How I am Learning Not to Be an Asshole

By: Phillip Bogdanovich


For the majority of my life, I believed that if my assertions were correct, nothing else mattered—including how I delivered those assertions. I focused on the fact that I was right and didn’t worry about the rest of it. A few years ago, however, I lost an offer for a consulting job after meeting the team beyond my main point of contact. When I asked why, the reply was (and I quote), “You’re an asshole.” That’s when I began paying attention to how I communicate with people.

I’ve had significant time to think about that lost job opportunity and digest the feedback I was given. Here’s how I ended up there, what I’m doing differently now, and how I will continue to perpetuate positive change in the future. If you’re struggling with being an asshole, maybe my experiences will help you.

How I Became an Asshole

I have the emotional depth of a rock. For as long as I can remember, I have been indifferent to or unaware of people’s feelings. I disliked school and social interaction. I was awkward and uncomfortable when expected to engage people and go through the motions of being “interested.”

Then I joined the military, where I was regularly reprimanded for my complete lack of interest in rules or socially acceptable behavior. But because I excelled at my job (medic), I was quickly promoted through the system. As I was promoted, my authority increased with my position and rank. Fortunately for me, tact doesn’t matter in the military—my subordinates had no choice but to listen to me. My indifference to others’ feelings continued unchecked.

Eventually I made my way to the Special Operations community, where I found a home and my emotional indifference reached an all-time high. These guys were all like me: smart, indifferent to feelings, and harboring a vast array of personality disorders. There were no women and no real diversity. The homogeneity kept us in lockstep and made us extremely effective at our jobs, but it stunted us socially.

It turns out the communication we perfected for high-stress, high-stakes situations don’t translate well to non-conflict scenarios. But because I spent my first post-military years as a contractor with the Department of Defense, I didn’t make that observation for almost a decade. Then I lost that consulting gig, and was forced to do a major reality check.

A Hard Lesson: Right Isn’t Enough

When my consulting gig evaporated because I was “an asshole,” it told me lot of things.

  1. These executives knew they had a problem that needed solving. They didn’t deny that.
  2. They also knew they needed a consultant to evaluate and ameliorate the situation. They didn’t deny that either.
  3. They even believed I could be the one with the skills to solve that problem. They never questioned my abilities or expertise.

And yet…my insensitive and seemingly self-righteous nature was so off-putting that they were more willing to let the problem persist or try to solve it themselves than to work with me. For the first time in my life, being smart, capable, and right wasn’t enough.

How I Became Less of an Asshole

It was painful for me to realize I didn’t fit. Not painful like being picked last or no one coming to my birthday party—painful like not being allowed to solve a puzzle I knew I could solve. Along with some gentle nudging from my wife to be a nicer person, this excruciating frustration caused me to change my life. I began focusing on interacting with people differently. Here’s how I got started:

  • I started saying “please” and “thank you.” This simple act forced me to engage with people on an emotional level and acknowledge their effort. It forced me to be aware.
  • At work, I started opening planning sessions by having each person share the hurdles they perceived, not by telling the team my plan. Initiating discussion in this way allowed me to hear and take notes on everyone’s opinions—a new and valuable source of insight for me. Conversely, the team felt heard and engaged.
  • I started soliciting feedback. Before I make a presentation, I now schedule one final meeting with the team involved in developing the solution. In this meeting, they can review the proposed plan and give feedback. Sometimes I make changes based on their feedback and sometimes I don’t, but that’s not what is important. What’s important is the team seeing the fruits of their labor and being able to take ownership over their part of the solution. Bonus: I get a final sanity check.

These steps allowed me to practice being inclusive and engaging within a uniform, repeatable process I could get good at and measure.

Where I Am Today

Perpetuating positive change is hard, but I know I’m better at listening and taking peoples feelings into account than I used to be. I haven’t lost an opportunity because I’m difficult to work with in quite a while. I have also become more open about my shortcomings (at least this one), which is counterintuitive for an ex-military man. Several leaders I admire greatly refuse to give any indication where they fall short. But I value transparency and honesty above all else—no matter how difficult they are.

A friend of mine who used to work for me once shared that for her first two weeks on the job, she went home and cried nearly every day. She thought I hated her and that I thought she was incompetent. I was genuinely shocked when she told me. I thought her work ethic was amazing and performance was excellent, but I was obviously not communicating (or paying attention). I was clearly emotionally detached from the situation.

I took the opportunity to apologize and inform her that I had problems relating to people sometimes, but that I was working on it. Like magic, this simple exchange altered our entire dynamic. She immediately became my advocate and started helping me remain (or become) aware of the quality of my interactions with others. If I expressed something awkwardly or in a way that may have been misperceived, she would talk with me after the fact and say things like, “How do you think that was received?” or “Maybe try XYZ instead next time.” She helped me identify communication breakdowns, often with enough time to rectify them.

Having others in my life willing to hold a mirror up to me and support me as I started making changes is what enabled me to grow as a leader and as a person. I learned that it’s still important to be smart, capable, and right—but just as important to be willing to acknowledge and grow past my shortcomings.

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