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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Can You Respect an Unrespectable Boss?

Dear Joseph,

You have previously written that, “Bosses will listen to anyone if they feel safe with them.” You’ve also said that one of the conditions for safety is that the boss feels respected. Here’s my problem: I DON’T respect my boss. Should I try to fake it?

Working for an Oaf

Dear Working for an Oaf,

You are asking a profound question and I will treat it with all the reverence it deserves. You are absolutely right that THE barrier to you creating safety with your boss is your own disrespect for him or her. What you may not realize is that your disrespect might be much more about you than it is about your boss.

Respect is a heck of a lot more fluid than we think. You made the statement, “I don’t respect my boss.” That makes it sounds as though your disrespect is a fixed fact—that it is the natural result of his or her attributes (he or she is dishonest) or behaviors (he or she picks his or her nose during meetings)—and is, therefore, out of your control. This is wrong.

Here is the principle: It is impossible to disrespect a whole person. The only way you can maintain disgust for another is to hold only his or her flaws in your mind—assiduously avoiding acknowledgement of his or her redeeming qualities. It is easy to despise the caricature of a person we concoct. But please notice it is you that concocts it. You do so by excising another’s back story, their good days, and their virtues, while fixating on their vices, bad choices, and weaknesses.

I saw profound evidence of this six months ago. I witnessed a remarkable shift in two people’s view of each other. One I will call Cathy—a prosecutor in a county attorney’s office. One day, a new case appeared on Cathy’s desk that made her smile. It was for a thirty-five-year-old repeat felon named Jason. During her years as a prosecutor, Cathy had had the “pleasure” of locking him up a number of times. She particularly enjoyed doing it because the first time she met Jason—seventeen years earlier—he had assaulted her. She was a policewoman at the time. When she encountered Jason, he was high on meth and became violent toward her. She told me, “I was horrified that day when I put my hand on my service revolver to withdraw it from the holster. The thought occurred to me, ‘I may have to kill him.’” She never forgot Jason. After becoming a prosecutor, she took every chance she got to lock him up for as long as she could. And she did a good job. Between ages eighteen and thirty-five, he spent thirteen years in prisons and jails. Cathy had decided Jason was a “dirt bag”—a hopeless career criminal.

For his part, Jason developed a clear impression of Cathy. If you’ll allow me to sanitize this a bit—he referred to her as “that witch.” When he would look across the courtroom and see her, he felt pure loathing. In his mind, she was a power-hungry jerk who took advantage of those with poor representation.

All of this changed in July 2014, when Jason and Cathy had an unexpected conversation. Different from previous occasions—when their conversation was constrained by legal posturing—it was just the two of them telling their stories. This time, Cathy listened. This time, Jason listened. Jason described life with a prostitute mother. Being molested by her customers. Joining a gang for refuge. Using drugs to anesthetize his aching mind. Learning violence as a survival skill. He confessed to his self-loathing and the deep shame he felt for the person he had become. Cathy was moved. For her part she described the trauma of his attack seventeen years earlier. She detailed the testimonies of his victims from over the years—and the feeling of obligation she had to defend their rights.

When Jason left that jail interview room, Cathy looked different. As Cathy drove from the jail, she had a sobering new view of Jason—a more complete view. While neither will join a bridge club together anytime soon, both had a new found respect for one another that came from demolishing the simplistic view that had sustained their mutual resentment.

Can you respect someone you don’t respect? Oh yes! But that cannot happen until you own the fact that your disrespect is just that—yours. You are sustaining it by maintaining a distorted story of the other person.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that you should put up with your boss’s dishonesty, incompetence, rudeness—or whatever the presenting problems are in your case. My only point is that you are in no position to take healthy action until you own your side of the problem. Once you can see your boss as a human being, worthy of civility and respect, you will be able to choose rather than react. Then you can decide how to take responsibility for your own needs. You have two options:

Set boundaries. You can have a crucial conversation with your boss in order to find a way to navigate his or her obvious flaws. Decide how to set boundaries that will allow you to work positively—and perhaps even influence your boss to become better.

Fire your boss. You may decide that setting boundaries to make things workable would require more energy than you are willing to invest. That could be a perfectly healthy decision. But if you have “mastered your story,” you will not blame your boss for your decision to leave. You will not waste energy after you leave trashing your boss to others. You will leave taking responsibility for your choice and seeing the boss as someone kind of like you—a human being with both beauty and flaws. You will know you have graduated from telling a Villain Story to telling a healthy one when, like Jason and Cathy, your moral certainty is replaced with curiosity, and your disgust gives way to compassion.

I find I am most understanding of others’ weaknesses when I am most aware of my own. I am most triggered by weaknesses in others that, at some fundamental level, reflect shame I feel toward myself. Disrespect is not inevitable. It is a fragile fiction we sustain with a story we tell.


P.S. For simplicity, I did not qualify my response to include figures of pure evil. I believe they exist. I do not respect them. But I think they are very few in number.

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

17 thoughts on “Can You Respect an Unrespectable Boss?”

  1. Pam

    This pulls me back to that simple but powerful question…What can I do about this situation? Knowing that I have control only over my responses helps keep me reminded that most of what I believe about others is a story I am telling myself. Respect and understanding comes from listening to the real story. Thank you for this reminder Joseph.

  2. George Wilhelmsen

    Interesting. It took me a while, but I finally learned that I didn’t get to pick my boss – I just got to peacefully co-exist with them. I have had good bosses, and not so good bosses. Crucial Conversation training helped me to make this jump in approach. People are usually not evil, they are well intentioned, and want to do the right thing.

    Now I focus on how I can meet my bosses needs, and adapt and change as necessary to do so. Part of that is not telling the “villain” story as you noted, but instead understanding the factors that drive my boss, and working to anticipate those factors and support them.

    Best wishes

  3. jasonc128

    Thanks Joseph! Such a healthy and helpful view. This applies in every relationship, not just with our bosses. I’ll be forwarding this on several times. Thanks for taking the time to craft it.

  4. Steven Chamblee

    The timing of this article in my life is beyond uncanny; like a cool breeze & life-giving rain rolling into a hot, parched desert.

    Rationally, I know we all have flaws, but when they are proudly flaunted in my face every day, it builds a deep resentment that is hard to shake off. Thank you, Joseph, for a great perspective.

  5. Darcyb

    Joseph: I have been receiving the newsletter from Vital Smarts for over 10 years and, in my opinion, this may be one of the most powerful and profound message yet. I totally agree with your thoughts and I agree with Jason’s comment that says this pertains to all relationships. Also, Steven’s comment that reminds us all that this is not always easy to do, but that we are the ones that are in control. Thank you for being direct with your response and for helping put us all back in the driver’s seat!

  6. Patsi Maroney

    Awesome answer, Joseph!!! It’s too easy for people (me included!) to keep playing victim in a villain story; thanks for reminding everyone that we have to look at our own role in the dance.

  7. Diana

    What a powerful articulation — that it is only possible to disrespect a whole person if we avoid acknowledging their redeeming qualities and focus only on the caricature we have created in our mind. Thanks so much for sharing.

  8. Stephen Armiger

    Thank you.

  9. alfranco17

    I think the best you can do when you don’t respect your boss, if that is because that person is a backstabbing liar, a thug, an abusive person, a thief or whatever other reason, is find a new one on another job.

    As Peter Drucker said, if a new boss comes in, he will bring his team with him, and chances are you will not be part of that team, since your boss does not like you either.

  10. Stevec

    Rich content.. This I believe is the essence of great client and self coaching.. … Choice…. We can choose our thinking and responses. Accountability for self is at the heart of everything..

  11. Donna

    Typically I find your newsletter to be right on target and appreciate that it gives thought to both sides of a story. I have to say I was disappointed this time. I was really hoping to be pointed to something that would assist me.

    I do agree that often people do have some redeeming qualities that we should not overlook and they are God’s creatures which in and of itself should entitle them to a certain amount of respect. I have to say though that I thought this time you were very one sided. There are people that may not be pure evil but still may not deserve respect in the workplace.

    Being in a position to watch my boss lie time after time to almost everyone he speaks to from the clerical staff all the way to the president of our company as well as individuals outside our organization makes it very hard to respect him at least as a coworker/boss. I am a keen observer of people and have tried for several years to give him the benefit of the doubt realizing that none of us, especially me, are perfect. I realize there are some times that there could be a reason that he might not be able to be completely truthful. This isn’t the type situations I am talking about.

    I am talking about pervasive lying, him lying in at least 70% of his conversations for no apparent reason. Simple things like telling people what he is going to do on a Sunday afternoon (telling three different stories to three different people in a matter of only a few minutes) all the way to telling the company president that he advertised a job and is interviewing candidates for it when it was never advertised and he told the HR person that he has no intention of filling it. To me this is his lack of respect for everyone he lies to. Watching as he belittles people in numerous other ways daily, watching as he falsifies paperwork, watching him as he lies about his education, watching as he writes up staff for something that he caused, etc. makes it really hard to respect any part of his work.

    I can say that he seems to love his children, parents, and siblings. He appears to have an appreciation for his church and love the Lord which makes his ongoing lies harder to understand. I guess I can’t say I disrespect everything about him, but so far every thing work related seems to take away any respect that I could possibly have. It is hard to respect someone you can’t trust. Sometimes people need to earn your respect!

  12. josephgrenny

    Donna – thank you for adding to the “pool of meaning.” I agree with all you’ve said. And I appreciate that you said it with an acknowledgement of the humanity of the person who lies persistently. As I tried to say in the article – respect does not mean a lack of boundaries. You must care for and respect yourself first – or you cannot fully respect others – and one way you respect yourself is–at times–by removing yourself from the influence of those who behave in ways that hurt you.

  13. Nita

    Well-written, very helpful post. Thank you. It is so easy to focus in on one or two thing we don’t like about someone and conclude that it is impossible to respect them. You did well at demonstrating how our disrespect says more about ourselves than it does about the person we look down on.

    What comes to mind is a scale of justice. If we pile a person’s faults on one side and only focus on the parts we dislike, we get out of balance and it feels impossible to treat them with respect. But when we look at the whole person and pile their good points on the other side of the scale, our attitude comes back into balance.

  14. bean q

    i work with donna’s bosses doppelganger.

    i think we should somehow manage to make textbooks out of content like this:
    “You are sustaining [disrespect] by maintaining a distorted story of the other person.”
    “You will know you have graduated from telling a Villain Story to telling a healthy one when … your moral certainty is replaced with curiosity, and your disgust gives way to compassion.”

    and stevec with the self-accountability!

    what have i done to deserve this lavishing of knowledge?! i feel the love!

  15. Jayne

    After reading your email I had to look up the word “respect”, thinking that the meaning had changed…. it hadn’t.

    1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
    2. admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

    When I don’t feel respect for a supervisor/boss/manager, I can feel compassion, sympathy, empathy, etc. I have always been civil, able to do the work, and “give” respect, but I don’t always “feel” respect.

    As far as removing yourself from the influence, for some, that’s not always an option.

  16. Dan

    Joseph’s article, along with the comments from others, are very powerful. I found some affirmation of things I have been doing . . . but also some things I need to start doing.

    Without detracting from the main points, let me go on to explore your last line “P.S. For simplicity, I did not qualify my response to include figures of pure evil. I believe they exist. I do not respect them. But I think they are very few in number.”

    That is also true, if hard to objectively describe. But you omit a less rare category, individuals with mental illness or personality disorder. Those conditions can prevent the individual from responding to the techniques of Crucial Skills in a rational manner, or even in a manner that would be in their own self interest.

    For example, individuals with borderline personality disorder often have remarkable skills in manipulating others, that are confusing, infuriating, and require enormous discipline, if not training, to resist. See for an accessible but very well documented discussion. You may see someone you know in that description — prevalence is estimated at almost 6% of the population. ‘Working for and Oaf’ and Donna may be unfortunate to have a boss with a condition like this.

    Have you all at VitalSmarts ever teamed up with a talented clinician to explore how your skills apply to these problems? For example, identify strategies that do not require amatuer diagnosis, and are based on equal parts compassion and very clear minded recognition of behaviors. To pick up on Donna’s comment, with this special subset of people, I think “compassion” would work better for me than “respect”.

  17. Patricia Luse

    I’m curious about the type of “disprespect” that Working for an Oaf has for his boss. Respect is an admiration for someone…a feeling we have. But, disprespect has two meanings – a lack of respect (just simply missing admiration or maybe even dislike but still an emotion) or the other meaning which is more about showing disrespect such as insult, tone of voice, lack of courtesy.

    I have a boss who harps on his staff about how we are showing him disrespect all the time. “We don’t respect him or show him respect.”

    I can deeply admire someone, be rather indifferent and just co-exist productively with someone (neither admire nor dislike), and I can intensely dislike someone without ever “disrespecting” the person in the courtesy sense.

    I tried having a crucial conversation with him (our boss) several times. He knows we don’t like him or his style/actions in being a boss. But, we don’t insult, cut off or deny him courtesies. However, every time he took the conversation as us attacking him and yet again “showing him disrespect”. He will say we must start respecting him or else and that he is just that kind of boss and we need to get used to it.

    In our case it came down to slowly one by one seeking the HR department when we were at our emotional limit under the pressure. It is scary to have HR’s attention on us now, but thankfully HR did come down on him in some ways. He is attending management styles training and even a Crucial Conversations course which I find ironic.

    Haven’t had the courage or energy to try and start up a new crucial conversation followup with him yet. Feels like it would be just opening a new can of worms. We don’t seem to see much difference in him yet. Our company is planning a reorganization this fall and I have to be honest that I hope I have a different supervisor out of it.

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