Nobody is perfect. To be human is to be flawed. And part of being flawed is having something you might think of as emotional allergies. We all have them. We probably get them from our imperfect childhoods: an overly critical mother, a combative belittling father, the brother or sister who bullied and wasn’t stopped from inflicting emotional wounds. A host of emotional problems come from these early sensitivities we harbor that can impair our ability to see the world clearly and relate to others in a productive way. Emotional allergies are like wearing a pair of glasses that misalign vision. Our emotional allergies cause us to interpret what we experience in a way that triggers us to overreact. When our emotional sensitivities get triggered, the knee-jerk allergic reaction can take over if we aren’t self-aware. It is particularly problematic if leaders have emotional allergies that incite them to attack other people personally because they feel unfairly attacked themselves. When that happens, the fallout affects many more people and can disturb whole groups of people or communities.
Donald Trump in the recent Republican debate provides a high-profile example of an imperfect person with an emotional allergy on steroids. We can all see what happens when it gets inflamed on national TV. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly ignited Donald Trump’s emotional sensitivity in front of millions of Americans during the Republican debate by challenging him to explain some insulting statements he has made about women. Here is the exchange:
Megyn Kelly: “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals …”
Trump: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” (Audience snickering. He tries at first to laugh it off.)
Kelly challenges the statement that it is only O’Donnell and then pushes Trump to explain how he will answer the charge that he is part of a “war on women” touted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Trump: “Oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding, we have a good time. … Honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you although I could probably not be based on the way you’ve treated me.”
Trump’s allergy is getting inflamed at this point. Notice how he is thinking about how she has injured him. And what is the allergy? He experiences Kelly’s remark as unfair to him, a threat to his self-esteem. She has intentionally hurt him and shamed him in front of millions of people by exposing his own prior statements, namely his inflammatory remarks about women. He is primed to get her back for bullying him. She has inflicted a narcissistic injury and he will get even.
In the aftermath of this verbal exchange with Megyn Kelly, Trump escalates the fight, taking to the Twittersphere, retweeting a comment made by someone else that Megyn Kelly is a “bimbo,” calling her “the biggest loser in the debate,” and then saying she “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
This over-the-top remark gets Trump into hot water with many Republican conservatives who then disinvite him to their Red State Dot Com event. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is wringing its collective hands trying to figure out how to muzzle Trump’s narcissistic rage.
What does this have to do with your work life? In the executive coaching work I do, I often hear about narcissistic people who impose their angry outbursts on others. I also work with some difficult people who are sent to me or are self-referred to get help with their relationship problems. Litigators are particularly prone to have Trump-like issues with their office staffs but are often unaware that they are bullies. Instead, like Trump, feel they are the ones being mistreated. Although it is rare to hear about someone as combative and outspoken as Trump, it is not rare to hear about people with narcissistic reactions who rage at their co-workers when they experience a real or imagined insult. Many powerful people who rise to positions of authority have this personality flaw. Why? Because they seek power and are often seen as charismatic and inspiring because of their strong opinions and uncompromising, unapologetic stands. But just imagine having to work with a boss like Trump on a daily basis. You would have to tiptoe around his allergy. Once he experiences that real or imagined slight, he would come after you personally. Was Trump belittled, put down, or made fun of as a kid? Probably. And now that allergic sensitivity propels his own defensive bullying in a hot-flash response to something he experiences as unfair.
The American people might like this current political blood sport because it matches the way so many feel: hurt by what’s going on in the world at large and in their current lives, and wanting to get even. But when it comes to a workplace, it is devastating to have such people running amok with their emotional reactions, forcing others try to figure out how to cope with them. It is particularly toxic when the boss or the leader of an organization imposes emotional allergies on the work group or a particular person. In a work setting with a prominent but highly allergic leader, people need to band together to reign in the behavior and set limits. It might help to require this person to get therapy or counseling, using the threat of firing if the behavior does not change.
What can you do if you have to work with an emotionally allergic boss who is unaware of the problem?
- Try to have a conversation with this person but only if you have some evidence that the person would be able to listen. You don’t want to get fired. Plan your conversation in advance by thinking through your key points. Meet in person, not on the run. Tell the boss you would like to have a conversation and that you hope you both can approach it with open minds. Do approach the conversation with an open mind, interested in learning why the your boss acts that way and how he or she experiences the situation. Express what you experience when yelled at and how it adversely affects your work product. And finally try to figure out what can be done by both of you to fix the problem if you both work at it. Some people are able to have difficult conversations and can change. Others are incapable of that.
- Find out if your workplace is able and willing to help you. Workplaces differ on this. A lot. Some leaders have clout and are given free rein to terrorize the staff. At some workplaces no one has the guts to stand up to the powerful person who is great at generating business. However, some workplaces do have policies and approaches that protect staff from leaders who bully. Check with key executives who might have influence by meeting one-on-one and explaining the problem from your perspective. Professional development staff might or might not have the power to subdue the difficult boss.
- Leave the workplace. Sometimes this is the best way to avoid ruining your career. Try to be sure you plan your departure and leave with at least one or two good references from people in the workplace who will vouch for you if you need an endorsement.
People in positions of power who have serious emotional allergies such as narcissistic personality disorder can wreak havoc in the workplace and beyond.