topSkip to main content

‘Keeping it real’ can derail your career

Two women face off

To climb the corporate ladder, you have to develop the skill to deal with people who get on your nerves. Sometimes it’s your boss, a peer or someone who reports to you.

They can push your buttons to the point that causes you to lose your cool and “keep it real.” In other words, go off on them and say what’s really on your mind. If you do, it will often go wrong and work against you. It can turn out like a Dave Chappelle skit where someone is insulted, goes off on the person and winds up getting trouble.

The worst situation I saw in my career was when two vice presidents, who despised each other, got into an argument during a staff meeting. It escalated to the point that one of them said to the other, “Your mother!”

I went, “Damn! Oh no he didn’t.” I was shocked because they were two middle-aged white guys from well-to-do backgrounds. My boss immediately ended the staff meeting.

He called me into his office later that day to let me know the vice president who yelled, “Your mother!” had been fired. He then asked me what I thought of what he had said. I said, “Well, if he ever says it in the hood and wants people to take him seriously, it’s ‘Yo Momma!’ not ‘Your mother.’” (You don’t get respect for diction in the hood.)

The day I turned into Dr. Evil

One of the worst times I “kept it real” was with a boss who I hated working for. He always had to show he was in charge. He did this by interrupting, second-guessing and taking shots, especially in meetings. One day during an operational review of my business with him, his boss, the CFO and my direct reports, he interrupted me one time too many.

I acted like Dr. Evil in the first Austin Powers movie telling his son to be quiet. I raised my left hand up to my mouth and told him to “Shush!” while bringing my index finger and thumb together, signaling to him to zip it.

The room went silent. Everyone’s eyes bulged, first looking at me because they couldn’t believe what I had done, then at boss. They knew that all hell was going to break loose. He was stunned at first, then, to everyone’s surprise, including mine, he started laughing because he couldn’t believe what I had done. The next thing I knew, he started shushing everyone. The whole room broke out into laughter. My boss’ boss even joined in on it.

I was saved by the laughter because what I had done was wrong. Here’s why: Everyone knew he was a bad boss, especially his boss. By going off on him, I was showing that I couldn’t stay focused and treat situations like that with aplomb.

It reminds me of one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings: “Who is the bigger fool? The fool or the person who argues with him?” Everyone knows who the fools are. You don’t have to point them out, at least in public.

In private is a different situation. Once someone said something to me that was extremely disrespectful. He then called me up after the meeting to berate me even more. After he finished, I said, “I need to apologize to you because I have obviously done something that makes you think you can speak to me any damn way you please!” Note how I didn’t threaten him, because he could have used that against me. (He was very Machiavellian.) He got my point and never spoke to me that way again.

So, maintain your cool when people try to push your buttons, because it will be your reaction that gets noticed more than theirs — “the second lick always get caught.”

If you maintain your cool, the person will push your buttons harder trying to get you to go off. The harder he pushes, the more other people will notice, eventually getting that person into trouble. Also, people will notice that you can handle your cool in even the most difficult situations.

Change agents have to develop the ability to stay focused and keep their cool, because the bigger the change, the greater the resistance and people will do everything they can to distract and discredit you.

Members: Post your comments in our NEW Member Community.

James Dallas is president of James Dallas & Associates and the author of Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.