Control Your Contempt, Sir! – Part 2

How should you handle the contempt you feel for your boss?  Attempt to hide it?  Or let it all “hang out?”  The method you choose to manage your responses can have a substantial impact on your career.

In my first post on this subject, I explored the origins of our contemptuous feelings for those in authority.  I also made the case for why your (harsh) judgment of your boss might be out of perspective.

Whether justified or not, you will be much better off keeping your derision, disdain, and disrespect completely out of sight.  Fail to do so and your “idiot boss” is likely to retaliate – in ways that are not visible or can’t be easily countered.

A little compassion?

As I mentioned in my last post, managing people is a lot more challenging than it appears on the surface.  While there are a lot of things you can learn from books and teachers, much of the craft of management is experientially in nature – you learn by doing, rather than by comprehending theory and applying it.  For example, there is little you can gain from a book that, in the heat of the moment, will help you separate and calm two feuding subordinates.  Skillfully dealing with such situations comes from having previous practice in similar situations.

I’ve always found the emotional side of management to be particularly challenging to learn.  Early in my managerial experiences, I passively listened for several minutes as one of my key subordinates engaged in a racially-motivated rant.  Eventually, I did manage to stop him – although hardly elegantly, by yelling at him to get the %*&! out of my office.  Inside, I was a roil of anger, offense, fear, surprise, and uncertainty.  The truth was I had no idea how to handle the situation, and with my emotions in charge almost any reaction was possible.

As it turned out, my reaction worked out okay – I expressed (a bit ineloquently) my strong disagreement with the employee’s prejudice and his way of expressing it in the workplace.  I shudder to think what message I would have sent if I’d sympathized with the ranting employee.

The point is management can be an emotionally charged exercise, and peaking emotions tend to defy instruction.  Only prior experience seems to adequately train us for dealing with such situations.

Rather than reacting with contempt when your boss fails to meet your expectations, recognizing that while you might not see the emotions in play below the surface, he might be a mess.  Try to cut your newly-minted supervisor a little slack when she makes a mistake.  Show a little compassion.  Odds are good you will (or already have) make some pretty big blunders when you’re learning the craft of management.

Or a little acting

After all the “slack cutting” and “error forgiving,” you might still find yourself awash in scorn for  you boss.  And you might rightfully feel that way – there are definitely “idiot” bosses that should have never ascended to the positions they now occupy.  Some of these “Peter Principle” examples will never grasp the finer points of managing people, and exist in a world where they are perpetually overwhelmed and outmatched by the role they’ve taken on.  After a time, a subordinate’s compassion can wear thin.

So then what?

You fake it.  Try to ignore those things that irritate or produce eye rolls.  If you have to tell someone about them, your voice dripping with sarcasm, make it someone outside of work (your pet Labrador might be a good choice).

Under no circumstances should you openly demonstrate your contempt in front of your peers, or even worse, the manager himself.  Doing so is just throwing down the gauntlet, daring the boss to take you on.

Guess who’s in the best position to win that contest?  Even if the boss seems “incompetent” or “dumb,” he has access to weapons you don’t.

It may take a while, but over time the boss will likely get her way.

In an extreme example, my boss once expressed his contempt for his supervisor (the company CEO) to everyone around.  I was well aware of his feelings, and he even went so far as to discuss them with one of the board members.  My contemptuous boss apparently felt his brilliance (and the fact that he occupied a key position) would protect him from retaliation.  And it did… for a little while.

Eventually, the CEO found a pretense to fire him, “eliminating” his position.

He challenged the bull and predictably got the horns.

The smart play

I’ve always had a tough time respecting my bosses.  Perhaps it’s due to my (misplaced?) confidence that I could do their jobs better.  Or maybe by putting my boss down, I felt I was somehow boosting myself up.  For whatever reason, I can only think of a couple of bosses I had over the years that I really respected.

So how did I handle my contempt without derailing my career?

I hid it.

Initially, I’d try to write off “stupid” behaviors to inexperience, differences in perception, or differences in “style.”

If and when this rationalizing ran dry, I’d try to focus on my boss’s positive aspects.  Almost all supervisors have something that they do well – good strategists, good politicians, clever, hard-working, friendly, etc.  If you look hard enough, you can usually find positives.

Then I’d mentally excuse the stupid stuff – “Yes, he’s being overly conservative on this project, but that’s because being overly conservative has served him so well over his career” or “He expects to be treated the same way he treats his boss.”

This technique was almost indefinitely sustainable – at least until I ran into an ethics brick wall.  That kind of collision happened only once or twice during my career.

If I discovered a boss deliberately lying to someone (particularly to me!), or cheating, or falsifying information, then all bets were off.  At that point, I could only rely on “acting” to keep myself from verbalizing the contempt – which I would still do anytime I thought I could indulge without consequence (spouse, friends outside of work, and even a few highly trusted allies inside of work).

By that time I was already on a collision course with the boss, and it was just a matter of time before something was going to change – either one of us got a new job, or he fired me.  If you find yourself playing this kind of “chicken” game, I highly advise you to keep yourself in the driver’s seat and determine when and where you’re going.  In the long haul it will be better for your emotional well-being.

You might be better at tolerating such situations than I was.  Or maybe you’ll be worse.  If you can suck it up and take it, then doing so is probably to your benefit.  Relationships in businesses often change, and sometimes all you need to do is hold on long enough for that to happen.


Feeling contemptuous of your boss is not uncommon, but openly expressing those feelings will do you no favors.  Reach for a little understanding and compassion for the boss to keep such feelings in the background, and failing this try dwelling on some of the boss’s positive points.

Once the boss crosses your personal tolerance limit, things are ultimately headed for the ditch.  Utilize prudence and your best acting skills to keep yourself in control of the situation while you bide your time – hopefully the situation will change on its own before you find yourself out of a job or working somewhere else.

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To the right is the cover for INCENTIVIZE.  This novel is about a U.S. based mining company, and criminal activity that the protagonist (a woman by the name of Julia McCoy) uncovers at the firm's Ethiopian subsidiary.  Her discover sets in motion a series of events that include, kidnapping, murder, and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

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