Typically, when we feel oppressed by workplace tyrants, we struggle, and we try to comfort ourselves that we are not to blame. Yet, the more we ponder the tyrant the more disturbing she seems to become.
Excerpted from Awake at Work.
People at work can be unusually irritating. For many reasons, we can find ourselves deeply offended or angry with colleagues: a co-worker who publicly accepts praise for a job well done by others; a condescending customer who never seems satisfied; a supplier who is full of polite excuses for never getting a delivery right; or, worst of all, a boss who is overbearing and unapologetic. We can become peculiarly insulted by such behavior, losing our emotional balance often in complete disproportion to the actual importance of the slight. At times our colleagues can appear as Tyrants, having a unique power to unsettle us and keep us up at night.
Typically, when we feel oppressed by tyrants, we struggle and we try to comfort ourselves that we are not to blame. We do not deserve such insults and injustices. We may complain to our spouses or partners about how we are treated. The more we struggle, the more the insult seems to expand; the more we ponder the Tyrant the more disturbing he seems to become. We may find ourselves plotting retaliation, waiting in ambush to offer cutting insights into our tyrant’s treacherous ways. In the meantime, we go about our business uneasy and on guard. We keep ourselves protected and unavailable. Tyrants have a way of making us feel uncomfortable in our own very skins.
When we examine them closely, we discover that these threatening Tyrants are simply mirrors of our own insecurities and fears, unknowns that we are unwilling to face. Our own doubts and worries distort irritating relationships into circumstances that can terrorize us. In reality, Tyrants are simply ordinary, messy work circumstances blown out of proportion by our lack of confidence. Because we are worried about the possibility of losing our job, an unruly boss gains unusual power over us - becoming a Tyrant. Because we are anxious about the possibility of being perceived as ineffective, our show-boating colleague gains unusual power over us - becoming a Tyrant. Because we are troubled about the possibility that our job could get out of control, our condescending customer seems to have our future in her hands - becoming a Tyrant. Tyrants are stark invitations to look in the mirror and examine our futile search for security in an uncertain workplace.
Recognizing that we are, in fact, authoring our Tyrants - that our hopes and fears are what fuel their power over us - is central to regaining our balance. In the Buddhist tradition, coming upon such irritating and oppressive people is highly valued. Any life circumstance that can expose our insecurities is considered a gift - something to be welcomed and explored.
One might well ask. “Why would I want to get chummy with such rude people? Why would I welcome such a mess into my life?” But Welcoming the Tyrant need not be so distasteful. Such a task, at its core, can be quite simple and direct. To Welcome the Tyrant, we must be willing to abruptly “let go” of our inner defensiveness - even for a brief moment - and experience our Tyrants without bias or preconception. Typically, Tyrants make us tighten our grip on our viewpoints and justifications. Tyrants control us by making us hold on and defend ourselves. Here we do the opposite; we “let go” instead of “hold on”. By suddenly shifting our mindset we disarm our Tyrants and our inner insecurities no longer empower our tormentors, giving us the chance to clearly see our circumstances, even for just a moment.
A sales executive who was attending an Awake at Work seminar once said to me:
“Welcome the Tyrant sounds great. But, I can’t be honest with my boss - he is so aggressive - yelling and interrogating at staff meetings - no one dares confront him. I’m sure he would fire me on the spot if I told him the truth”.
Such is our fear of Tyrants. If we were to actually confront them, we would be inviting their sloppy wrath, the last thing we want! But such confrontation is not really necessary. Welcoming the Tyrant does not require that we suddenly release all our pent up frustrations towards our boss in the middle of a staff meeting. Welcoming the Tyrant begins as a simple inner gesture. My suggestion was only this:
“At the next meeting, just for a moment, ‘let go’ of all your fixed ideas about your boss and just be there in the room. Be curious and witness what’s going on. Welcome the situation”.
A few weeks passed, and the sales executive took me aside after class:
“Well, I took your advice”, she said. “I, for just a brief moment, dropped my resentment toward my boss at the staff meeting and just observed. And, sure enough I wasn’t preoccupied with him being such an idiot for that moment and I could see what was really going on”.
“What did you see?” I asked.
“Well, first off, he was in a hurry - he seemed to need to be somewhere else. He wasn’t listening and he seemed very distracted. He seemed so unhappy being in the meeting - he really didn’t want to be there - or at least that’s how it looked.”
“What about the other people in the room - your sales managers - what did you notice there?”
“I hadn’t really noticed this before but they were just going through a routine - everything seemed so staged and insincere….Oh and I also noticed that they were holding back a lot of good news. One of my guys deliberately avoided telling all of us about a major sale he had just closed. I hadn’t noticed that before, either. And, my best sales manager - well she looked bored out of her mind. It ran through my mind that maybe she was thinking of getting a job elsewhere”
“And what did you learn?” I asked.
“Well, my boss still makes me up tight - that’s for sure. But I can drop it and, at least for a moment, see the situation without my anxiety. There’s a lot that I had been missing - my managers are holding back, the good news is not being told and my best sales manager is frankly bored by the whole mess.”
The sales executive had learned that to Welcome the Tyrant was an exercise in simply being curious about what oppressed her. And, to her surprise her Tyrant had become disarmed - just for a moment. The blinding effects of her own anxieties had diminished, and she could get a clearer picture of what was really going on - with herself and her sales team.
By Welcoming the Tyrant in this way over and over again, we gradually become relaxed with dropping our insecurities about those who irritate us. We discover that much of what bothers us is of our own making. The colleague who doesn’t say “good morning” is not insulting us. We look closer and find that his personal life has unraveled, and he is soon to be divorced. He comes in the morning sad and withdrawn - not rude and insulting. The new employee who interrupts at meetings is not disrespectful. We look closer and find that she is just nervous and awkwardly trying to fit in. We begin to see that many of the workplace’s perceived slights are not slights at all.
By Welcoming the Tyrant, we sharpen our intelligence and confidence - making us more effective and versatile. Over time, our anxiety towards Tyrants dissolves, transforming into an astute curiosity. Why is our colleague embarrassing herself publicly by taking credit where none is due? What in our boss’ life makes him so angry and aloof and arrogant towards his subordinates? By Welcoming the Tyrant, we learn to examine oppressive circumstances very closely, not push them away – to Welcome the Tyrant, not destroy him. By doing so, we find a courage that frees us to be remarkably skillful in managing irritating and aggressive work circumstances.