THE BLOG
19/05/2014 10:30 BST | Updated 15/07/2014 06:59 BST

Want to Be a Better Leader? Use Your Resentment

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Here's a conundrum: life is not fair. Yet humans are "hardwired" for fairness.

No wonder resentment is on the rise. There's anger against the rich; resentment between one generation and the next; between men and women in power (one study found 69% of women think men resent women who have more power than they do; only 49% of men agree.)

Non-mothers resent mothers, according to an Opportunity Now survey, women resent their employers for making it so hard to get back on the 'on-ramp' after maternity leave.

I've witnessed it first-hand among women working at a City bank. Exhaustion among some is palpable, and resentment is rife.

Of course, resentments are bound to bloom in the workplace. Arguably, competitive cultures positively encourage them by fostering inequality.

At home, too, who hasn't felt taken for granted or just stretched too thin? In women's cases, it's compounded by the knowledge that their resentment isn't always unfounded.

There's plenty of sexism at work, both subtle and obvious. One man at a financial firm referred to my work as the 'girlie course' where we talked about 'make up and stuff'. Even in newer industries, some of the comments aimed at women are pretty jaw dropping.

Real, if unconscious, bias can still work against women in when it comes to board appointments. Pay inequality is still prevalent and quotas a matter of disagreement among women themselves.

Those female bankers I mentioned may be justifiably aggrieved that they're expected to put in 15+ hour days, then go home and look after families (or simply have a life.)

As Joseph Heller wrote, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.

The rewards of resentment

But that ill-feeling has an upside for conscious leaders: it's a clear signal that something's out of balance in your life. Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer believes it's about burnout, which comes from a feeling that you're missing out on something important.

Resentment comes in when you knowingly or unknowingly take choice away from yourself. It is "a great rationaliser: it presents us with selected versions of our own past, so that we do not recognize our own mistakes and avoid the necessity to make painful choices," writes Theodore Dalrymple.

So embracing it is linked to taking full responsibility for yourself. Once you own it, it's easier to start making choices about what you will and won't accept.

Find the source Direct reflection is helpful, especially in identifying the source of your ire. It's no coincidence that mindfulness training is becoming mainstream in companies. We rarely talk about (or think about) what we really want, let alone ask for it, but by not speaking up, we're co-conspirators in our own unhappiness. Talk to someone impartial if you can.

Starve your anger It's also important to acknowledge any part you may be playing in feeding your resentment. If you're a perfectionist, you may be moving the goalposts by constantly finding yourself wanting. It's easy for resentment to turn inwards, when your rational mind tells you that you should not allow pettiness to get under your skin. That's when you need to accept you're human and be honest about any 'payoff' you're getting from your victimhood. Maybe you're over-estimating your own efforts, while under-valuing someone else's. Don't forget that others won't always have the same priorities as you.

Find your voice Resentment is often bound-up with an inability to speak up or articulate clearly what's on your mind. What is the courageous conversation you should be having? Are those assumptions that you think people are making -- 'she won't travel because she's got children' -- real or imagined?

Check your blind spots An aspiring female director I worked with had a clear idea of how her boss would react to her wish to join the board. She'd played out the conversations in her head. When we unpicked all those assumptions, and she had the conversation for real, it was nothing like the scenario she'd imagined. He simply had no idea about her ambitions.

Stop striving We also need to stop celebrating the 'do-it-all' woman. Instead recognise that you may need a cleaner, or a chef. Relax about what you can't do and concentrate on what you can.

Avoid the 'genderisation' trap There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for working women. I know of a female executive who loves her work. Aware that she risked resenting not her job, but her family, she made a stark choice. From midday Friday through Sunday, she's fully available to her family. But during the week, it's all about work -- she doesn't call her children and keeps a flat in London to be close to her job. Another woman I know insists on no technology at the weekend whatsoever. These may seem like extreme choices to you. But that's the point: you must make your own.

Of course, just because you take responsibility for your choices, doesn't mean your life will fall into place perfectly. The choice presented to you in some cases may be whether to stay in a corrosive culture or leave. But it does allow you to take control.

Otherwise you are stuck in your resentment, disempowered and unable to move. Recognising resentment in yourself calls for self-acceptance: of your limits, and possibly those of the place where you work. We often fool ourselves about that reality. But the truth can set you free.

(Image: ShoeboxBlog.com)