At some point in everyone’s work life we encounter that person — boss, peer, senior manager, or subordinate that simply “gets under our skin”. There is something about them — their style, voice, mannerisms, daily behavior, attitude, routine commentary, or perhaps a specific event — that arouses strong negative emotions, and sometimes makes us crazy and altogether irrational when we encounter or think about them. Because we often have no choice but to work with this person, coping with our negative feelings and the strong emotions they often arouse in us is a major challenge.
As a manager, successfully coping with such people is critical because failure to do so undermines your ability to successfully carry out essential aspects of your job. It does no good pretending you don’t feel like you do, or feeling ashamed that you are not able to rise above such petty biases. You’re simply human after all. What you require is the maturity to realize that you must devise a strategy for managing your reactions and the strength to execute it.
Assume the person that gets under your skin is your boss or a superior with whom you frequently interact. As a manager, your subordinates expect you to successfully manage relations with your superiors so as to insure the best outcomes for them and your organization. Your subordinates will not appreciate it if your feelings towards your superiors have a negative impact on resources, their advancement potential, or your organization’s overall bureaucratic influence.
Or assume the person that gets under your skin is a subordinate. Good managers cultivate a fair, objective, and unbiased perspective on every subordinate when it comes to assignments, opportunities, daily treatment, and the evaluation of their performance. Yet, it is extremely hard to prevent negative emotions from clouding your judgment in any of these matters.
Ultimately every manager must find his or her own way of dealing with their feelings and emotions, especially as they relate to those individuals who just seem to irritate the daylights out them. Over the years I have found that it helps to formulate a coping strategy by attempting to answer one of the most valuable questions any manager can ever ask themselves: DOES IT MATTER?
By MATTER, as I use the term, I am referring to a reasonably objective judgment on your part concerning: (1) whether your feelings and emotional reaction to an individual are interfering with the execution of your managerial responsibilities; or (2) whether what bothers you constitutes unprofessional or performance-hindering behavior that you as a manager should address?
Concluding that it does not matter in either of the above ways points you in the direction of finding a way to simply live with your feelings and occasional irritation in the knowledge that your emotions are not undermining your ability to do your job. However, if you believe it does matter — that your emotions are clouding your judgment and interfering with the execution of your managerial responsibilities — then you must act to confront the behavior in question in some way.
Discussing behavioral issues with either a superior or subordinate is an unpleasant and difficult task. But when the matter is impacting your performance, it is an essential task. The key, as I have discussed in previous articles, is to focus on the impact of the behavior in question on you personally, or on the workplace environment where applicable. Phrasing your comments as a personal attack is almost certain to fail.
Whenever I discuss this issue, I recall an incident involving myself and a young subordinate that I share here as a shining example of how to do this right. For reasons I will never fully understand and which were completely unconscious on my part at the time, she claimed that I had failed to affirm the value of her comments in a series of meetings, while I had been quite praiseworthy of the comments of others. My initial reaction was disbelief and embarrassment, but I quickly came round to the conclusion that it must have happened because this subordinate was someone whose veracity I trusted and who had the reputation of telling truth to power. The true impact of her feedback, however, was her description of the work-related consequences of my lack of affirmation: “because you — the group leader — seemed to ignore my input” she said, “the rest of the predominately male group did so as well”.
I will never know how difficult it was for this young woman to confront me regarding the importance of affirmation in the eyes of all subordinates but it had a lasting impact on my conduct of meetings from that point on. That she accused me of nothing, nor pretended to know why what she perceived had occurred, provided me with the emotional room I needed to focus on the impact of my behavior on her potential contribution and to resolve that I would not let that happen again.
Her feedback was a valuable gift that kept giving over the years.