Control Your Contempt, Sir! – Part 1

A friend presented an interesting dilemma last week, one involving the contempt she felt for her boss.  The ensuing discussion boiled down to the following question:  How to deal with a boss that she doesn’t respect.

 An interesting challenge – Fake it?  Or accept the consequences?  I’ve faced this same situation plenty of times myself – in jobs where I held my immediate boss in contempt.  In some situations I managed to handle this situation effectively, while in others it became a real problem.

 I’ll be exploring this issue and the possible reactions to it over my next two blog posts, starting with the origins of feelings of contempt for those in authority, proceeding to an exploration of the job of a boss and why your judgment might be overly harsh, and ending with some strategies to deal with the boss you simply can’t seem to respect.

 It starts early

 My first experiences of failing to respect superiors began early in high school.  I remember one math teacher who seemed to have challenges with the English language, pronouncing the word asymptote as “asthma toads” (there were many other examples).  His malapropisms and mispronunciations produced plenty of contemptuous snickering behind his back.

Why do we do this?  I think it has something to do with building ourselves up by tearing other down -- and the higher up they are, the better.

 By the time I was a senior, several of my classmates and I decided our physics teacher (who was in her first year of teaching) was an idiot.  One day the teacher wore a dress that vaguely resembled the waitress gear at Bob Evans.  That led to soft humming of the Bob Evans theme song from the back row.  Eventually, one of my compatriots asked her if there was any truth to the rumor that she was moonlighting.

 That was went too far.

 The teacher wasn’t as big of an idiot as we thought, and immediately made the connection.  “Are you talking about my dress, Joe?” she asked.  “I’ll have you know that I made this dress, myself.”

 Joe sat in the chair, wilting.  He later tried to apologize to no avail.  Joe made an enemy that day and I learned a lesson:  There’s a big difference between feeling contempt and actually expressing it – expression of contempt can have steep consequences.

 The job of the boss

 Over the years I’ve discovered that every job looks the easiest to the person that doesn’t have to perform it.  That was certainly true for my high school physics teacher, and nowhere is it more true than for a manager.

 To most people the boss’s job looks pretty simple – motivate the team, assign work, regulate employee performance, and meet the needs of those higher up the food chain.  A boss doesn’t usually have a regular, individual-contributor-type assignment, and employees often wonder what the heck the boss is doing all day long.

 Reality is a bit different than those perceptions.

 Most bosses have a large and difficult-to-handle set of work requirements and expectations.  First, bosses are almost always assigned more than they can really accomplish, the idea being to get them to prioritize and deal with only the most important issues.  Secondly, managing people is a consuming exercise – people are demanding, critical, hypersensitive, and obsessed with fairness.  Thirdly, the boss is expected to originate and improve the people, processes, and projects in their area.  It might look like they “aren’t doing much,” but bosses are usually under constant pressure from above to make things better.

The reason I point out all of this?  Understanding and compassion are the first step toward banishing your contempt.

 In my own first supervisory job, I was responsible for a factory production department with thirty-three employees.  While I suppose that I was smarter than most of them, all of those employees had much more experience working the line, not to mention much more experience with the labor contract (we had a union) and all the associated work rules.

 I discovered earning the respect of those employees was quite a challenge.  Their expectations for my knowledge (not to mention my ability to simply get around to everything that happened during a normal shift) were unrealistic.  Every decision was second-guessed.  I experienced “fairness failures” every time I made a call in a disagreement between employees – and there were many of these.

 Slowly, over time, I earned the respect of a portion of my employees, although some always held me in contempt.  I still remember one of the other supervisors (that handled the same department on a different shift) telling me one of my employees referred to me as “stupid” and then added:  “Where did he go to school?” expressing his contempt for my Harvard MBA.

 In his mind, I was the same kind of “idiot” that my high school physics teacher had once seemed like to me.


 What’s next

 In my next post, I’ll further develop the concept of contempt in the workplace and how to deal with it.

 For now, remember that you should try to avoid a contemptuous reaction to someone before you’ve “walked a mile in their shoes.”  Sure, there are bad bosses out there, and some of these are worthy of your disrespect.  Before you go there however, you should do your best to cut the boss some slack – maybe their job is harder than you realize.

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To the right is the cover of LEVERAGE.  This novel explores the theft of sensitive DOD designs from a Minneapolis Tech Company, and the dangers associated with digging too deeply into the surrounding mystery.  Its sequel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, was released in May of 2014.  A third book in the series, OUTSOURCED, is in the works.

My books are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.  Most were inspired by real events.