Leadership & Self-Deception, Part 4: Mistreat Me, Please

It started in 2001. I was working in a law firm in a job most any lawyer would consider the perfect situation. I was the right hand guy for the firm’s managing partner. I had a 15th floor office that faced the downtown Nashville skyline. I made more money that year than any year of my life. Then I received a call one afternoon from an employment placement service. They were calling to assist me with my “employment transition.” I told them that I didn’t know that I was transitioning. The firm’s management had made a timing mistake and failed to tell me that I had been laid off in that tough economic year. 

A week later, I found myself in my dream position as an aide to a famous political figure. It was a dream position. Three months later, I had to leave. I had not been paid in three months. I began to feel that life was against me.

A month later, I found myself in a great temporary job at a business where I served as an associate counsel on contract. The business was going to make a permanent hire. I was set up to take the job. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I was called in to my manager’s office to tell me that it was my last day.  A person that I thought was a friend of mine had lobbied for the permanent job. Again, I was out of a job three times in 6 months.

To this day, I don’t understand all the reasons that these things happened to me that year. But it began a decade’s cycle of living in the box. I knew that I had failed in some ways. And yet, I also felt so mistreated. I began to feel that the universe, fate, or even God had turned against me. In my mind, I had worked very hard. I did everything asked of me. I was a nice guy and treated people well. And so I began to justify my box. I put my former bosses and God in the box too, and I even put prospective employers in the box, expecting them also mistreat me. And so the cycle began of blaming others for my situation, and it repeated itself again the next year, and again in 2008 and 2009. In some ways, I have to be honest. I still believe that many of these individuals treated me unfairly, and others affirmed it as well. But that’s not really the point. I allowed myself to stay in the box towards those people.

The result? They got in their box towards me. Though I remained compliant and friendly, and even sent holiday cards, they could tell that my heart was frustrated and angry. They would not deny my value even today. They just would affirm that it’s no fun working with someone who is in the box.  And so, most human beings when being perceived as a problem, or unfair, or lazy, or unintelligent, are not going to continue being gracious. They are going to get in their box too.

Thus begins a cycle of mistreatment. The vicious cycle continues because we wouldn’t know what to do with each other if the other person was not in the box. To quote The Arbinger Institute, “There’s a sense in which I can’t let him be good enough. I need him to be a problem in order to feel justified in always seeing him as a problem.” Once we are in the box, we need others to disappoint us and mistreat us so that we can continue being justified in our accusations of them. And the cycle never ends.To quote Leadership & Self-Deception, “We collude in giving each other reason to stay in the box.” It’s not that we enjoy the box. We just don’t know how to get out of it.

When employees in business or volunteers in nonprofits try to control, it provokes the very reaction in others that then causes these people to feel that they need to control all the more. When we blame others for procrastination or laziness, we give them the justification that they need to go even slower. When we accuse others of excluding us from their plans, this gives them the reason to leave us out even more. When you’re both in the box, you get just the behavior from others that you expect.

And this is the reason for most every human conflict in the family, at home, at church, in friendships, and at work. If we are going to improve our relationships and enjoy peace in our lives and careers, we are going to have to get out of the box.

More on that tomorrow …

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