The other day a friend, who’d spent a grad rotation in my team, rang for some mentoring advice. He’s an up and coming project manager, now working for another company, and he felt he was being stymied by a micro-managing, personally vindictive, martinet. In short an arsehole.
We established some expected professional guidelines to ensure he wasn’t simply a millennial not getting their way. Although I will add that nothing in my experience with him ever indicated any sense of entitlement. And it certainly seems that his manager in case was being a jerk.
What to do?
Quit, and face the shifting cost of finding another role. Whether in or out of the organisation.
Or Persist, and face the daily humiliation and degradation of working with an arsehole?
The 3rd Alternative
Lesson one, whenever there seems to be a ‘suckers choice’ look for a third alternative. In this case we agreed to tough it out for a period of time, but to use this as a career development opportunity because of two immutable truths:
1. Every organisation contains arseholes. Better to learn how to deal with a jerk and develop that muscle than to be upset every time you have to.
2. ‘Leaving from’ is never as good a choice as ‘going to.’
Here then are 6 lessons you can learn working with an arsehole:
1. Develop Empathy.
Few people come to work to be nasty. Sometimes it’s years of poor company culture, sometimes it’s the insecurity of being threatened, sometimes there’s something in their personal life that makes them (appear) mean. Sometimes they have good intentions and poor judgement.
Whatever it is, figure out the root cause. Empathy makes you a better human being. And more adept at dealing with them.
2. Find their ‘Win.’
What can you do to make them ‘win.’
It’s incredibly hard to be nasty to someone who is helping you succeed.
3. Step up your personal game.
The idea here is to over-deliver.
Most people in work over-promise and under-deliver. Good employees under-promise and over-deliver. The key to success is to over-promise and over-deliver.
So do that. Make it impossible for your manager to find anything to complain about.
The risk is that your over-delivering threatens them with their peers, so see lesson 2 above.
4. How not to be an arsehole yourself.
Once I used a technique I’d learned to encourage punctuality in team meetings. I’d gain permission from the team to get latecomers to tell a joke, or sing a song at the front when they arrived. The intent was to lighten the mood, have a laugh, and of course (slightly) embarrass latecomers into being punctual. Harmless? Sure.
One of the other managers later used this to accuse me of bullying. This certainly wasn’t common feedback from the team, the other managers or even our director, but it was great feedback to me. Sometimes the things you do with the most honest intent can make you a jerk.
So the 4th lesson is to note down precisely what behaviours are annoying you, and ensure you don’t do the same things to others.
5. Build your confidence.
How do you progress in any skill in life?
By overcoming challenges.
As you develop your skills, maintain your integrity, and stand up to the arsehole, you become proficient at dealing with all sorts of people. This puts you in a unique position. You become the person that can lead the difficult team, teach the feral class, work with the impossible client.
Learning to deal with difficult people at work builds your confidence to handle your obnoxious neighbours, your children’s complaining teachers, and pushy sales people.
6. Develop your exit strategy.
If you can’t change the behaviour, it’s time to develop an exit strategy.
But it’s always time to develop your exit strategy.
Use this opportunity then to catalyse something that should be a continual process. Determine the timing, the milestones you need to achieve, and begin executing on your strategy.
At The End Of The Day
I do believe there is a line across which it makes more sense to leave a team than stay. For me that line includes any of: physical violence, racial discrimination, sexual harrassment, and overt bullying.
Although I’ve seen many times how a little coaching and 1:1 feedback can go a long way to rectify a situation. Especially when a perpetrator is ignorant of the impact of their behaviour, like I was.
The worst thing you can do is endure without communication. That just builds up resentment eventually leading to catastrophe, where you quit without another opportunity. Or worse do something that gets you punished.