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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Jan 2019

How do you respond to a grumpy authority figure?

This week I’ve had many causes to think about how I, and my clients, respond to a boss, peer or stakeholder who is disappointed, critical, even angry.

There seems to be a fair amount of this about. Perhaps you can have a laugh at my expense here. I’m writing this still feeling wobbly after a tirade from the postman on my doorstep about me not being in to receive parcels! Not an authority figure despite the uniform, but nevertheless I’m rattled.

I know that my reactions to the anger of others tend towards the anxious and pleasing. I can feel shaky, tearful. “I’m so sorry you are grumpy with me, let me fix it!”

In others I notice a more combative reaction. “You’re disappointed in me? Well **** you! I don’t like you either!”

In others I notice a shut-down and shut-out response. “La La La! I can’t hear you!” One of my sons would literally put his hands over his ears.

Of course we can all deal with this stuff well at certain times and with certain people. I know sometimes how to find an appropriate adult response in the moment and then quickly settling to equilibrium afterwards. I’m reminded of the theory of Attachment Styles https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_in_adults and of the very different ways we cope with keeping ourselves safe in relationships with important members of our tribe.

To me it seems this stuff is at the heart of leadership. Managing upwards, relating to stakeholders and customers and leading our people is unavoidably about our habitual reactions to the emotions of others.

My rather anxious pleasing response to others’ disappointment has served me incredibly well. Arguably it has got me a first class degree and some great jobs. It’s helped me appease upset clients and avoid getting arrested (that’s another story).   But in what ways does it have a cost? The cost can be high. I can take on emotions, tasks and responsibilities that aren’t mine. I can work work work at the expense of myself and family to avoid professional disapproval. I can be left rattled for days after someone road-rages at me.  I’ve had to work hard to finding strategies that help me respond better in the moment and also regulate the after-effects.

Acknowledging the cost and finding new strategies is undeniably hard inner work. It takes self-awareness, courage and experimentation. But my-oh-my it’s fabulous when you find in yourself something different; a new response, one you are happier with, proud of even. We may be adults but where this stuff is concerned we are all still growing up.

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