We all have them in our lives: the “impossible” people. They are cranky; nothing is ever right; we are a bad relative or bad boss or bad neighbor whenever we do something that is not quite to their liking; they don’t seem to bond well with colleagues in the work place; they resist new ideas or assignments that they do not like; they may approach us in passive-aggressive ways. I am sure that you have met your share of such people, as have I.
At least in the workplace, I adore them! I seek challenge, and they give me what I seek. Meister Eckhart says that there is a God-seed (a little bit of God) in everyone, and I can see that buried deep down in these “impossible” people. I love watching that seed take root and grow. It makes me feel part of a miracle.
For example, one day at work I noticed that some of my favorite “impossible” people were extra cranky. Food and attention, I have found, usually help in these situations (just as they do with cranky kids – I am convinced that mothering 7 children has immensely helped me to mother my current 307-and-expanding staff). So, I ran out and bought several packages of oreo cookies, dumped them into a big bowl, and began the management-by-walking-about effort to deliver the cookies to each employee personally – not just the cranky ones, but everyone who happened to be in the office and not traveling (60% or more of my staff travels regularly). It took all morning, and my paperwork languished, but I enjoyed catching up on all their stories as they munched on their cookies. First, I enjoy stories – the more the better. Second, their stories tell me a lot about them, and especially with the “impossible” variety of employee, I find some insight into how best to manage them. On the oreo morning, we had a very important visitor from our headquarters, who had dropped in to work with one of our teams. Oops! I had forgotten about that, so when I came upon that team, I offered him a cookie, too. At the end of the day, I ran into him as he was leaving and asked him how his day had been. He offered that it had become “much better after the cookie!”
The “impossible” people returned the favor, as they generally do. One of the teams invited me to their ethnic lunch, in this case, some of my favorite Arabic food. These “impossible” people (and a lot of “possible” people) regularly bring me food (I think that they are convinced that I cannot cook, and they are not far from wrong), invite me to their social events (weddings, birthdays, picnics), scold me when I am ill and don’t see a doctor, and jump in without asking to help when I am attempting some physical work that looks to be beyond my capacity. “Why are you so good to me?” I have asked them upon occasion, and the answer is always the same: “Because you love us.”
Once a middle manager who worked for me asked me how I dealt with difficult people, and I told him that he would not like the answer: you have to love them – sincerely, not just pretend to love them (although sometimes initial pretense leads to eventual sincerity). I was right. He did not like the answer. He looked at me sadly and said, “I cannot do that.” In that case, I fear that he will always be surrounded by difficult people.
There have been times when I ignore my own advice, when I get caught off-guard, when I stupidly forget about the God-seed. That happened recently. A very troublesome employee had signed up to see my boss during his open-door hours. He called and asked if I knew what might be the topic. I could guess at a dozen possibilities since she was always complaining about her manager (who worked for me), her assignments, her seemingly slow raises and promotions, concern that management did not understand how far superior she was to everyone else in her division, even the fact that she was expected to come to work on time and put in a full day. I suggested to my boss all the things that came to mind and added several negative comments about the difficulty of supervising her. My boss called after the meeting and told me in a somewhat curious tone, “All she wanted to talk to me about was to tell me how kind you are.” I am glad it was a phone call because I know my face was red with shame.
The most important thing about that event? I lost out on being part of the miracle of seeing the God-seed grow a little more. My boss saw it, but my head had been in the sand that day – and when our heads are down in the sand, all we can see is dirt.