coming out of my shell

coming out of my shell

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Through the glass, darkly

An old comrade-at-arms is retiring on Tax Day (April 15) and I have been busy this week putting together a photo album to honor his many years as a manager at the university. We served together on scads of college committees, tried to organize the other university academic unit managers into a cohesive group at least twice, challenged authority as if we were Jedi Knights, and generally tried to make things better. It was fun going through old pictures and thinking about those days. 

I was always a fiend for pictures. I feverishly documented every job-related person, place, and thing. I was the one taking photos instead of socializing at parties. I organized my photos in a variety of ways. I know everyone's names dating back a million years not because I have a good memory, but because I wrote it on the back of a photo, or named the e-photo with the person's name.
I am also the go-to person when someone dies or retires and a photo board needs to be created. And yes, everything is dated. A fiend, I tell you...

I suppose I spent all that time taking pictures to distract myself. Back then I was all about doing and not a bit about feeling. Staging and taking pictures was the perfect means to avoid my internal life. With camera in hand you experience the moment externally, through a lens. I was capturing the moment and saving it for later, when I would have the time and energy to feel deeply.

ooking at all the old pictures of co-workers, campus buildings, off-campus eating establishments, parking lots, and walkways this past week was also bittersweet. Although it was fun, it has been a little painful. I am surprised.

I wonder, why? Why would I be surprised?  


Monday, March 21, 2016

The Rules of the Game

At the university there were very different standards of behavior for the two distinct groups of employees: faculty and staff. For instance, I couldn't wander those hallowed halls barefoot, with hair uncombed, sporting crooked glasses, muttering to myself, thinking beautiful thoughts, or making bizarre jokes like the professor we affectionately called "Professor Joe." He was a sweet old man and the staff loved him.

He was also a little odd. Within academia he was protected; safe, really. I honestly do not think he could have survived outside. In the "real world" many would have thought him more than a little odd. 

What I found most charming about him was his sense of the absurd. He was often irreverent. He was also brilliant, a scholar of international reputation who had won some of the most prestigious awards in his field of study. Students adored him. He was good at what he did. According to the rules of HIS game, he had earned the right to say or do pretty much whatever came into his head. I always thought "Good for him." Except that time I had finished interviewing for a staff vacancy and he stood by my door as I reviewed my notes yelling, "Hire the pretty one!" I can assure you he never even saw any of the candidates. He walked away laughing to himself without waiting for me to reply. Sigh.

The rules of my game were a little different. No matter how good I was at my job, I couldn't say everything that popped into my head. Sure, I wanted to! There were plenty of irreverent thoughts up there that wanted to come out, especially at inappropriate times. I pushed the limits as best I could, but something always stopped me. Something controlled my behavior. I am fairly certain it was the fear of being fired.  FYI, tenured faculty do not have that fear. Instead, they have "tenure." I am still trying to figure out if that is a good thing or a bad thing. 

In the U.S., after 6 years an assistant professor in a tenure-track position must endure a mind numbing, spectacularly brutal peer evaluation of their work called a tenure review.

The stakes are high both for the tenure candidate (who pretty much cannot be fired after they get tenure) and the department (who could conceivably be stuck with a horrible colleague forever if they give him/her tenure). If an assistant professor doesn't get tenure, they are given a terminal year of employment and then they are out the door. 

Let me say this again in case I wasn't clear, once tenured you cannot be fired unless you do something criminal or litigious. You have a job for life even if you never publish again, don't mentor graduate students, advise undergraduates poorly, treat your colleagues like dirt, or fail to attract large numbers of students to your classes because you are so incredibly boring. Of course the overwhelming majority of professors maintain collegiality and high professorial standards, but there are always a few notable exceptions. 

A professor would tell you tenure is the basis of academic freedom. Tenure allows them to pursue truth and do their best and purest work without fear of reprisal, censure, or compromise. That is probably true. is an imperfect system. The collective damage caused by an unfettered ego or a mean-spirited, malicious malcontent can be a special kind of trauma for everyone else in an academic department. And if the ego or malcontent is a tenured professor, there is not much you can do to stop it except to find another job and hope the new department doesn't harbor a malicious malcontent, too.

Tenure is an established rite of passage for academics. Faculty count on it. They will never give it up. As a direct result of tenure, academia sometimes feels like an alternate reality, one in which actions don't always have consequences, and rules don't always apply...for some.

A gargoyle holding up a table on the Arts & Sciences quadrangle

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

I Voted.

This morning T and I got up early and went to the polls to vote in the Florida primary.  I am wearing my little "I VOTED!" sticker on my t-shirt, and I think I might keep it on all day. 

I am so *&^$#@ sick of this election cycle and all the negative crap everyone has to say and prove about the candidates they are not supporting.   I am a very political person.  I care strongly about this election.  I adore my candidate.  I am fiercely loyal to my political party.

The insanely hateful frenzy that dominates social media these days is bringing me WAY down low.  If you want to convince me to support your candidate, then don't tear mine down.  Take the time and use the facts to prove how good yours is.  Trying instead to prove how bad mine is, and using half-baked innuendo to do so, just pisses me off.

The endless tirades we have to endure on Facebook are just TOO much.  Saturday morning I woke up and checked my feed.  The sexist, racist, mindless propaganda waiting for me kinda pushed me over the edge.  I posted the following:

"Going off Facebook for awhile. Can't take all the mean-spirited crap that passes as political discussion. I need a break. Enjoy."

I am already feeling more positive about the world, the future, and the entire human race.  Instead of allowing myself to be dragged down into the abyss, I am just going to vote.  And I am going to respect everyone's right to do the same. 


Friday, March 11, 2016

How I became a manager

As long as I'm on a work-related roll, I might as well give you some background information. The background info will enable me to start telling you stories that, hopefully, will put to rest, for good and all, any false idea you might have that I was a "professional" manager with super-duper supervisory and/or management skills. Then I will be free to write this damn blog without feeling like I have to behave myself. I don't want to be well-behaved. I'm retired.

I was a manager. For a long time. But, I certainly do not fit the manager type. I am quirky, mouthy, feisty, and I don't really care about dressing up or passing as normal. I am also overly dramatic and I like to swear. 

What gave my work-life meaning was the work I did, the people I worked for, the people I worked with, and the people I supervised. Every day I felt like I made a difference and contributed somewhat to making the workplace better. That was gold.

I could take classes for free!  Even working in the trenches was intellectually stimulating.  I learned a lot about people and organizational behavior. I developed relationships with lots of amazing faculty, students, and staff. It was a non-profit organization, which appealed to me as an old hippie and confirmed leftist. It was a great gig.

I worked at the university for 37 years. For the first 10 years I was an office worker. At a certain point I became an employee union organizer in my free time. For 3 1/2 years in the early 1980's I worked hard trying to bring collective bargaining (aka participatory democracy) to the pink collar workforce at the university. 

During those early years, I think I managed to do my office job well during regular working hours.  More to the point, I avoided getting fired for spending my evenings and lunch hours attempting to get other office workers to sign union authorization cards so we could hold an election and start a union. For all sorts of reasons I do NOT want to go into, it didn't work. 

Please do not send me comments telling me how bad unions are or how a corrupt union steward refused to help your father 30 years ago. Trust me, I have heard all those nauseam. Relax, I am not trying to sign you up. I am very happy for you to have your own opinion as long as I get to have mine.

Anyway, when the union finally gave up and pulled out, I was left with organizing and leadership skills that made it extremely hard for me to continue to work for management. So I became management. It was kind of a choice between being a problem employee or being a half-way decent manager. I chose the latter.

One day a bird flew in my office window.
I had the best view, and I was happy to share

Monday, March 7, 2016

Part II: Supervising a difficult person

As I said in Part I, I don't think you can change other people unless they want to be changed. In Part I, I made that statement as a co-worker; now in Part II, I am speaking as an ex-supervisor. I confess. I am a recovering supervisor. Ick.

Supervising a difficult and problematic employee is a little different than working alongside one. No better or worse, just a little different.

Handling performance issues and promoting group harmony is a big part of a supervisor's job. People who only want to be a supervisor for the prestige, power, or the extra money should think again. Supervising is a job you cannot do well if you are conflict averse, a people pleaser, give a shit if someone hates you, or (especially) if you don't want to work hard at unpleasant tasks.

It helps if you care strongly about people, policies, and organizations. A blogger named The Cranky commented on Part I of this 2-part post, telling a great story about how, as a supervisor, she eventually had an impact on a young employee and made a real difference in that person's life. It is a good example of the difference between working with someone you have no control over versus supervising someone. As supervisor you cannot just step away and avoid the person. You are supposed to try and change them...

The thing is, there are plenty of people who may not be particularly like-able or sociable, but they mind their own business and do a good job. Some of my favorite employees had difficult or prickly personalities. However, working with a difficult person who also has performance issues makes everyone's work-life a long, slow, super-annoying nightmare.

Contrary to popular opinion, in a large, progressive organization you can only fire someone on the spot if they do something sufficiently egregious, like being seriously insubordinate, or threatening another co-worker with bodily harm.

Firing someone who does substandard work, or falls sleeps at their desk every damn day, or consistently disrespects customers and/or other employees requires a long, excruciating process Human Resources likes to refer to as a "progressive disciplinary action." Let's call that a PDA, even though it is nothing like "public displays of affection." It involves months of mentoring, monitoring, documenting, and agonizing. You may not realize this but supervisors hate implementing progressive discipline as much as employees hate receiving it. True story.

The ex-union organizer in me strongly approves of a PDA. It's a pain in the you-know-what and it seems like sheer torture for everyone involved, but there is a point to it. Everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone should have the time and opportunity to turn their performance issues around so they can avoid getting sacked.

Because supervisors have more power in the workplace, they SHOULD be required to prove an employee deserves to be fired. Otherwise we would definitely fire people who don't laugh at our jokes, or who wear too much perfume. You know who you are.

In doing performance evaluations for employees over a period of about ten million years, I discovered you can be stunningly straightforward and honest with most people if you are respectful. Sounds New Agey, I know. It often worked if I could muster up the emotional intelligence to pull it off. Now there's a big, fat IF.

Unfortunately, I am also an imperfect employee AND a hothead, so I wasn't always successful at getting people to change. However, it was satisfying when I could, and a supervisor can promote positive change more often than you might think. I am not kidding when I say there is nothing better than helping someone achieve their goals. Most people want to do a good job. If you are clear about expectations, people usually respond accordingly. Still, there is always at least one employee with performance "issues." If that employee also happens to be a difficult person, things can get complicated.

I always felt like a failure if a problem employee didn't improve their performance or change their attitude. I am still not sure if this is true or fair, but I always had the notion that I could make a difference if I could just do or say the right thing.

The right thing? As a co-worker I think doing the right thing really IS to accept there are some things I cannot change, avoid difficult people like the plague, and get on with my life. As a supervisor I had fewer choices.

When someone is doing a bad job or driving everyone out the door with their negative and/or condescending attitude, it is the supervisor's job to pull that employee into their office and find an effective way to tell the employee to cut it out. More often than not a difficult person doesn't think they are doing anything wrong. Sigh. AND, if your best efforts have no discernible effect you can be quite sure the other employees are bitching about you behind your back for not addressing the problem. Like the cheese from the Farmer in the Dell, the supervisor stands alone.

And then you can start a progressive disciplinary action.

And oh yeah, sometimes it is your supervisor who is the difficult person and a monumental slack ass. Good luck with that one.

I am happy to be retired and done with all that.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Part I: Working with a difficult person

As the saying goes, "One bad apple spoils the bunch."

A fellow blogger published a thoughtful post about the negative effect one difficult co-worker can have on a group. More to the point, she also talked about compassion. I was inspired to write.  Here is a link you to her post. P.S., she is a much better person than me.

It is nearly impossible to develop a mutually supportive team when there is one co-worker thinking only about themselves. We've all been there. You know the type. Certain people make me want to throw up when they walk into a room. My stomach tightens, my thoughts constrict, and my posture instantly shifts into fighting stance. What we sometimes lose sight of is that those people behave badly because they are unhappy. Unless, of course, they are psychopaths, but that is another post...

I think back on my experiences in the workplace and I don't believe we can affect change in another person unless they want to be changed. So, maybe the kindest way to deal with a difficult co-worker is to detach?  Easier said than done, but a worthy goal.

Maybe you don't want to be kind to a difficult co-worker? I understand. Some people are really begging for a slapdown. Still, a negative reaction to a negative action IS a double negative. That can't be good, and although everyone else in the office would cheer you on if you want to kick the difficult co-worker's ass, Human Resources won't. Can't.  And then your supervisor will have to haul you into her office to give you hell even though she was secretly cheering you on, too.

It seems like we do ourselves AND that difficult co-worker no favor if we allow them to drag us down into that miserable snake pit for troubled souls. Been there, done that. If we allow other people to change us for the worse then we are complicit in their bad behavior.

So maybe my sweet Momma was right when she said it was usually best to walk away from a fight?  Why am I only listening to her advice now, when I am 64 years old and she has been dead for a year and a day? I wish I knew.

For what it is worth, I say let the negativity stay with the difficult co-worker. Detach, with compassion if you possibly can. There is always a reason someone is "difficult." Hey, it might make you smarter trying to figure it out. But the next time s/he complains about how much she hates her job, her boss, or the company she works for, be a pal and encourage her to find a different job. Then everyone wins.

Next:  Part II, Supervising a difficult co-worker

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Accepting my mother

A year ago this week I left Central Florida to go to Northern Indiana to help my siblings manage my mother's death. I spent a week listening to her labored breathing, listening for that last breath   signalling a peaceful end to a long, hard life. We protected her in death, she was never alone until she...was. When she took that final breath four of her seven children were standing sentinel at the four corners of her bed. She had to leave us, because we were not about to leave her.

My mother was always important to me, always a key figure in my development. She was not the perfect mother, but how many of us are? I think that might be an unrealistic expectation; a childish fantasy.
I decided long ago to cut her some slack.

If I held her responsible for all my neuroses I would never have a chance at overcoming them on my own. I would never grow up. But then again, my mother was never a monster. I wonder if it is even possible to accept the shortcomings of a mother who actually tries to do her children harm?  It is easier to forgive ignorance than it is to forgive meanness.

In many ways my Mom
was the typical woman and mother of her working class, Midwestern U.S.A. milieu. Those mothers from Tim Brokaw's Greatest Generation did not pay close attention to their children's psychological well-being. For them, knowing right from wrong was simple, they did not think overmuch about the gray areas.

Things changed in the 1960's, and I don't think t
he older generations ever understood how complex and challenging the world became for their children. I have spent my whole life trying to figure out right from wrong, often making it up as I go along. For better or worse, that sort of moral confusion was a foreign concept to my mother.

She tried to be a good person.
Sometimes she fell short, but overall she was kind and good. She could also be quirky and stubborn. I liked that part of her the best. She loved her family in a simple, casual way. However, it has been neither simple nor casual letting her go.

I think my mother's best maternal quality was that she accepted her children for who we were as children and for who we became as adults. In retrospect, that was huge. She trusted love. Not many of my friends' mothers were so accepting. And with seven strong-willed (and very different) baby-boomer children that couldn't have been easy.

Easter 1953