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Expect the Expected

Jake is an account executive at an advertising agency, and he really enjoys his job; however, there is just one problem: Jake’s boss Mike has the tendency to act very critical at times. More specifically, Mike has a low threshold for mistakes, any type of mistakes big or small.

On Friday, Jake sent Mike a pitch deck to approve for Tuesday’s meeting. The entire team had already reviewed the pitch, but it seems that Jake and his team missed a spelling error on one of the slides. As soon as the team was seated in the conference room, Mike began screaming at Jake about the spelling error. Jake was taken aback not only because it was a minor mistake, and one that he could have quickly fixed before the client arrived, but also because Mike reprimanded him in front of his coworkers (including those coworkers who he manages).

These types of interactions with Mike have been occurring since Jake started at the agency two years ago. Any time Jake makes a minor mistake, Mike is very quick to unleash his frustrations. Jake works very diligently to make sure that silly mistakes don’t happen; but, sometimes when he is managing multiple accounts, things happen. Over the past few months, Jake has become more and more pissed-off when Mike begins yelling, and rather than defending himself or even just saying sorry, he shuts-down completely. At this point, Jake is afraid to actually have a conversation with Mike, because he isn’t sure that he will be able to stay calm. Jake realizes that in order to effectively communicate his concerns to Mike, he needs to better manage his anger.

Here is the question: Why is Jake getting so angry about Mike's reaction? Jake is getting so mad because every time time that he has a heated interaction with Mike, he demands to himself that, “Mike shouldn’t be so critical, especially in front of my team members, and over such trivial mistakes!” Let’s take a closer look at why this thought is not helpful and leading to Jake’s anger.

Here's one more piece of information: According to Jake, these Mike blow-ups have occurred approximately 3x/month for the past two years (about 72 times total!) So, based on everything we know about Mike, what if I asked you to bet $100,000 on whether or not Mike would be very critical of Jake for making a small error? I certainly know where my bet would go, and so does Jake. However, Jake continues to allow himself to be surprised about the way that Mike handles these situations, even though he could have easily predicted the outcome! All of the evidence points to a high likelihood that Mike will overreact to even minor mistakes. Despite the evidence, Jake continues to demand that his boss should act differently.

When we demand, we aren’t aligning our expectations with reality. Instead, we allow ourselves to be surprised and angered about situations even when we could have predicted the outcome. When all of the data points in one direction, why would you expect this time to be different? If the outcome is different, then that’s a pleasant surprise! However, if time and time again your boss has proven that this is their management style, why be surprised when nothing has changed? Here is a fact- your boss isn’t going to change their leadership style just because you think that he/she should. There is nothing wrong with Jake wanting his boss to change, but just because we want things in life, there is no reason that they have to be that way.

So, what can Jake do? First off, it is important for Jake to start expecting the expected- specifically, that Mike is going to be very critical of any mistake, no matter who else is in the room. Asking Jake to align his expectations with reality doesn’t mean that we are asking Jake to condone his boss’ behavior. What we do know is that Jake wont be able to effectively communicate his concerns to Mike if he continues to get himself so angry. Second, rather than demand that his boss change, we recommend that Jake think in a more helpful way and change his Demandingness belief to a Preference belief [Check out our previous blog, Demand, Distress, Disaster (...too dramatic), for more information on Preference beliefs]. For example, “As much as I want Mike to treat me with more respect and not be so critical in front of my team members, there is such a small likelihood that he is going to change. Just because I want him to act differently, there is no reason that he has to, and no evidence that suggests that he will act differently.” By recognizing that he doesn’t have control over Mike’s behavior, Jake will still feel annoyed and frustrated, but he won’t get himself so angry and exacerbate the problem. The more Jake practices thinking more realistically and stops demanding that the reality of the situation be different, he will come to expect (and prepare himself) for Mike’s potential outburst. If Jake can take a step back from the situation, he will be able to formulate a response to Mike rather than shut-down, or one day even yell back.

While Jake may never feel great about his team members watching him get yelled at, it might actually be impressive for them to see how he keeps his cool in such a high intensity situation. I don’t know about you, but a person that keeps calm in the face of adversity is the type of person I’d want leading my team.

Check back here next week for more tips about coping with challenging bosses, navigating coworker drama, and positioning yourself for success.

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