Posted: 10:35 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013
By Jen Bilik
How to deal with the difficult people problems that come along with being CEO.
There’s a reason that CEO is the No. 1 job title for gainfully employed sociopaths--those who literally lack empathy. It’s a lot easier to endure the job if you can let things roll off your back and don’t care about others' feelings. According to Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, CEOs are well served by “lack of empathy, lack of remorse, glibness, superficial charm, manipulativeness.”
That’s not me. My name is Jen, and I am a thin-skinned CEO.
Over the course of my company’s 11 years of existence, I have probably spent less time worrying about our bottom line than I have obsessing over the following:
And then I would obsess over follow-up subjects, such as ways to effectively make amends or how I might school the wrongdoers in proper conduct so that they see the error of their ways and never do to others what they’ve done to me.
This--shocker!--turns out not to have been a good use of my executive time. Plus, I suspect the emotional stress has taken years off my life.
Though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to achieve the glorious heights of full-on sociopathy, there are five things that help me break out of my unproductive and overly personalized tailspins of worry:
1. Don't take it personally. I remind myself that one of the roles of leaders is to be the blank screen upon which others project their neuroses and issues with authority. Deep down inside, my self-image ranges from schlub to fraud. So part of how I've come to own my role as CEO (and to stop apologizing for my inexperience) has been acknowledging that people, especially employees, do treat me differently because of my position. This doesn’t always mean they treat me better. In fact, as far as I can tell, there have been more than a few who assume I have no feelings because I’m in a position of power and achievement.
2. Apologize when appropriate. When I'm to blame, I try always to apologize. I hope that my employees appreciate seeing their CEO take her lumps when appropriate, and I expect the same from them.
3. Make use of your college Psychology 101 class. When someone else is the problem, I think of the immortal words of my godmother, Wini, “If it’s that hard to be with them, imagine how hard it is to be them.” The worse people behave, the worse they generally feel. Sometimes this helps me with empathy, but other times it just makes me feel vindicated that they’re suffering, too. I am an avid subscriber to schadenfreude.
4. Prepare for some complete jerks. I don’t know how I got the idea that people behave only from good intentions, and that there aren’t bad people in this world. But somehow I am always astonished when I come across people who are truly trying to damage me or my business for their own gain. When faced with one of these (sometimes powerful) losers, I remind myself that these people do exist--but they’re not the majority.
5. Don't try to fix everyone. I must frequently remind myself that I will almost never be in a position to school these harm-doers and they may never understand the consequences of their actions. They may never be unhappy or remorseful. Karma may not exist. I just have to handle my encounters with them with as little emotion as possible and get away from them as fast as I can. I cannot take responsibility for their evil.
Ultimately, when I obsess over my or others’ poor behavior, I am the only one who pays the cost in unhappiness and stress. Now that I’ve moved beyond the early, life-threateningly stressful years of my business, sloughing off those things I can’t control is even more important to me. I want inner peace. I want better self-control. I want thicker skin.
Maybe I do want to be a sociopath after all.