Is resentment poisoning you at work? I have witnessed clients, parties in mediations, and colleagues filled with resentment toward a co-worker, supervisor, or employee. Sometimes these feelings persist for years, only expressed indirectly, with inevitably negative consequences on the individuals, their productivity, and their leadership skills.
This theme is vividly explored in the movie The Upside of Anger, which I watched on DVD recently. The husband of the main character, played by Joan Allen, leaves her without a word for another woman, taking only his wallet. She is filled with rage and resentment that consume her life, pushing away her daughters and anyone else who cares for her.
Three years later, (spoiler alert) because of a construction project on a wooded lot behind her house, workers uncover an old well and find her husband’s body at the bottom. He apparently went for a walk, fell in the well, and died. The woman is in shock. The bitter story which determined her life for three years and which was the excuse for drunken outbursts and universal nastiness, turns out to be based on a fiction. Her husband never willingly left her at all.
Although this story is more extreme than most of our experiences, many of us do something comparable in the workplace. We tell ourselves stories from our limited perspective about what others have done to hurt us. But, these stories are frequently oversized fictions as well.
The facts didn’t change when the wife found out the truth. But her perceptions of what had happened were turned upside down. Similarly, at work, we can easily think someone else is doing something to us, but if we don’t like or understand the other person, we may be as far off the mark as Joan Allen’s character was about her husband. Rather than assuming a colleague is trying to harm or anger us, we would be far better off withholding judgment and giving them the benefit of the doubt.
If we can learn to calmly check out our perceptions through observation, neutral questions, and listening, we may often find the other person had no malicious intent; he or she just did something that seemed right to them, unaware of its impact on us. Of course, co-workers, bosses, and employees don’t always have good motives, but we attribute bad motives so many times unnecessarily. Because bitterness and resentment diminish our well-being and effectiveness, we benefit greatly when we are willing to entertain alternate interpretations and, hopefully, downsize our resentments before they permeate our work and our lives.