From the November 2008 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

November 1, 2008

Sore Losers

Being a winner doesn't mean treating other people like losers

What ever happened to being a good sport? The days of humble winners and gracious losers seem to have vanished with tail fins and whitewall tires. Instead, winners noisily beat their chests; losers grouse about being cheated. I think this derives, at least in part, from a growing lack of sensitivity and tolerance of different opinions, positions, status, culture, race, or gender. In the wake of a presidential race in which both sides warned that global catastrophe could follow the election of the wrong candidate, it behooves us to seek better ways to accept each other's differences. When these crop up in your office you can't always turn them into win-win situations, but as the examples below illustrate, you may be able to keep anyone from losing out.

Q: My boss, the managing principal at my planning firm, is constantly bragging about her children's talents--academic, athletic, even artistic. Otherwise she's a good boss, but I find myself getting angrier and angrier as she waxes on about her kids' latest exploits. If I or anyone else brings up our children's accomplishments, she quickly tries to top us by relating the latest high grade or gold-medal performance. How do I handle this?

A: Years ago, when I was raving about my 12-year-old son's role in a Broadway show, one of my dear friends took me gently to task. She told me that it made her feel bad when I bragged on and on about my child's talents, because her own kids might never be superstars. This reproof was painful at the time, but it dramatically heightened my sensitivity to others. In retrospect, I'm grateful to her for sharing her feelings with me.

So this question is a touchy one for me. If you have a good relationship with your boss--and it sounds like you do--you might take your cue from my brave friend and become a "courageous follower," as Ira Chaleff recommends in his book of the same name.

Find an unstressful time and place to sit down alone with your boss. You might begin by complimenting her on some of the things you appreciate about her as a manager. Then tell her there's one thing that frustrates you and, you suspect, others in the office. When she asks what this is, explain as kindly as you can that when she boasts about her kids, you feel bad not being allowed to share your own sources of pride. You might also suggest that it's especially difficult for colleagues to hear her praise her offspring if their own children are not doing well.

Right now, it may be hard to empathize with her. But consider that her need to feel superior to others and, by extension, to feel that her kids are more special than others may be driven by insecurity. Hopefully, she will be big-hearted enough to learn from your honest, nonjudgmental feedback. If you fear she may hold your candor against you, you might try a little gentle humor to remind her that other people's kids have their own special qualities and gifts.

Q: I dread our weekly staff meetings. The COO has clearly stated his preferred candidate throughout the presidential election season. Now that his candidate has won, he and his political allies have begun to use these meetings to tout the president-elect's every virtue, while continuing to slam my candidate (the loser). This inappropriate behavior really angers me. Who should I talk to about it?

A: You might consider sending a memo to your co-workers, including the COO. Explain that everyone wants to respect each other, but people are reacting so strongly to the presidential election that it's creating a rift in the office.

Your memo might add that you were already feeling sufficiently depressed by the election results, and don't need to be reminded of it at work. Then, ask if it would be possible for everyone to take political talk out of the office until the wounds heal. Remind them that if the shoe were on the other foot, the other candidate's partisans would surely feel as you do.

It would certainly be better to raise the issue in this conciliatory way than to risk a bitter and explosive blowup in the next staff meeting. I think there's a good chance your COO and his political pals will get the message.

Q: One of my older clients continually disses me in front of a junior colleague during our meetings. I'm a female planner with nearly 20 years of experience, and my assistant is a young man just a couple of years out of college. When this client meets with us, he not only begins by discussing in detail our local football team's latest game (which he knows I have no interest in), he also insists on asking my young assistant if he agrees with my take on the markets, the economy, and his portfolio weightings after I make my formal presentation each quarter. What gives?

A: This client has probably been marginalizing women for a long time, so any attempt to bring his behavior to his attention may not yield big changes. But I don't think you should just suck it up and pretend nothing's wrong.

Actually, you have a couple of choices. First, you could meet with him privately and ask if there is something about your level of competence that he has difficulty respecting. Another possibility is simply to remove yourself from the relationship and pass him on to a male advisor. There are certainly plenty of clients out there who will treat you with more respect.

It's important not to take his demeaning attitude too personally. I would wager that he treats all professional women with the same condescension, born from conscious or unconscious sexism. So don't for a minute doubt yourself or your expertise; this client is not really seeing you but looking past you in every way. This realization may help keep you from feeling vulnerable as you talk to him about the effects of his disrespectful behavior.

Q: A client of mine recently completed a fairly nasty divorce. While the papers have been signed and the major issues have been worked out, I can't get my client to acknowledge that the marriage is over and make a clean break; she seems obsessed with making life as difficult as possible for her ex-husband. That's the case even though the settlement worked out well in her favor, and her financial condition has never been better. Why won't she let bygones be bygones and move on with her life?

A: Divorces are almost always devastating for all concerned; something is ripping apart which was once together. It makes most people revert to their primitive survival mode, in which they are virtuous victims whom the other party has wronged. In addition, some people get addicted to the adrenalin charge of conflict with those around them. Others have a terrible time letting go, learning to forgive, and moving out of the war zone to a more peaceful, less intense place.

I would suggest to your client in a tactful way that although it's natural to feel angry and hurt in her situation, it might be better for her well-being to consider getting counseling to help her move on. You might ask her what activities usually help her relieve her stress, and suggest that she make more time for them. Also, consider proposing that she keep a gratitude journal to focus on what is working in her life despite the death of her marriage. (Her present financial security might go on the gratitude list.)

Try to keep being sympathetic to your client's wounds, without fanning the flames of her vengefulness. If you support her vulnerability, and not her anger, you may help her move through this difficult period more quickly.

Q: Our firm is affiliated with a broker/dealer that was recently acquired by a bigger B/D. While the top brass of the acquiring company have been very welcoming in public conference calls and memos, the back-office people we have to work with every day call us the "new kids" and disparage our ways of doing business. Maybe this will fade with time, but I worry that our clients won't get the service they deserve. How can I make nice with these people (whom I communicate with only by phone and e-mail) while making it clear that we have been successful in the past without any assistance from them?

A: Staff retreats are an ideal way to start blending new work "families." Is this an option in your situation?

If not, you might explain the problem to whoever's in charge of the back-office team, and ask for a face-to-face meeting to present your credentials to this group and get better acquainted with them. I believe in-person contact is the best way to break down barriers and build mutual respect and courtesy.

If even this is out of the question, you might talk to your counterpart in the back office and find out about their guiding principles and achievements. Then, write a letter to everyone (including the top brass) that refers to how well your team's skills can mesh with the back-office group's expertise, citing what both parties value most and are proudest of in the way they do business. I feel sure you will be able to point out several commonalities that will encourage both sides to respect each other more.

Remember that people's insecurities often drive them to pump themselves up as the "winner" in a one-up, one-down self-ranking against others. Everyone has fragile and vulnerable areas. With a combination of honesty, courage, sensitivity, and open-heartedness, you can often create a dialogue to change the dynamic from "I win/you lose" into mutual tolerance and respect. In these days of widespread polarization and moral righteousness, that's a balance we all need to strive for.


Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor's Guide to Money Psychology,, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore at investmentadvisor.com. She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at moneyharmony@cs.com.

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