“He just doesn’t have any empathy,” Adam told me, referring to his manager. “He’s really cold and totally rigid about taking time off, even when it doesn’t make any sense. He’s just a difficult person to interact with.”
Adam works for a conservation project in Arizona, and he came to me for career coaching. We created his exit plan — he’s decided to go back to school for physical therapy, which is his dream job — but he’s still got three more months in his current position. “Financially I’ve got to stick it out,” he tells me, “but day to day I’m miserable. My boss is just so difficult to deal with. It brings the whole team down.”
I’ve coached a lot of people in Adam’s situation, who complain about a difficult boss or manager that makes it unpleasant to go to work. The situation is common, but how Adam responded is extraordinary. We all have something to learn from him.
People know what we think about them
Have you ever been around someone who doesn’t like you? Can you tell?
Of course you can. Something in our speech and demeanor always reflects our true thoughts, no matter how hard we try. Most of us have a terrible poker face, Adam included.
I helped Adam observe some of the ideas he has about who his boss is: “rigid, cold, lacking empathy.” Adam was carrying these ideas about his boss around with him during all of their interactions.
As I coached Adam on this, he saw how his own ideas about his boss were influencing their interactions. “I guess if I could tell that one of my employees didn’t like me, I’d probably be cold and rigid with them too,” Adam realized.
You can’t change other peoples’ behavior, only your own
Adam was willing to do something challenging: see his own role in the matter. It’s easy to say “that person’s difficult,” and then go about your workday feeling like a victim. It’s much harder to see the subtle ways in which you might be contributing to the situation.
Ask yourself the question I asked Adam:
What would happen if you put aside your characterization of your boss as “difficult?” If you stopped expecting “difficult,” would you get something else?
It’s hard to say, but Adam was willing to find out.
Adam promised to try seeing his boss as a whole person, rather than a cartoon-like character who is “difficult” and “cold.”
“My manager’s probably a nice enough guy,” he told me. “He has a family and probably likes being outside in the mountains like I do. I guess I’ve only seen this one side of him and haven’t really given him a chance.”
I asked Adam what he would do or say to his manager to demonstrate his willingness to see him differently. “Tomorrow I’ll ask him how his weekend was,” he promised. “That will knock his socks off.”
Subtle changes can produce remarkable results
Adam didn’t bring up his boss in our next two sessions. In fact, it wasn’t until about six weeks later that we talked about his current work dynamic again.
“I wanted to catch you up on something,” Adam finally told me.
“You remember how I was having trouble with my manager? It’s totally changed. I asked him about his weekend like I said I would, and we had a really good conversation. It turns out he also likes fishing and we have a lot more in common than I thought. Since then things have been going a lot better, not just for me but with our whole team. Everyone’s a lot more positive and nicer to each other.”
I was already impressed, but Adam kept going:
“Then last week my boss sent an email to the whole team, just out of the blue. He told us he’s been dealing with autism spectrum disorder, and said that has made it harder for him to read our emotions and know how to respond. He said it’s something he’s working on and wanted us to know. He really opened up, I couldn’t believe it.”
Did Adam’s conversation change a whole team’s dynamic? It’s impossible to say. But Adam did wonder if he played a role.
“Things started to change after I started seeing him differently,” Adam told me. “I don’t want to say it was me that did it, but I do think it made a difference in letting him open up a bit, and our whole team responded.”
Try switching your lens
When we have strong ideas about other people, we treat them more like two-dimensional characters than real people. This impacts all of our interactions, whether we love or dislike someone.
Our ideas about others are like lenses: they cause us to filter only for information that fits our idea. If you think your boss is “difficult,” you can find lots of evidence and examples, because that’s what you’re looking for.
Adam still doesn’t love everything his boss does, and he’s still changing careers. But his experience at work has shifted completely. He told me he doesn’t dread going into the office, and that sometimes he even has fun working alongside his colleagues.
It takes a lot of courage and maturity to do what Adam did. Frankly, most people aren’t willing to observe the lens they’ve been looking through and try on a new one. But if you’re willing to see and interact with someone as a whole person, remarkable things can happen.