there was nothing to do but get on with my work and try to figure out why she was the boss and what I could learn from her. There was a lot to learn. I learned that the sales department loved her because she could spin research numbers into the greatest story those sales people ever told, leaving the potential advertiser to wonder how they could find even more money to buy even more ad space. She also had endless patience, walking reps through the story she had spun until it became their own. She understood that she served the advertising department and if someone called her as she was walking out the door, she took off her coat and went back to her desk without another thought. It is no wonder the sales department thought she walked on water.
I started talking to her instead of railing about her. I learned that she was frightened of so many things, but probably the biggest fear she had was that she would end up alone and poor and be one of those old ladies who ate cat food to make ends meet. She smoked like a chimney and drank bourbon neat. And all she really wanted was to do a good job. Years later, when I was the head of the department and her boss, I treasured her. But there is no getting around the fact that her deep, psychological wounds strongly impacted her ability to be an effective manager.
We can only change ourselves. So many of us have wounds and wounds are inflicted in so many ways. Just as an example, the latest statistics indicate that 1 out of every 5 women has been the victim of unwanted sexual contact before the age of 22. The number is 1 in 13 among young men (not including the prison population). We bring what that does to us to the workplace. Many people might read that and think, “At least nothing that bad happened to me.” But that doesn’t mean that nothing bad happened to you and that your experiences have not wounded you. There are many people in this world who have felt unloved, unwanted, not good enough, who witnessed violence or experienced myriad other emotional scars that affect how they see the world, how they see the workplace and how they interact with others. Do not trust that you’ve “dealt with” your problems. Get some professional help to make sure.
But clearly not all difficulties in the workplace are the result of unresolved trauma. Some managers are trying to do the right thing and don’t understand how to motivate or inspire their staff. They don’t get real feedback about how they are perceived and their organizations allow weak, empty performance evaluations that provide little or no guidance. Press your company for a coach or hire one yourself. A coach can give you feedback that is honest and direct but has your best interest in mind.
As for meds and manners…perhaps the need for either of those could better be evaluated in therapy or coaching.
“Change, like healing, takes time.”
― Veronica Roth, Allegiant