How to Lead (When Everyone Hates You)

Hint: Let them see you sweat.

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, LC-USZ62–123456

Right now, all over the world, people are making impossible decisions. Ones that someone — somewhere — will hate, regardless. Whether to mandate vaccines or masks. Whether to reopen offices. Whether to laugh or cry.

There is not always an obvious right answer, but decisions still need to get made. So what then? In this moment, how you make and communicate decisions matters more than ever. With all the swirling anxiety and bottled-up frustration in the air these days, it’s easy to become a target of convenience for a whole lot of rage.

This is what John, a superintendent of a school district in California, discovered the hard way. After a year and a half of making impossible decisions, and becoming enemy №1 for some of his teachers, he is facing a new school year — and newly impossible decisions. Now what?

I invited John to join me for a new episode of a Slate podcast I’ve started hosting called “How To!” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s like Dear Abby — if Dear Abby were an investigative reporter. We bring a listener with a real-life problem together with an expert who can help. The idea is to try to solve problems — or at least understand them better — rather than just lamenting them. (And I should add that John is not his real name. He asked to remain anonymous on the show to avoid further escalating the conflicts he’s already in. But I do know his real name.)

First, schools had to figure out how to go virtual, which was messy. When John saw the grades for that first virtual semester, it just about broke his heart. “That was probably the lowest point for me,” he told me. Many kids were not learning at anywhere close to the rate they had been in person. Latino kids and students with disabilities were failing at more than twice the rate of other kids.

Last spring, when the caseload dropped and teachers were able to get vaccinated, he wanted to reopen schools. And so did a lot of parents. But many of the teachers disagreed. “There was one conversation I had with the small group of teachers, and one of them made a comment to the effect of, ‘If you make us come back, and someone gets sick and dies, the blood is going to be on your hands.’”

Impossible, right? Well, yes. And no. To help, we invited Gary Friedman, the world-renowned conflict mediation guru featured in my last book, to join the conversation. Gary has recent experience with making unpopular decisions — as an elected official in his own town. And he made plenty of mistakes, as he freely acknowledges. But he got a lot better at it, and here’s what he’s learned:

1. Let them see you sweat

If, on the other hand, you do the counterintuitive thing — if you admit that this was a hard decision to make — you become human again.

“When people see you actively working with them, and not just on a cognitive level, but on an emotional level, it’s very hard to kind of push you away and say, you know, ‘This guy doesn’t care.’”

2. Protect your sanity

3. Hold a dress rehearsal

Ask the other person to play the role of your biggest critic, and you play you. Then (and this is important) switch roles. Having done this in trainings with Gary and other mediators, I can say I always resist role playing at first — and I’m always glad I did it afterward. Usually, I come away with some insight into my so-called adversary — just by “playing” them in a 5-minute conversation. (Which is why the CIA uses role-play games to train its agents. It sounds squishy but it works.) Understanding is key to good conflict, and it can be easier to achieve outside the zone of conflict.

Listen to the full episode here, and let me know if you have any feedback — or a problem that needs solving.