The Resentment Threshold

There are no perfect leaders, only real ones.

That might as well have been the name of the latest Dove campaign. Except, it wasn’t. It was called “There are no perfect moms, only real ones.”

Here it is.

There are no perfect moms, only real ones / Dove

As I watched it, I was reminded of all the Founders/CEOs with whom I’ve worked and continue to work. I was inspired enough to make the following remix of the transcript for them.

Although I use the words “CEO” and “Founder” in the remix, the same script can apply to middle managers or anyone who feels personal responsibility for the well-being of other humans.

Leader 1: Everybody has ideas on what it means to be a “good leader.” And most people feel like they have a license to tell you (laughs) what they think it means to be a “good leader.”

Leader 2: I’m a first time CEO and I’m just figuring it out as I go. Often times people who lead other companies, people who call themselves leadership consultants, people who used to lead companies, they all want you to do it their way. But I have to be that person that stands the ground.

Leader 3: What we do here is unconventional. Because our team is made up of people from significantly different nationalities using their second language to communicate with each other. I would say they have such a different set of challenges. They’re facing something unique.

Leader 4: We’re both our team’s CEO. You get people that are like “What do you mean you’re both CEOs?” We’re like “Yup. (laughs) We’re gonna be co-CEOs.”

Leader 5: I live to be the best version of myself, and I can be. Part of that is being a CEO. But I live to dance. I can do my art and not be any less of a CEO.

Leader 6: I found my startup without a co-founder. I’m happy where I am. I get to make business decisions on my own.

Leader 7: There are so many ways to be a leader. I don’t think I can be the leader that I want to be without climbing being in my life. It keeps me who I am and allows me to be a really good leader to my team.

Leader 4: There’s no one right way to do it all.

Leader 1: You are the only expert of your own team and organization.

Leader 2: Believe in yourself. Believe in your ability as a human being. What you can do is what you can do.

Leader 3: Do what fits your organization. And trust yourself.

This commercial struck a chord with me because I’ve found that feeling personal responsibility for the well-being of others to be one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences ever. For many Founders/CEOs, the pressure to make payroll each month is stressful enough. It goes without saying how much stress is involved in parenthood.

A common byproduct of feeling a sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of others is feeling like we should do things for them. (An instinct often fueled by compassion.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about doing things for others. In fact, one could argue that it is one of most noble things we could do. What I find interesting is that there are times when we cross the threshold of “doing things for others” and unknowingly enter into the realm of “expecting things from others.”

Let me take my parents as an example.

My father’s interest lies primarily in playing sports. My mother loves playing sports, too. At the same time, her primary interest lies in history and archeology, especially around the topic of musical performance. Given this difference in interests, my mother has spent her entire marriage looking for a solution to a seemingly simple challenge.

“How can I get my husband to be interested in the things I’m interested?”

She tried to get him to watch historical period dramas on TV. She tried to teach him how to sing. She tried to take him to different historical landmarks around the world. She tried to get him to read history books.

All. Failed.

Then recently, my mother came to the following realization:

I need to stop doing so much for my husband.”

When asked “What do you mean?” she said she has always wanted her husband to change because she personally felt responsible for his well-being. When probed further, she said she wanted him to change for his own good. In other words, she considered her efforts to change him as doing him a favor. So when she saw that he was unwilling to change, she associated his behavior with a lack of appreciation for the effort she was putting in to doing him a favor. This naturally lead her to feel resentment. Well… she no longer wanted to feel resentment. Thus, the need to stop doing so much for her husband.

My mother also came to accept that my father is happy staying interested in sports and sports only. As much as he may come to value acquiring other interests in the future, he did not find it sufficiently valuable now. For now, what he valued more greatly was to feel accepted and appreciated for the way he was. (Can you spot the Gordian Knot?)

I remember doing the same thing when I was an employee. As an employee, I did my best to provide value to my employer. Not only did I do this, but I did my best to do them well. Very well, in fact. Although, after a certain threshold of “well,” I started to feel resentment. Why? Because I was not appreciated or acknowledged for doing these things well.

What’s obvious in hindsight is that the things I did extra well were things I valued greatly, not things my employer valued greatly. Since my employer did not value those things enough, it was no wonder the employer was not spontaneously inspired to appreciate them. In fact, my employer was probably frustrated with me for not doing the things he valued instead.

I do not wish to judge people’s lack of appreciation for certain things as good/bad or right/wrong. What I want to highlight is that when we feel personally responsible for someone or even some thing, it’s easy to forget that there is a threshold at which we stop doing things for them and start expecting things from them. When those expectations are not met, it’s quite natural for us to feel resentment.

I’ve come to call this the “resentment threshold.”

Being a leader can often feel like a thankless job. When we lead well, people often take it for granted. When we make a mistake, people sometimes criticize us until they can see us fall to our knees. Yet we show up to work each and every day, because there’s something tugging at us. There’s someone or something we feel personally responsible for. At the same time, it’s worth noting that this same personal care can also blind us as we cross the resentment threshold.

If you’re willing, I’d like to invite you to practice noticing yourself crossing the resentment threshold. Not to judge the crossing as bad or wrong. Rather, to stay with it for a while and to be curious enough to notice it repeatedly. If it helps, you may also ask yourself the following question.

What lessons are my crossing the resentment threshold challenging me to learn?”

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Photo credit to Mark Bonica