A coaching client told me about a painful interaction with her manager.
Her vice president told her: “I am stunned that, at your level, you don’t know the basics of your job.”
And my client, a director with years of experience at some of the largest companies in the region, immediately began to doubt herself.
“Maybe he’s right,” said my client. “I approach things differently than he does. … I’ve always been good at my job, but it’s hard to remember when your boss says something like that.”
I could see my client’s confidence leaking away.
“Listen, I can think of three avenues to explore here,” I told my client. “One, you can go find out if there’s a kernel of truth to his comment so that you can learn and improve.” (Go, growth mindset!)
“Two, you can have a very direct conversation and hold him accountable for that toxic comment,” I said. “And three, you can assume it’s mostly about him.”
My client described how her boss is struggling. His scope of responsibility is rapidly expanding. He just acquired my client’s organization and has no background in my client’s technical field. And he’s widely despised by the people working under him.
“People hate him,” said my client.
“It must be hard to be him right now,” I mused. “I wonder if he’s feeling inadequate and incompetent, and is lashing out.”
Dr. Helen Riess, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, writes about this behavior in her book, “The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work and Connect Across Differences.”
“The new leader feels unsure about her role. … She uses fear and intimidation to exert her authority, and when she hears rumblings that the team doesn’t think she’s doing a good job, she gathers them together for a lecture,” Riess writes.
“People are talking about you,” Riess imagines this hypothetical leader as saying. “They’re saying you are the worst team that’s come through this system in years! The team’s reaction? They begin to feel as fearful and as paranoid as their leader. … This type of failed leadership tends to spread across organizations like the plague,” Riess writes.
“I wonder if a little empathy might be in your best interest here,” I suggested to my client. “What if your manager’s toxic and destructive comment is all about him and this difficult situation he finds himself in, and really has nothing to do with you? If you could empathize with him, what could you do?”
“Well, the idea makes me feel better right away,” my client said, sitting up straighter. “And you’re right, it is probably in my best interests for him to be happier in his role. I could probably do a better job of setting him up to succeed.”
We brainstormed ideas of how my client could help and support her manager. “His comment doesn’t feel so toxic anymore,” my client said. “It feels mostly sad.”
You’re welcome, Mr. Vice President out there. Now, please keep those mean comments to yourself when you’re having a rough day.
First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.