How I discovered I was living in a mood of resentment, recovered a friendship and enriched my life.

As leaders, we inevitably face circumstances that do not turn out as we would like. Sometimes we get disappointed and sometimes we get resentful. We can be particularly challenged when it appears the situation is unfair or underserved and someone else is the cause of the problem. It can be plain scary to even think about sitting down with the person to resolve the issue. Instead, we complain to anyone other than the person involved and fail to notice we have got stuck with our complaint.

When it is a colleague who is doing the complaining, we can see the impact on them and others of their not dealing with the complaint. Who has not noticed a friend or colleague suffering because they are stuck in a complaint about what someone did or (did not do) or something that happened (or did not happen)?

Our challenge is to notice when it is ourselves that are stuck in a state of complaint.

I can vividly recall when I noticed I was trapped in a complaint about my friend and business partner, Ralph (not his real name), and how resolving that one complaint transformed my life.

At the time I was working with a coach and had learned the concept of a behavioural pattern called a ‘racket’, and a technique for resolving rackets. According to Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan (page 45, The Three Laws of Performance, Jossey-Bass, 2009), a racket is a behaviour pattern with four elements:

  • a complaint that has persisted for some time
  • a pattern of behaviour that goes along with the complaint
  • a payoff for having the complaint continue and
  • a cost to the person of maintaining the behaviour.

So, I am pacing around my house, angry and frustrated as I think about the argument I had just had with Ralph. I am saying to myself, “he’s just so selfish, he just has to get his own way with everything”, when it dawns on me that I have been making this complaint for years. Not only have I been thinking it, but I have also been complaining to any friends and colleagues who would listen. I realised that Ralph and I argued in almost every business meeting we attended together. We were not just disagreeing, we were getting frustrated and angry. I ‘knew’ our arguments were his fault because he was just so selfish.

When I noticed my complaint about Ralph fitted the concept of a racket, I set out to resolve it.

My complaint was obvious, “Ralph is selfish, he just has to get his own way with everything” and, given I had been making it for five years, it was clearly persistent. Identifying the payoff and cost was much more difficult because I was sure I got no benefit from having the complaint. After some uncomfortable introspection, it dawned on me how much I resented my friend’s ability to stand up for what he wanted in a way I could not. My payoff, it seemed, was avoiding my fear of disapproval, and getting to blame him rather than taking any responsibility for my part in our arguments. I was shocked. At the same moment, the cost also dawned on me. I was living in a background mood of resentment, I had lost a friendship, and I was causing distress and conflict for others in our business meetings.

My coach asked me, “who would you need to be, as a leader, to resolve the situation?” and my answer was that I would need to be someone who was straight with people and who did not avoid disapproval.

I chose to be straight and to phone Ralph to share what I had seen about myself. After thirty minutes of nervous pacing, I made the call. I apologised for my behaviour. I also shared that I was committed to being straight with him, committed to our friendship and committed to having productive business meetings.

During the conversation, the tension between us reduced from an eight to a two out of ten. We relaxed and had a rich conversation. A couple of weeks later a new and contentious financial issue arose. This time I was straight about what I wanted and listened to what he wanted. I was thrilled when we negotiated a solution that worked for both of us.

A few weeks later again, I was sitting on the beach at the end of a few days’ holiday with Ralph and his family when I had a positive but shocking realisation. If, after five years of complaint, I could resolve my resentment with Ralph, I could resolve all the ongoing complaints and resentments in my life! (Over the several years following that realisation, I had a lot of tricky conversations and made substantial progress resolving the resentments of my life.)

It is easy to see the cause of our complaints as being circumstances and people that are out of our control.

Moods of resentment (about the issue), resignation (nothing I try will work anyway) and anxiety (even if something could be done, the required conversations could go badly wrong) get in the way of resolution.

Yet on the other side of dealing with these complaints is the possibility of living a richer and more fulfilling life that includes effectively leading our teams to produce outstanding results, without undue stress.

What persistent complaints do you have at work and at home?

Are you ready to resolve them? What help, if any, do you need?

If you resolved them, what would that make possible for you, your team and for taking care of what you most care about?

Knowing what to do is not always enough. I support executives and entrepreneurs to be more productive and lead their teams and organisations more effectively. I help them master the ‘human factor’ by breaking down leadership and collaboration into learnable and actionable elements. If you want, book a free 30-minute strategy session with me or jump on the waitlist for my next Executive Leadership Program.

Your turn, now pick one and write down:

* What is the complaint? State it succinctly.

* What is the pattern of behaviour associated with the complaint?

* What is the benefit you get from maintaining the complaint?

* What does you maintaining the complaint cost you and others?

* What help, if any, do you need?

* To whom do you need to apologise?

If answers don’t come easily, that’s normal. Just stay with or come back to the questions until you get answers that make sense.

Sometimes it may be necessary to look deeply and let yourself see aspects of your behaviour you would rather not see.