Jiu-Jitsu Like Moves for a Bad Boss or Someone You Don’t Like

Jiu-Jitsu Like Moves for a Bad Boss or Someone You Don’t Like


I was summoned to the chair's office early in my academic career. I sat in front of his massive desk (equal in size to his ego), and he informed me that I would be taking over the medical student clerkship rotation, the LAST thing I wanted to do. I did not like my boss. No one did, but he was academically successful, so he was the boss. I smiled, pasted the words hell no to the roof of my mouth with my tongue, and after I finally tore it away, said, "No problem." Emotional labor at its best. I wanted to leave my job, but I had strong family ties in the area and wanted an academic career at a University. I felt stuck and powerless with only two (apparent) options: Option A - leave and find a new job (not an option), or Option B - tough it out and try to minimize the inevitable suffering with my mental shoulders slumped over in defeat. Binary choices like this - leave or don't leave - are artificial and limiting, and we all face situations where we are "stuck," either with a lousy boss or someone we don't like. In these situations, we must find a way to step into the mental middle ground between leaving or suffering, where we can walk away from being a victim of circumstances to being empowered. And the way to do that? By using psychological Jiu-Jitsu to create a relationship with the other person and the power of influence.

Time to read: 6 minutes

Key Takeaways:

  1. Binary choices can close the door to the Different Perspectives Room in your mind and make you feel stuck. Open the Different Perspectives Room door, and you can walk down a new mental road of creative solutions and empowerment.
  2. To open the door, the first step is to drop your ego and the story loops of all the justifications and reasons you don't like the person. Accept reality, without making reality worse in your mind. Don't stoke the fires. They only burn you.
  3. The second step is to imagine what it is like to be in the other person's shoes and realize they are a struggling human being, just like you and me, with a complicated personality, a complicated past, and a complicated life. Like you and me, they are who they are through no fault of their own.
  4. With this base of ego detachment and compassion for them as a human, you have cracked open the Different Perspectives Door. Now, you can walk away from the false dichotomy (quitting or being a victim) and into the land of creative solutions and empowerment.
  5. Having cleared the road of your mental debris, it's time to create a positive, nonadversarial relationship by using any or all of these psychological Jiu-Jitsu moves:
    1. Do a conscious and intentional search for something you like about the other person, and then compliment them! Yes, compliment them. If you drop your ego, get curious, and look, you can almost always find something to like about anyone, making the compliment authentic.
    2. Do a conscious and intentional search for some similarity you share - football, cooking, a book, bug collections, whatever, then point it out and start a conversation.
    3. Proactively do something that provides value to the boss or other person without being forced to, like I was (he still became one of my biggest supporters).

Summary and Thoughts

Jocko starts by recounting a situation in which he was helping a client (let's call him Mike) with a new leader from a different industry who lacked depth of knowledge and experience with Mike's industry. That's fine, but the problem for Mike? The new leader resisted the changes and new procedures Mike wanted to implement. The deeper problem? Mike stoked the fires of injustice with judgments about his inexperience and lack of knowledge, closing the Different Perspectives Room in his mind. Mike does not respect the new boss.

The even deeper problem? The new leader will smell this lack of respect, either overtly or subtly. Unless Mike is a human form of a Chameleon who can fake his feelings about his new boss, his new boss will eventually "see" his true feelings.

Not good - for Mike, the boss, or the company because now an adversarial relationship has been successfully formed. (Of note, this is not the same as conflict. Productive conflict occurs in the setting of a good relationship. Unproductive and damaging conflict occurs in the setting of an adversarial relationship).

Jocko's advice? "You need to set the boss up to look good."

As Jocko says - "this is so easy, but it is so hard." Hard because you have to put your ego up on the shelf (or maybe it is better to put it in a drawer where you cannot see it), because it is the ego that makes us want to be correct, to show them what is what. Our ego makes us think we can do the job better than them. Our ego wants to bring them down and see them fail.

That is everyone's instinct, but as Jocko says, it is "wrong, totally wrong." Remember that Jocko, being in the military, was trapped by his obligation and the authority of his many bosses during his career. He said, "I have worked for egomaniacs, psychopaths, wonderful guys, intelligent guys, brilliant guys, and tacticians." He HAD to learn how to create a relationship and how to influence his bosses to avoid an adversarial relationship.

Jocko gives us the metaphor of Jiu-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu is all about sensing your opponent's resistance and pressures and maneuvering to gain an advantage. Try to come at the opponent in full force, and you will almost certainly lose. Like in Jiu-Jitsu, you set things up, take time, and go clandestinely and covertly.

So, applying the metaphor to Mike's case, Jocko recommends making it easy for the new leader without ruffling the leader's ego! In fact, you want to puff up his ego. Ironic right? You drop your ego and then worry about his. And yes, you are manipulating and inflating his ego while keeping yours in check. It makes him feel good. And because you make him feel good, he will want to help you. To quote Jocko:

  • This is just basic. If you do this wrong, the new manager will resist you at every turn.
  • Do this right, and he will be your biggest supporter.
  • This is fun to do.

It is fun.

I have used two specific psychological Jiu-Jitsu moves that have served me well in such situations.

The first Jiu-Jitsu move is directed at yourself, which is to recognize the inherent complexity and humanity of the other person. You don't have to like them, but it is good for your soul to imagine them as one of the struggling, complex human beings that we all are, and that the lottery for parents, siblings, where they grew up, how poor, how rich, how they were treated, their insecurities, their biogenic personality - and on and on - these all go into the complex mix that delivers that human into your world on any given day. This is the gateway to compassion for others, even those you do not like (nor do you have to), and it softens your heart and mind. It is a nicer way to live, and it melts the ice on the path to a more constructive relationship.

The second is directed at the other person. Drop your ego and all the mental talk about the person's negatives and justifications for why you cannot stand them, and consciously look for any one thing, any tiny thing, that you actually like or appreciate about them. It could be their tie, a necklace, something they said, a decision they made, or how well they ran complications conference. Anything. Then tell them. "Hey, I like your tie," or "I really like the way you run complications conference." Then, watch as they relax and smile a bit. It's magic. The beauty of this move? It's genuine because the compliment is authentic. You did not permit all of the negative stuff in your head to stop you—a superpower.

Back to Mike and his boss. Jocko advised Mike to recognize the things his boss might need help with getting up to speed, and then helping him. The key is how you communicate your willingness to help.

You don't say: "Do you know how this works?" or "Do you know how to run this machine correctly?" Such ego challenges will only irritate.

Instead, downplay what the boss does not know and approach it with a Jiu-Jitsu move like: "Hey boss, this equipment over here, I don't mean to bug you about this, and I know it's below your level, but I just want to be sure you're good with how it works." It is always good to think about saving face for others in how you communicate, especially in the presence of other people.

To reiterate what Jocko said: It is so easy, but it is so hard.

But worth it.


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