Don’t Be a Jerk

When stress comes, how you react can be a make or break moment

Hollywood loves a good bad boss story. Think of movies like Horrible Bosses, Office Space, and The Devil Wears Prada, which had memorably cringeworthy villains. One classic 80’s movie, 9 to 5, even included some gleefully played out revenge scenes dreamed up by the protagonists.

We connect with these movies because we have all had terrible bosses at one time. If you have not yet experienced a bad boss, it will come. Some are merely absent-minded. Some are nit-picking, intrusive micromanagers. A few are borderline psychotic.

There are times however the terrible boss trope is more than a movie or fodder for watercooler gossip. I recently saw a post that exploded over social media where the chief executive of AirAsia berated an employee over a company wide town hall. The female staffer was asking a question, when he blurted out, “What’s your f*cking question, come on.”

I cannot even imagine what was going through her mind at this moment. She tries to calmly explain herself, when he once again jumps in with, “What's your question, come on. Don't talk a lot, too much to talk.” No one, not the other executives in the video nor the CEO of AirAsia, Tony Fernandes, did anything to stop him. In fact, they are just smiling and giggling.

While an apology was issued, it was both half-hearted and not likely to result in any meaningful changes in that executive or by the company. In many companies big and small today, there would be repercussions and offenders would be disciplined. There are still plenty of firms however that harbor toxic cultures where abuse is rife, from bullying to outright harassment.

Much of this is symptomatic of a lack of leadership. In an organization with strong values and a commitment to hiring based on those principles, much of the uglier aspects of corporate culture are pushed out. Real leaders demonstrate respect and humility, ensure others are recognized and rewarded, and foster a safe and inviting environment for all employees. Further, companies with real leaders enact policies and processes to ensure issues of abuse are fairly resolved.

Even in workplaces that have their act together, that does not mean you won’t encounter managers and co-workers that are jerks. Plenty of people interview well, but in the hustle and bustle of the sales floor, folks let their guard down. When the quarter is coming to a close, that’s when you see the true sides of people.

This is not a post however about fixing corporate culture or even addressing colleagues and bosses that step over the line of civility. While you might be tempted to solve these problems, that is probably above your pay grade as a sales rep or manager. Setting and enforcing the “no assholes” rules is the job of founders and leaders, because if they are not putting those policies into action, there is little you can do to be empowered to change the scene.

This post is about you. No, I am not calling you out specifically as a jerk. I mean the plural sense as in all of us, me included. The reason this post is for you is because sometimes we can be the jerks in the room, and it does not have to be that way.

What could make otherwise sane, sensible, and calm people go into all out “burn the forest”, “storm the castles” type of rage? Honestly, it could be anything. Maybe you woke up in a funny mood, you did not have breakfast, the weather sucks, someone cut you off on the highway, someone talking in a funny pitch in the room next to you. Our quirks can and will go into overdrive and there is little we can do to bottle up that feeling.

While you cannot stop the rage monster from emerging, you can control your reaction to it. This was something I personally struggled with for years. I would rattle off a piss-off email or tell off my manager or go on some whiny tirade about a customer being unfair. Then a colleague and mentor of mine took me aside and told me that I was being an ass, citing specific examples of my bad behavior.

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Years later, I am much better at controlling myself. We are all human, so sometimes I have moments. By and large though, through a combination of techniques and mellowing out with age, I avoid the embarrassing flare ups.

What did I do? Here are some useful tips and habits that I have used to become less reactive and find my inner zen, even when all hell is breaking loose:

  • Write your nastygram, then delete it - Sometimes you just need to type out your anger. Just do it. Then read it. Then hit the delete button. By putting in the effort, you release your stress and by reading what you wrote, you hopefully realize that what you are writing is ridiculous. Just make sure not to accidentally hit send instead of delete.

  • Use a mental countdown - In the heat of the moment is when there is the most risk of saying or doing something regrettable. By forcing yourself to count down from 10 or 20 or some other number you are comfortable with, you mentally slow down a situation and avoid your flight or fight unconsciousness from taking the reins.

  • Implement a pregnant pause when speaking - This is a good tip in general, but definitely invaluable when getting into conversations that become tense and argumentative. The pause works in a similar way to the countdown, but is more natural in the context of an active discussion. The pause gives both (or multiple) participants in a conversation the opportunity to reset and calm down before blurting out something that could worsen the situation.

  • Take a walk and chill - Everyone has coping mechanisms they have developed for themselves. For me what has worked best is to go outside and to walk. It does not have to be a long walk, what is more important is the change in the environment and being away from devices like my laptop or phone where I might end up doing something career limiting.

  • Have a phone a friend option - Too often, I would internalize stuff, so the bad vibes would stew in my mind. It is way better to get the thoughts that weigh you down out of your head and in the opening with a friend that is willing to listen. Do not look for answers or for validation in these moments, the point is to just have someone acknowledge the situation. If you are the friend in question, do not go into problem solving most, just listen, nod, and say you are listening.

Our role as sales professionals is one of high visibility. You are the interface between the customer and your company. If you are not in the right headspace, you can lose trust with customers, jeopardize your career, and ruin friendships. A positive mindset is critical for setting yourself up for long-term success in work and in life.

What are some ways you deal with stressful situations? How do you react when a manager or colleague is displaying less than professional behavior?

Mark Birch, Founder of Enterprise Sales Forum

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