They go low, we go high: a work philosophy

mm Russ Finkelstein

Regardless of your voting intentions, Michelle Obama’s now famous line “When they go low, we go high” offers an important career insight. The presidential election process is essentially a very extended job interview. We follow the candidates, witness them interview, and see them examined for all of their prior accomplishments and behaviors. And I’d encourage you, whether you’re your first running for office or considering your next job, to reflect hard on Mrs. Obama’s phrase.

Going high is better for all of us because it builds sustainable organizations, cultures, and relationships. I want you to internalize this concept. It’s not just words. Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone in America were more intentional about the cultures we created in our workplaces? Moreover, about the kind of world we’d like to be a part of?

You simply never hear anyone say: “Oh my God, this is the best organization. Everybody hates each other, they’re all angling for the top job, and nobody can trust any of their colleagues!”

Sadly all of us have the capacity to go low. I, for example, have thought, and on rare occasions have said, some things about colleagues that I have regretted later. I once described a colleague as “bovine”, for example, and then heard co-workers echoing the phrase. I’d taken the low and behaved in an absolutely poisonous way. I have felt guilty about it for years.

There are people, though, who routinely choose to take the low road at work, and who don’t feel guilty about it. When you come across those folks, then you need to be on your guard.

Here are four common types of people who routinely take the low road at work:

  1. The Character Assassinator. This is the person who diminishes you because they see you as competition. They might say, for example, “I’m so amazed that she completed this for the meeting, with her tendency to leave early and take frequent sick days, I often wonder how she gets anything done.” Hashtag underminer!
  2. The Credit-stealer. They might say, “I remember when I first shared the idea and described what it should look like. Chris is so great at executing on other people’s ideas.” Hashtag backhanded complimenter!
  3. The Nervous Boss. They might say “I’ve been managing Terry for the past two years. It’s a struggle at times, but they really delivered on this one.” Hashtag bad manager!
  4. The Attacker. They’re angry at the world, work makes them miserable and they hate everything, and they just tend to throw nastiness out at everyone and everything. This covers the range of put-downs, personal attacks, and sudden aggression that might come up. “Haven’t you worn that same outfit three times this week?” Hashtag monster!

No matter irritating these people are to you and how tempting it may be to go low, there are legitimate reasons to take the high road.

  1. Not starting an arms race. The short-term satisfaction you get from letting someone have it often creates an escalating cycle of hostility. Do you want to spend your time and energy doing that? Your efforts are better spent achieving goals and building meaningful relationships. This negative spiral can be a bottomless pit with nothing of value ever to show for it. Nobody wins!
  2. Reputation, reputation, reputation. Usually people who diminish others are eventually discovered and get a reputation as untrustworthy and caustic. People understand that if you can do it to others, you will also turn on them.  Remember, your reputation also precedes you more broadly and easily than ever as social networks expand.
  3. Don’t ruin your work culture. We are all part of creating our ideal workplace. What’s the role you want to play? Antagonist or protagonist. Don’t be the person ruining your workplace, because you might face a series of repercussions, up to loss of your job, as a result. It might take a while, but before you know it, you’re in too deep.
  4. Patience is sometimes rewarded. Good managers recognize someone who is able to work in the face of aggression and will often, albeit not always, reward people for making the best of it. Remember that hostile colleagues, while no fun in the moment, often do present significant opportunities for those who can weather their storm.

When you find yourself attempting to navigate the high road you will need a strategy. Here are a few options.

  1. Talk to a colleague you trust. A conversation with someone you know who also knows the offender may offer insight as to whether this is the first time these tendencies have been exhibited. Remember that this conversation is not about your colleague taking your side, but rather about their having the context to serve as your sounding board. They may even offer you the best strategy to move ahead.
  2. Talk to the offender directly. Find a neutral environment and base your concerns on a specific behavioral example. “Last week during the meeting I noticed you seemed to be frustrated when I brought up the project. Can we talk about it, because I want to make sure we can have a productive way to move ahead.” Hashtag good luck with that. But you gotta try. Sorry.
  3. Talk to your manager. Offer some suggestions to solve a problem with the person’s behavior. “I feel like Andria tends to be quite hostile when I ask her to deliver a blog for me. I’ve spoken with her about this, but it seems to not resolve the problem. Do you have another way I might go about it?” Be careful that you’ve at least tried to bring it up directly with the person, first, or you risk being accused of sabotaging someone.  
  4. Talk to your human resources person. If you’re lucky enough to work somewhere with a good human resources person, they might have some advice. I’ve worked with some great ones. They really can be helpful. Occasionally, however, they can be the opposite. So ask yourself before you talk: Can you trust them?

Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re just out of luck. Your co-worker is a monster, your boss sucks, and your HR department is the organizational equivalent of a sinkhole; you’ve run into a brick wall. It’s not your fault, and there’s nothing you can do constructively, but accept it, for the time being. Doing so may even make you feel better.

What do you do when the going gets really tough, in this way? Sometimes going high feels very hard.

  1. Detach yourself emotionally from work and the person. Obviously this isn’t a long-term, sustainable solution, but you need to picture the low-roader as a child. Disengage because it’s not you, it’s them. Take some deep breaths, do some exercise on your lunch break, start meditating, seriously, no joke, and get the emotional space you need so that you don’t blow your top.
  2. Minimize contact. Try to set-up meetings that have other attendees. Schedule these with agendas set in advance. Set boundaries around your calendar. Move your desk. This approach is not always pretty, but it is better than the alternative, which is your utterly losing it at the person and screaming at them in the open office. It may well be that their low-road tactics are designed to throw you off balance in precisely this way. Don’t walk into the trap. Take the high road.
  3. Be paranoid. Document everything. Just because someone is utterly unreasonable in the office, doesn’t mean that they are out to get you, but they could be. However, it make some time to figure this out. So please don’t underestimate how potentially dangerous this person could be for your career. Get your guard up, fast, and take the situation seriously.
  4. Find another job already. If your work culture is always dragging you down, and allows bad behavior from your colleagues, then you have a choice to either remain in the job or leave. My sincere advice is to make this choice in a considered way. You might find it helpful to do some internal reflection on your situation as part of this process, which is something I’ve written about recently. And do try to remember that getting another job as soon as possible isn’t always the perfect solution to everything that’s wrong in your professional life. You need to make sure, too, that you don’t end up in another toxic environment. Ask the right questions during the interview process.

When I consider all of my colleagues and peers throughout my professional life I have always sought out those who went high and we typically gave those who went low a wide berth. Please follow our first lady’s advice and go high. You won’t regret the choice.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >