Recently I attended the wedding of a former colleague. It was an amazing affair, filled with premier entertainment, succulent food, lots of people in attendance I wanted to know.
And one I didn’t. At least not anymore.
I actually knew him already. We’d met once, several years before. But that was enough.
At the time he’d just moved to San Diego, and hated it. The people weren’t friendly enough. The cost of living was too expensive. The weather wasn’t right, either. (seriously)
At first I though he was nothing more than a whiny child.
But then I realized he was really just like one of many, many adults.
He was bitter.
Three years ago I couldn’t wait to get away from him.So when I wound up right back next to him at the wedding reception I mentally crossed my fingers and hoped he’d gotten over it.
30 seconds later I knew the truth.
He was still bitter. Bitter at his spouse for making him move here. Bitter at the people who wouldn’t carpool with him for the kids’ school. Bitter that the grocery stores were always so cold.
He didn’t seem to know how bitter he was. And he certainly didn’t know how unlikeable it made him.
Bitterness isn’t a brief thing. It’s not an irritating moment we move past. It’s a frustration in our lives that stays and grows, popping up over and over again, a bedrock of resentment that builds in our system.
Everyone gets bitter. Everyone. Even those who seem to have everything.
It happens to the best of us.
- We get bitter about our job…and how we don’t feel appreciated
- We get bitter about our friends…and how they aren’t there for us anymore
- We get bitter about our internet provider…and its terrible customer service
Being bitter happens. We can’t always control it.
Great leaders know this. They get bitter, too, but they handle it in a very specific way. And so people like them better. And they find better success.
What do they do? A few observations…
#1 – They recognize when they’re bitter
The best leaders I know are also some of the most self-aware people I know.
They pay attention to their mood and their energy. When they find themselves pounding the wheel in the car or feeling cranky toward specific people, they recognize it. They know it could do damage to their reputation, their success.
So they handle it. And in the meantime they keep it to themselves.
#2 – They figure out why they’re bitter. Really.
They then waste no time getting to this step – figuring out what the bitterness is really about. Sometimes it’s not so obvious.
Perhaps we feel bitter about our boss’ silly jokes, but then realize we’re actually angry because she makes us reply to her emails on the weekend. Perhaps we feel bitter about the slow driver in front of us, but then we realize we’re mad at ourselves for constantly running so late to meetings.
Great leaders figure out why they’re bitter immediately. Because they know that’s how they get to step #3.
#3 – They fix it.
Bitterness can be about something simple or about something that runs deep. Whatever the case, great leaders move past it.
- They talk to people who make them bitter and tell them why…and they do it carefully.
- They come to acceptance that their situation is made up of some circumstances that probably won’t change…or they decide to move on.
- They recognize when the root cause is a deeply held issue from the past…and they find the people to help them through it.
They get perspective, take their power back, make healthy choices. They work through it and move on. And nobody in their professional circle is any the wiser.
Because they know the truth.
That acting bitter means that people just won’t like them as much.
Which means they won’t be as successful.
A visual wrap-up…
I wrap up with a simple, visual reminder.
Recently I was on line at a coffee shop (for those of you tracking my recent blogs you’ll notice a pattern here.). The coffee pots each had a large sign on them. The sign referred to coffee.
I think it refers to life.
Pay attention to how you feel about certain things, when you pound the steering wheel.
Where you might be a bit bitter. Pay attention to how it comes out to others.
Then figure how to deal with it.
In the end…you’ll not only be more likeable.
You’ll be happier, too.
Now, go do good…and do it well.
16 thoughts on “The Thing That Makes You Less Likeable”
Great morning read on how we can all “change our perception” of people and circumstances….as one of my favorite quotes says….”Choose to be happy…and guess what…you will be!” Thanks Deirdre Maloney for yet again, another great post!
Thanks for your comment, John…and for the great quote! Sometimes it’s easier for us to pretend we don’t have as many choices as we do, but in the end I agree it’s the thing that gets us to happiness (or not)
D – you didn’t tell us how you chose to deal with this bitter person who you unfortunately had to encounter.This is also a test of our leadership skills. What if you are in charge of a staff that includes not one, but several bitter people who infest the environment and are really good at getting others to share in their bitter party? What if you are in a situation where you can’t just spot someone across the room that you need to talk to and excuse yourself from their company? When you’re stuck with bitter company your skills really get tested.
You are SO right, Felicia! In this particular case I had the luxury of having it be a limited amount of time – and temporary. So I grinned and beared it and talked to others every chance I could. I also, frankly, left the event earlier than I might have otherwise. (Better to be alone than with someone bitter in my opinion.) It’s much tougher when it’s part of your everyday environment – which I’ve had to deal with as well. When it’s been the colleagues who are more bitter, I tend to steer clear and create space from them, even if we were close at one time. It can be hurtful to them, but I’ve done it anyway. When it’s staff, I address it and put it in a performance plan. This is of course tricky because it’s subjective, but I actually let a staff member go after many, many warnings because he was being so cranky (and such a bully) to everyone, and we all needed him to step up in order to do our jobs well. A test of leadership indeed!!!
I love your identification of active self-awareness, including self-awareness of (sources of) bitterness, as a key characteristic of successful leaders. Another facet of great leadership that I’ve become more sensitive to, in part because of my work with dialogue, is the ability to reframe structures or conversations such that people who appear bitter are able to speak about what is most important to them and be heard in those terms, rather than complaining and being heard as whining. Bob Kegan wrote about “commitment behind the complaint” and I have seen this reframing of complaint work as a powerful basis for reframing structures/conversations, often leading to significant shifts in communication, and even discernible system shifts.
I read every one of your blog posts and learn from each. Thanks for writing and sharing them!
Thanks so much for your great comments, Meenaskshi! Getting to “commitment beyond complaint” is a great way to look at it. And takes SO MUCH skill. I think those who master it have a powerful tool at their disposal…
Thank you Deirdre for an incredible view of this word “bitter.” I also stay away from people who manifest that disposition. I don’t want to do the dance with them. I know road rage is NOT about the road. In life, you either get bitter or better.
What a great way to talk about it…especially the road rage piece (which, I’m sorry to say, I can relate to!) Thanks for a great reply!
Deirdre, thank you for pointing out the self-awareness piece because I think to be a true leader you need to know when things are too much and you are feeling bitter about life whether it is your job, family, friends or other apects of your life. We all have boundaries and when we have re-evaluate our lives and see what needs to change to make things better. I enjoy reading your blog.
Thanks so much, Courtney. I agree that the self-awareness piece is absolutely critical – to overall success, really. I’m so pleased this point resonated with so many readers, as it can be a tricky one to swallow sometimes!
What a great post and rich follow-up comments!
Self-awareness of what may be bothering oneself and the commitment to address that is what makes the reality of CONTINUALLY choosing happiness a reality.
Via reading Wendell Berry I learned the important detail that “a” choice itself is actually not singularly, we have to CONTINUE to make that choice again and again, ie. reduce the carbon footprint, be compassionate, be empathetic, by happy, etc.
And the “commitment behind the complaint”: SUPERCOOL. It recognizes both the worth of the complainer and (possibly) the complaint which we may wish were not so constantly and vociferously communicated (especially at a wedding. come on now!).
Thanks John – and great point! If only it were as easy as making a choice once and being perfect at it from then on! Unfortunately the reality is that we constantly must challenge ourselves to stay true and constant to the decisons that will ultimately lead to happiness…easier said than done!
Very timely once again…especially in the middle of budget season! Gotta watch myself.
Budget season is one of the trickiest times of all to keep that positive energy flowing…good luck, and thanks for your comment!
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