One of the things that I find most interesting about the legal profession is our commitment to the belief that as attorneys we can do it all. Rather than hiring business experts to operate the business side of a firm, we simply conclude that as attorneys we have the qualifications to manage as well as practice. As many of my clients and myself have concluded: just because we are attorneys does not mean that we are good bosses, leaders, managers, or mentors. So what do you do when you find yourself working with a boss (or any human for that matter) who is less of a leader and mostly just a jerk? This recently came to light in a session I had with a client who was struggling with her supervisor.
My client had been charged with managing a particularly large project that was not within her traditional practice area. The initiative required input and contributions from various practices across the firm and ongoing strategy sessions with the team. In addition to the strategy sessions, my client had regular one-on-one meetings with her supervisor. During a recent meeting with her supervisor, he indicated that he expected her to take the lead on the upcoming team discussion and that she would be managing the project from there on out. He wanted her to use this to get project management experience. When she attended the first team meeting to present the project plan, her supervisor took over and did not offer any opportunity for her to make contributions. As the meeting progressed, it became clear to my client that her supervisor and his team had not read any of the materials relating to the scope of the project and had grossly misunderstood the intent of the client. The meeting was largely unproductive, confusing for all members, and my client was pissed.
When we met, she relayed this story and went on to explain how her supervisor is a jerk, a terrible leader, incredibly disorganized, spiteful, arrogant, and childish. She said she hates working with him and that having to continually interact with someone who was such a poor supervisor was making her consider leaving her job entirely. How does someone like that get into a position of leadership!?
This kind of scenario and feedback is something that we all have to deal with at some point in time simply by being members of the human race. Although I like to think that we in the legal industry have an abnormal amount of individuals who are poor leaders and managers, the ultimate truth remains the same: sometimes people just suck.
But the problem with this scenario is that so many of my clients are driven to leave or consider leaving their place of employment due to this type of interaction. In attempts to remedy these situations, many of us vacillate between confronting the individual and outright avoiding them. We all know that feeling when you’re sitting in a meeting and you’re swimming in angry thoughts about the individual in front of you. They have no idea what they’re doing….I wish they would just shut up….why do they keep doing that….how can they be so oblivious….you’re such a terrible leader…. and on and on it goes. We feel our skin start to crawl and we actually start to believe that if we don’t get out of this place and get away from this person ASAP we’re going to lose our minds!
I get it. I have completely been there and so many of my clients have as well. So how do you dig out when every part of your body and every thought in your head is screaming to get away from this person?!
(Sound familiar? Sign up for a free consult, and let’s sort it out.)
First, we have to recognize that when we confront this person or simply avoid them, we are either trying to get the other person to change or we are trying to remove them from our orbit so we don’t have to do any work. We dream of confronting them and seeing them take our comments to heart so they can change for the better and then everything will be OK. In the alternative, we think that if we can just escape this person and not have to deal with them then everything will be OK in that scenario too. In either case, we’re trying to change or eliminate the problem person so that we don’t have to feel angry and frustrated anymore. Therein lies the problem:
wanting someone or something else to change so that WE can feel better is a futile endeavor that rarely works. Instead, our work rests solely with us and how we handle the situation.
In my client’s scenario, she truly believed that her boss was a jerk, a terrible leader, disorganized, spiteful, arrogant, and childish. She provided those details to me as if they were well-documented facts. What she didn’t see was that none of that was true. These were all optional things she was choosing to believe about her boss. All of these thoughts and judgments about this person were making her completely miserable. She wanted me to help her learn how to navigate dealing with her jerk boss but she didn’t see that her beliefs and judgments about him were actually what was making her miserable. What she didn’t see was that in order to move forward she would have to at least open herself up to the possibility that her opinion about this person may not be accurate. That she was choosing to believe day-in and day-out that her boss was a jerk. Regardless of whether or not any of these thoughts could be proven factually accurate, it was clear that by living in these judgments of this other human, she was making herself crazy. The work wasn’t in learning how to deal with her “jerk” boss, the work was in seeing that she didn’t have to believe that he was a jerk.
Our judgments of other people are founded on the belief that those around us are supposed to act a certain way.
My client’s boss was supposed to be a good mentor, a good cheerleader for her, and supportive. She had this whole perception of who he was supposed to be. Her conclusion that he was a jerk was at odds with how she wanted things to be. That tug of war with reality was causing a tremendous amount of discomfort and frustration for her. So much so that she just wanted to get away from it. But as many of you know, anytime you leave one experience for another we often encounter the same types of humans who elicit the same types of challenges all over again.
We end up creating for ourselves a pattern of moving from place to place, identifying a new jerk in each situation, and moving on again and again.
Rather than showing up to work believing that her boss was a jerk, she had myriad options available to her as to how she could potentially think of the situation. She could instead recognize that he was showing up exactly how he was meant to. He was being everything that is uniquely him. And that is completely OK. In fact, that is the beauty of this world. We all have the ultimate right to show up and be whomever and however we want to be. So rather than showing up in judgment and stewing in anger and frustration, my client could instead look at this person as an opportunity for her to experiment with compassion and unconditional love. She wasn’t frustrated because of him or the things that he was doing. The reason she was frustrated was that she was focusing on who she wanted him to be and was marinating her brain in all of these negative judgments about him when he didn’t fit her mold. So instead I asked her, how do you want to think about this person? How do you want to show up in this experience?
She revealed that she wanted to be calm and collected. She wanted to advocate for herself. To step in and LEAD just like he had asked her to. She wanted to focus on the fact that she knew he never wanted to be a manager and that he seemed to be trying to do the best he could with the position that he never sought out.
This didn’t make her feel warm and fuzzy. It didn’t make her want to stay at the firm forever. But it did allow her some neutral emotions and some space to look at this person from a different perspective. It allowed the judgment to subside and along with that came a reduction in her frustration and anger and her desire to flee. Instead, we developed a plan for her to have an honest and curious conversation with him about the project. A conversation that was not intended to CHANGE him but one rooted in compassion and a desire to better UNDERSTAND him.
After all, it’s so much easier to speak your truth from a place of neutrality than when you are fueled by pent-up anger and frustration.
Imagine how much happier we all could be if instead of judging everyone around us and believing that things should be different we chose to believe that everything was happening as it should and just tried to love those around us? It’s not easy but it certainly feels a lot better than the alternative.
I truly believe that the only thing preventing us from loving everyone around us is our thoughts about them. If you could change that, imagine how much happier you would be.