Can You Respect an Unrespectable Boss?


 

Dear Joseph,

You have previously written that, “Bosses will listen to anyone if they feel safe with them.” You’ve also said that one of the conditions for safety is that the boss feels respected. Here’s my problem: I DON’T respect my boss. Should I try to fake it?

Signed,
Working for an Oaf

Dear Working for an Oaf,

You are asking a profound question and I will treat it with all the reverence it deserves. You are absolutely right that THE barrier to you creating safety with your boss is your own disrespect for him or her. What you may not realize is that your disrespect might be much more about you than it is about your boss.

Respect is a heck of a lot more fluid than we think. You made the statement, “I don’t respect my boss.” That makes it sounds as though your disrespect is a fixed fact—that it is the natural result of his or her attributes (he or she is dishonest) or behaviors (he or she picks his or her nose during meetings)—and is, therefore, out of your control. This is wrong.

Here is the principle: It is impossible to disrespect a whole person. The only way you can maintain disgust for another is to hold only his or her flaws in your mind—assiduously avoiding acknowledgement of his or her redeeming qualities. It is easy to despise the caricature of a person we concoct. But please notice it is you that concocts it. You do so by excising another’s back story, their good days, and their virtues, while fixating on their vices, bad choices, and weaknesses.

I saw profound evidence of this six months ago. I witnessed a remarkable shift in two people’s view of each other. One I will call Cathy—a prosecutor in a county attorney’s office. One day, a new case appeared on Cathy’s desk that made her smile. It was for a thirty-five-year-old repeat felon named Jason. During her years as a prosecutor, Cathy had had the “pleasure” of locking him up a number of times. She particularly enjoyed doing it because the first time she met Jason—seventeen years earlier—he had assaulted her. She was a policewoman at the time.

When she encountered Jason, he was high on meth and became violent toward her. She told me, “I was horrified that day when I put my hand on my service revolver to withdraw it from the holster. The thought occurred to me, ‘I may have to kill him.’” She never forgot Jason. After becoming a prosecutor, she took every chance she got to lock him up for as long as she could. And she did a good job. Between ages eighteen and thirty-five, he spent thirteen years in prisons and jails. Cathy had decided Jason was a “dirt bag”—a hopeless career criminal.

For his part, Jason developed a clear impression of Cathy. If you’ll allow me to sanitize this a bit—he referred to her as “that witch.” When he would look across the courtroom and see her, he felt pure loathing. In his mind, she was a power-hungry jerk who took advantage of those with poor representation.

All of this changed in July 2014, when Jason and Cathy had an unexpected conversation. Different from previous occasions—when their conversation was constrained by legal posturing—it was just the two of them telling their stories. This time, Cathy listened. This time, Jason listened. Jason described life with a prostitute mother. Being molested by her customers. Joining a gang for refuge. Using drugs to anesthetize his aching mind. Learning violence as a survival skill. He confessed to his self-loathing and the deep shame he felt for the person he had become. Cathy was moved. For her part she described the trauma of his attack seventeen years earlier. She detailed the testimonies of his victims from over the years—and the feeling of obligation she had to defend their rights.

When Jason left that jail interview room, Cathy looked different. As Cathy drove from the jail, she had a sobering new view of Jason—a more complete view. While neither will join a bridge club together anytime soon, both had a new found respect for one another that came from demolishing the simplistic view that had sustained their mutual resentment.

Can you respect someone you don’t respect? Oh yes! But that cannot happen until you own the fact that your disrespect is just that—yours. You are sustaining it by maintaining a distorted story of the other person.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that you should put up with your boss’s dishonesty, incompetence, rudeness—or whatever the presenting problems are in your case. My only point is that you are in no position to take healthy action until you own your side of the problem. Once you can see your boss as a human being, worthy of civility and respect, you will be able to choose rather than react. Then you can decide how to take responsibility for your own needs. You have two options:

Set boundaries: You can have a crucial conversation with your boss in order to find a way to navigate his or her obvious flaws. Decide how to set boundaries that will allow you to work positively—and perhaps even influence your boss to become better.

Fire your boss: You may decide that setting boundaries to make things workable would require more energy than you are willing to invest. That could be a perfectly healthy decision. But if you have “mastered your story,” you will not blame your boss for your decision to leave. You will not waste energy after you leave trashing your boss to others. You will leave taking responsibility for your choice and seeing the boss as someone kind of like you—a human being with both beauty and flaws. You will know you have graduated from telling a Villain Story to telling a healthy one when, like Jason and Cathy, your moral certainty is replaced with curiosity, and your disgust gives way to compassion.

I find I am most understanding of others’ weaknesses when I am most aware of my own. I am most triggered by weaknesses in others that, at some fundamental level, reflect shame I feel toward myself. Disrespect is not inevitable. It is a fragile fiction we sustain with a story we tell.

Sincerely,
Joseph

P.S. For simplicity, I did not qualify my response to include figures of pure evil. I believe they exist. I do not respect them. But I think they are very few in number.

About The Author:

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.