What do I do if the management behaves in a way that completely goes against our corporate values?” asked Stefan, a retail manager, during one of my recent seminars. He did not wait for an answer, but continued – “In seemingly never-ending meetings we talk about how we are to act in the interest of the employees. Retaining good employees is not easy in our industry. One of my employees wanted to be assigned to another location for personal reasons. I came up with a solution for this that suits both the employee and the company. And now my CEO is being difficult and says that we can’t do that!”
Stefan is usually a calm and matter-of-fact person. But now he is talking himself into a rage – “I mean, these bosses talk about great strategies and tell us how to act and then the next minute they do the EXACT opposite. What a jerk! Don’t you have any in your companies?” Stefan looks around questioningly. Andrea, an HR manager, agrees with him – “We definitely do! Jerks are evenly distributed across all German companies.“ The whole group starts snorting with laughter. Some nod meaningfully.
Anger about “them up there” is widespread. Why is that? Are top management positions generally only given to jerks? The Gallup Institute regularly confirms in its studies that most leadership positions in the USA are filled by people who are not suitable for them. According to Gallup, this is because only 10% of people have the talent to be a manager. 20% could be turned into managers through coaching and training, but for the rest there is little hope.
If I believe what my training participants and coachees tell me, this does not just seem to be an American problem. People rarely have any major difficulties with their colleagues and employees. “Them up there” are the problem.
But one thing I have learned in all these years of training and coaching: don’t attach too much importance to stories that you are told. There is always more than one side to every story! Moreover, in my experience, these stories are of little relevance for the development of a person in any case. Sometimes they hamper rather than support the change process. Instead, it helps to treat the past as the past. Its nature is: it’s over. No matter how horrible or wonderful it was, it’s over. Whenever we get angry about something, it’s already over:
- The disrespectful way in which my boss repeatedly interrupted me: over!
- The business partner who cancelled our appointment for the 3rd time in a row: over!
- The stupid comment my colleague made in an email: over!
- The extremely annoying mistake made by the employee: over!
- The intelligent answer that I did not think of in the meeting: over!
But what is very real and present when we tell these stories or just think about them is the anger they evoke in us. In addition, we can’t change the past and sometimes that annoys us even more. As (the former) Ms. Kalaschnikova I am an expert for anger and one thing is very clear to me:
WHO SUFFERS when I’m angry?
And that’s no fun. But I live by the principle – if it’s no fun, then change it. Life is too precious to me not to enjoy it. That is why I meditate daily. I am currently once again listening to the “Transforming Anger” meditation series on the Headspace meditation app. In its introduction Andy Puddicombe explains:
- If we think anger is bad, we suppress or resist it. So instead of subsiding, our anger rises.
- If we think our anger is good or justified, we engage in it or take it out on others.
Isn’t that a very apt description of how we usually handle big and small annoyances?
- We pull ourselves together because we want to be professional. We suppress our anger and make it more powerful in this way. The situation is long over, but we take the anger from the office home with us. Home to our loved ones. Sometimes anger causes us to have bad dreams and is the first to kiss us when we slowly open our eyes after a terrible night. And WHO SUFFERS?
- We explain to others why we are justifiably annoyed. The other guy was being impossible, such a jerk! One participant described the state she then finds herself in as ‘holy anger.’ But WHO SUFFERS in this case? With this anger we cut other people’s heads off in our wild dreams. In reality, however, we usually don’t dare to express our anger to “those up there” – so we swallow it and end up back at square 1.
Become aware that anger is an excellent tool for suffering, so something for people who think that fun in life is totally overrated. I am not that kind of person!
What is to be done? Andy explains that instead of evaluating anger, you could look at it as energy. We can use this energy for ourselves and transform it to active action. To do this, however, it is necessary to create some distance between us and the anger, otherwise it will overwhelm us. Here’s a tip: SLOW DOWN!
In the seminar we simulate a meeting in which Stefan tries to reach clarification with his boss (the jerk) regarding the employee’s assignment. For this purpose I ask Stefan to sit opposite another participant, Thomas, who plays the role of the CEO.
Stefan is still upset, but starts the meeting in an objective manner.
Thomas responds – “But the employee is well placed at the location. Plus this is not a request show, people can’t just pick and choose!”
Stefan repeats the reasons for his decision and starts talking increasing quickly. At lightning speed he states one argument after the other. Thomas launches into his arguments. Here Stefan interrupts him and says – “Well this has very little to do with fairness and trust (the company values, editor’s note).”
I interrupt the simulation and ask Stefan if this is how the meeting would go in reality. Stefan nods and says – “Thomas is doing a good job. He is being a jerk, just like my boss!
Me – “How are you feeling right now, Stefan?”
Stefan – “I’m pissed!” and gives Thomas an angry look.
Me – “WHO SUFFERS???”
There it is, the suppressed anger. Just like water, it finds its way into the conversation. When you turn to this anger while mediating, it is not unusual for a few tears to flow. This seems strange at first, but is a very effective method for letting off steam. We have little experience with this and instead we push away the anger and transform it into sarcastic remarks. As Brené Brown points out in “Dare to Lead,” cynicism and sarcasm often mask anger. They are a safe way for us to send out an emotional trial balloon, and if it doesn’t go over well, we make a joke and make you feel stupid. 1-0 to us, we think. At the same time we poisoned the relationship with our cynical remark. Even though we have supposedly achieved victory, in the long run it will put a strain on our relationship and will not make constructive cooperation any easier in the future. A little awkward, if we work in the same company and our job consists of developing solutions together.
Besides SLOWING DOWN, it may be helpful to remember that the other person is not a jerk. He is a person who has a different opinion from mine, and just like me he has concerns and fears. One question that works well for me is – “What is your concern?”
I encourage Stefan to ask Thomas – “What is your concern, Thomas, if we transfer the employee?” Thomas replies – “My concern is that this will spiral out of control and that everyone will want the same!”
Stefan is about to respond with a counter-argument.
I interrupt him and ask – “Can you understand that if Thomas is concerned about this, he will not agree to the proposal?”
Stefan replies – “Yes, sure!”
Me – “And can you tell him that? And please also ask him if there are any other concerns that are troubling him regarding this transfer.”
Stefan follows my advice and a lot of Thomas’ concerns are revealed. Stefan is able to invalidate many of them and has almost reached his goal as far as the transfer of the employee is concerned. But then Thomas explains that he was extremely upset that Stefan, without informing him, simply created facts. Stefan feels criticized and starts to justify his approach. Again, I stop him.
Me – “WHO SUFFERS?”
Stefan – “I do!”
Me – “Has it ever happened to you that you only found out about a decision after the fact?”
Stefan – “Yes, sure!”
Me – “And were you upset about that?”
Stefan – “I was!”
I look at him innocently and ask him – “Stefan, are you a jerk?”
Stefan says – “I can understand that, Thomas, and I still stand by my solution!”
Thomas finds it difficult to continue being a jerk and asks for time to think it over.
Although I have been meditating and practicing mindfulness for many years, I still get annoyed every single day. But I try to let go of anger and treat the past as the past. I then use the remaining energy to make progress in the matter. Neither my customers nor I always succeed in this. However, we are developing more understanding of how absurd incidents come about in German boardrooms and what part we play in them. Instead of complaining, we develop plans and strategies for what we can do better from now on. Rather than making cynical remarks we practice clear and at the same time kind communication. Doesn’t always work, but at least we get better at taking ourselves less seriously. We laugh and have fun instead of getting angry for a long time. In the process, some jerks become human and thus virtually eliminate themselves. Magical!
P.S.: I showed “Stefan” this article before I published it online. He said that he now had “Thomas’” support. This was mainly because he had prepared himself well for the discussion with him and had remained calm. Maybe this is his way of transforming anger into action. Whatever it was, we had fun working on it. A whole lot of fun, actually!