I have a client who is having a really, really rough time at work right now. She and her manager are at each others’ throats all the time and I was brought in to help alleviate the tension.
Lots of things contribute to situations that get to this height. Most people want to do some armchair psychotherapy and assign blame to one party or the other. She is incompetent, she is too forceful, she’s always looking for a problem, she doesn’t know how to do her job, on and on and on.
I received all of these reasons when I first arrived. Both said that the rest of their team thought the other was hard to work with and cited numerous reasons why this was true.
Here’s the thing, only 2% of the time is this actually an interpersonal issue. 98% of the time there is something structural that is failing here. For this duo, the whole org they resided within was behind the times in terms of the mission it was now carrying out. They were slowly catching up with their new model, but lots of things were left behind as a relic of their original intention and purpose.
These two were suffering from some serious Waterline Issues: Goals were misaligned, one of them was not suited to the role she was in, the other was in a role that turned out to be much bigger than she thought when she first came on board, and processes did not reflect the model the org was now operating under.
This is obviously a whole series unto itself, but I am not going to tell you about what they needed to fix or what needed to be different.
I am here to tell you that, as a manager, no matter how obnoxious you find your direct reports you must must MUST contain your contempt for them.
The client I was speaking to was having a hard time because she no longer felt like she had anyone to turn to with her concerns. Our conversation had to turn from “active changes you can make to be better in this relationship” to “how do I show up to work despite having no allies if something goes wrong?” It derailed the conversation in a way that will ultimately cost the org time and money as this person has to suss out how to keep her sanity about her when she has no space for venting instead of actively working on the relationship I was brought in to work with.
Here’s the thing managers: If you manage 1 person or 20 people, you have to find compassion for the people who report to you. They can be assholes and frustrating, but there is nothing worse you can do than clearly show them that you have contempt for them.
Dr. John Gottman has named 4 behaviors that he calls “The 4 Horsemen” as predictors for divorce in married couples. These can also be applied to working relationships particularly when there is a power differential like what exists between a boss and their direct report. Contempt is one of them. In working relationships, we may not overtly display the behaviors listed like eye-rolling or sarcastic comments, but it shows up in condescending conversation, dismissive gestures like holding up a hand or brushing something away, or verbally brushing something away by dismissing it.
Your direct reports feel this. They know when they are no longer the favorite or even favored and it is distressing to know the person who controls your workload and therefore your livelihood doesn’t like you anymore. They will likely withdraw, causing them to produce work that is subpar because they are no longer communicating with you, which starts a vicious cycle of them not living up to your expectations and you having more contempt for them.
Worse than this, they may keep an actual problem from you because they are afraid of your backlash. This can be something like a missed deadline or missed deliverable, but it can also be things like harassment, which can open you up to huge liabilities and also mean you are working in a place where that sort of stuff is happening unchecked.
So, what’s an exasperated boss to do?
First, find the positives of this worker. Do they handle a particular task really well? Are they the one who organizes company-wise social events? Do they make a really good pot of coffee? Remember what these things are and work to point them out and compliment them on them. Particularly for the next part.
Second, apologize. Or at least recognize that something has been up. I recommend a straight-forward approach like, “I know I have been hard to come to with problems. You make a great pot of coffee and I want to keep that skill in the company. So, I will not dismiss your problems and I want you to tell me when something is wrong.”
Third, fucking do it. Fix the problems, help them out, realize that when people irk you in this way they are likely pointing out things that you need to be made aware of. They are either a canary in a coal mine or ultimately don’t work for your company’s culture. Both of which are things you need to pay attention to.
What’s a scorned worker to do?
First, lay low. You are under a microscope now even if your boss seems to be ignoring you. They’re not. They’re likely hypersensitive to your every move. So for a bit, try and keep your head down.
Second, apologize. Or at least recognize that something has been up. Sound familiar? Yup, you could also be the one to bring this forward. If your boss is ignoring your issues, they likely will just stew in their resentful juices until you say something. Try, “I know I’ve brought up a lot of issues lately. I want to do my best work and want to make sure I’m clear if I feel like I’m not living up to the standard you have set for me.”
Third, find small wins. Do you make a great pot of coffee? Make your best pot of coffee every day. Anticipate your co-workers or boss’s needs to show that you can be a team player and start to endear yourself to them again. This will help build goodwill so when you try again with the problems you see, you can at least have some positive interactions under your belt that will make it more likely for you to be heard.
Or…get a new job. Some companies are not interested in change. You may be in one of them and if your boss has shown contempt for you or has started ignoring you, it may be time to move on.
If it gets to this place, it sucks for everyone. But hopefully contemptuous bosses can have an easier time recognizing when they have reached that place and workers have some ideas about how to move forward so they can continue to do the best work possible. Divorce, in couples and in companies, is not fun for anyone.