With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, it’s only natural to bring up matters of the heart. While people everywhere romanticize about finding and celebrating true love, I want to address something rarely talked about: How to love the unlovable people in our lives, especially at work.
Most people will quietly admit that they really have loved only a few people over the years, and that they are quite indifferent to others, as long as they don’t give them trouble. Then there are the unlovables, the people they really dislike.
What makes such people so unlovable? I’m sure you have your own list, but here are some of my most unlovable behaviors: People, who don’t do what they said they would, refuse to take responsibility and blame others. People acting like big-shots or know-it-all’s. People who are arrogant and nasty. People who are self-centered, non-stop talkers. People who dwell on the negative, whining and complaining. People who are disrespectful. People who do shoddy work and expect you to clean up their mess.
Whew. If you’re like me, calling out these behaviors feels so cathartic! If you are the manager, you need to ask yourself, “Why am I keeping these people around?” It’s not good to invite toxic people into our lives; they could be contagious. But, if they are our co-workers, we often don’t have a choice—these people, from senior executives to entry-level employees, are part of our workplace. And they’re not going away. We can walk around, gritting our teeth and stewing in our resentments. But that’s like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. I’m suggesting that we choose a better path to keep our own sense of balance and sanity.
First, we need to stop expecting the unlovables to act in ways other than the way they do. Instead, we should focus on how we respond to them. Who do we become in the face of who they are? There can be two kinds of unlovable people—them and us. Do they trigger us to be as unlovable as they are? And why does their behavior upset us so much? It may be that these behaviors are, in fact, things that we can’t tolerate in ourselves. There are times when we’re not so loveable, either.
How, then, should we respond to these people? With love, of course—that is, with patience, kindness and tolerance. That does not mean, however, that we have to tolerate bad behavior. Say what you mean, just don’t say it mean. We can only maintain respect for ourselves if we don’t become a Tasmanian Devil in reaction to other people’s bad behavior. As business leaders, we cannot step over this line; otherwise, we would lose our own self-respect.
This is “tough love”. It does not require making a choice between being tough—trying to force people to do things our way—and being “kind,” saying nothing and just hoping that people will change. There is a third alternative: being tough and kind.
When loving the unlovables we need to deal directly with their bad behavior. Tell them, “this is what has happened and here’s how it negatively impacts me or the organization.” Describe what’s happening, the facts, rather than making them bad or wrong. If their behavior really crosses the line, say that. “You said you would do x and you have not taken care of it. That does not work for me”.
This is the time to step up, and have what I call a Courageous Conversation. Your intention is not to strut before them to the chorus of, “here comes the judge.” Your purpose is not to beat them up, nor be beaten up yourself. You want people to see themselves as the giants they are, not accepting the negative judgments they may have of themselves as small and disempowered.
That said, acceptance remains the key. This is who they are today, and this is how they behave. We need to position ourselves in a place of neutrality. Detachment is not easy. It takes time, maybe a lot of time, and daily practice. But the alternative is pointless. To become angry, upset or to be hurt by unlovable people who have not grown up yet makes no sense. (Would you be angry at someone for being sick?) It is not a personal attack on you.
In celebration of Valentine’s Day, practice being loveable. Listen openly, judge fairly and look for the best in others. Separate people from their behaviors: Remember, they make mistakes; they are not a mistake.