Liking People Who Don’t Like You

I discovered to my dismay many years ago that sometimes people don’t like you only because you are the City Manager.  It doesn’t necessarily matter whether you or others at the City have done anything to offend them; some people just don’t like those of us who labor in local government.  Many of these people choose to get angry over things that really shouldn’t matter much.

I received a letter a few months ago from someone who purported to be a retired law enforcement officer but didn’t wish to reveal his name.  I’m reasonably sure I’ve never met this person or done anything bad to him; yet he felt compelled to make a number of negative comments about me and concluded with a warning that I wouldn’t be working here much longer.  The letter, although it appeared to be a literary stretch for its author, fell far short of the creative effort by a disgruntled guy in Oakridge who wrote a brief love note some years back that referred to me as a “pipsqueak bureaucrat” and threatened to “have my guts for garters.”

Each of us has a dark corner in our soul, or at least I do, that wants to respond in kind to threats, insults, slights, and other forms of endearment.  I believe, however, that whatever success I’ve achieved in my personal and professional life is due, in part, to mastering my worst moments and tempering my responses to provocation.  My best letters and e-mails to angry citizens are the ones I never sent.  I am also thankful for a few trusted colleagues who have patiently listened to what I would have said to some particularly galling individual.  I’m sure the opportunity to vent my frustrations with understanding friends has helped save my sanity, if not my career.

Finally, a disturbing truth I stumbled across in my early days as a City Manager is that sometimes the people you dislike the most are right when you are wrong.  It does not require genius or emotional stability to uncover mistakes and/or bad information.  This fact makes it more important to pay attention to the criticism of  your detractors than to praise from friends and admirers.  Like most people, I prefer the latter and find it much more satisfying to have my biases confirmed by people I like than it is to have them challenged by folks with personality disorders.  Humiliation, however, increases in proportion to the magnitude of your mistake and your dislike of the person who points it out.

My resolve is, therefore, to find something likable in even the most disagreeable critic.  At the very least, you can be thankful you are not the other person.  You might even learn that the angry person has reason to be so and, with a little respect, can become a friend.