To climb the corporate ladder, you have to develop the skill to deal with people who get on your nerves. Sometimes it’s your boss, a peer or an employee. They can push your buttons to the point that it causes you to lose your cool and say what you really think.
Let me share one of the worst situations I’ve seen in my career of someone deciding to “tell it like it is.”
There were two vice presidents who despised one another and got into an argument during a staff meeting. It escalated to the point that one of them said to the other “Your mother!” (I thought, “Damn! Oh, no, he didn’t!”)
I was shocked because they were two middle-aged white guys from well-to-do backgrounds. My boss immediately ended the staff meeting. He called me into his office later that day to let me know the VP who had hurled that insult had been fired. He then asked me what I thought of what had been said.
“Well, if he ever says it in the ‘hood and wants people to take him seriously, it’s ‘Yo Momma!’ not ‘Your mother,” I said. (You don’t get respect for diction in the ‘ hood.)
One of the worst situations I found myself in and decided to “keep it real” was working for a terrible boss. He always had to show that he was in charge by interrupting, second-guessing and taking pot shots, especially in meetings.
During one operational review meeting with my boss, the boss’s boss, the CFO and my direct reports, he interrupted me one time too many times. Channeling my inner Dr. Evil from “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery,” I raised my left hand up to my mouth and told him to “shush!” while bringing my index finger and thumb together, signaling to him to zip it.
The room went silent. Everyone’s eyes bulged. They looked at me disbelievingly, and then turned to my boss, expecting all hell to break loose. At first, my boss was stunned. Then, to everyone’s surprise – including mine – he started to laugh because he simply couldn’t believe what I had done. The next thing I knew, he started shushing everyone! The whole room broke out into laughter. My boss’s boss even joined in.
Still, it was wrong of me to have done that to my boss and I was only saved because he and everyone else laughed. While we all knew he was a bad boss – even his boss knew it – I was showing my lack of focus by going off on him. It showed I couldn’t treat that kind of situation with aplomb, which I should have been able to do as a professional.
It reminds me of one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings: “Who is the bigger fool? The fool or the person who argues with him?” My grandmother was wise enough to know that everyone knows who the fools are – you don’t have to point them out to everyone in a public way.
But doing so in private is a different situation. For example, someone in a meeting once made a comment to me that was extremely disrespectful. After the meeting, this person phoned me and berated me even more. After he finished, I said, “I need to apologize to you because I have obviously done something that makes you think you can speak to me any damn way you please!” Note how I didn’t threaten him because he could have used that against me. (He was very Machiavellian.)
He got the point and never spoke to me that way again.
So, maintain your cool when people try to push your buttons because it will be your reaction that gets noticed the most – not what they say to you. (Remember the old saying: “The second lick always get caught.”) Of course, your non-reaction to someone’s baiting is likely to make the person try even harder to get you to go off. Stay calm. The harder he pushes, the more other people will notice, eventually getting that person into trouble. More important, people will notice that you can stay cool even in the most difficult situations.
Remember: Change agents have to develop the ability to stay cool under pressure – even when others lash out at them. The bigger the change, the greater the resistance. People will do everything they can to distract and discredit you, so stay focused and you will succeed.