Something happened at work the other day that took me back more than a decade, to my first job in Manhattan, and my first management role.
At the time I was working in the production department for a small publishing company near the Flatiron Building. I didn?t like the work: I didn?t like the company. But I was getting paid, and it was a start. Beyond the daily boredom of my job, which primarily involved database management, I operated in a small supervisory capacity, but only now and agaiSomething happened at work the other day that took me back more than a decade, to my first job in Manhattan, and my first management role.
At the time I was working in the production department for a small publishing company near the Flatiron Building. I didn?t like the work: I didn?t like the company. But I was getting paid, and it was a start. Beyond the daily boredom of my job, which primarily involved database management, I operated in a small supervisory capacity, but only now and again. We only needed extra help from time to time, so my supervisory position was inconsistent. But the dynamics of the room I was in created a slightly more complex situation.
My desk was flush against another facing desk, so I shared a mid-sized room with the other guy, who faced me, and about a half-dozen temps. The other guy?who we?ll call Ron?was in a slightly different role, and supervised the temps on a more regular basis, and more directly. But if I needed something done, I had some authority over the temps.
The problem?as it turned out?wasn?t the dynamics of the room. The problem was me. I 25 then, and though I?d been working steady since I was 12?paper route, temping, bartending, waiting tables?and had done my student teaching by then, having been responsible for about 150 students?I had very little experience working in an office, and it showed. Part of it had to do with the fact that I hated the work and it was a lousy company, but mostly it had to with the fact that I was still immature in some regards, and hadn?t learned?or accepted?that the way an office actually worked wasn?t quite the same as how I thought it should work. And I wasn?t particularly adept at making my peace with it.
On this one day, I was deep in the throws of the project I was working on; it was deadline time. It was tedious work, and I had to concentrate. And the work had to get done. Had to. But the room was filled with temps?mostly young college kids?and as was the case on most days, we had the radio playing, and people were chatting and whatnot. On any other day, I wouldn?t have cared. But I had to focus, and the noise was distracting.
So I stood up and announced?sternly?that I needed to have quiet. I don?t think I was a jerk about it, but it was clear I wasn?t fooling around. It was work time, and that was that. I saw a few looks of mini-shock, and maybe some annoyance, but everybody did as I asked and kept pretty quiet. Okay. Fair enough. Now I?m working.
And then …
My phone rings. It?s a friend of mine, and he wants to chew the fat and talk about plans for the weekend. I?m already wound up, stressed from my deadlines, and these words are about to come out of my mouth: ?Hey, dude. Love to chat, but I can?t. I?m on a deadline. I?ll call you back tonight.?
If only I?d actually said them.
Instead, in my mind, I thought, hey, everybody was already chatting and listening to music, and I could use a break, so okay. Now?s a good time. I need to let off some steam.
And so I spent the next 20 or 30 minutes blabbering away about this and that?but certainly not working. After my chatting I got right back to it, locked in on what I had to do. It was difficult work, which took another few days, but ultimately it got done.
Fast-forward about a month and Ron comes up to me in the kitchen. I say something about the fact that one of the temps, a young college student I?d been flirting with and had agreed to go out with me, was now blowing me off. He explained why.
Ron told me that during that deadline day a month earlier, when I needed quiet, and was forceful about it, the temps understood. They didn?t like it, but they accepted it, and respected that I needed to do what I needed to do. But once I took that phone call, I lost them. Completely. They hated me after that, even though I hadn?t quite noticed.
I asked Ron why he hadn?t said something to me earlier. Had he pointed it out, I would have owned up to what I had done, and maybe I could have salvaged myself a little. He didn?t say anything just then. Of course, I was looking for someone to blame for my blunder; I was looking for an out.
Still, I thought we were good enough friends that he would have told me that the whole room hated me, and constantly talked about me behind my back, but I guess not. It also cleared up our relationship after that.
My point, however, is that I learned?the hard way?what now seems fairly obvious: If I want to ask?or demand?certain behavior from others, I have to do the same myself. (Why I didn?t already know and practice this is a discussion for another time).
It?s this earlier incident which brings me to just the other day.
We have a pretty nice group at my office overall these days, and at one point or another there?s usually some chatter about sports or movies, and I encourage it. We?re together 40 to 50 hours a week. It can?t all be about work. And I?m an active participant in these chats?when I think the time is right, and in moderation.
So there I was, just a few days ago, and I?m on another deadline. I work in publishing, so deadlines are par for the course. But this is a tough one, as my responsibilities are particularly significant these days?including being upper middle management of a large staff. The clock?s ticking and I really need to focus and concentrate, but from just a few feet away I hear some chit-chat about the Mets and their pitching, and who hit a homer off of who the night before.
Just hearing their voices?and the chatter being about sports; i.e., not work?got my blood boiling. This was work time only?in my mind?and work should have been on everybody?s mind, too. Because of the intense stress I was under, I was pretty humorless just then, and had an impulse to be righteous and indignant about what?s appropriate at work.
But I didn?t.
I reminded myself that, had I not been on deadline, and a brutal one at that, I might very well have been in the middle of that very conversation, just as I had been in a similar conversation earlier that day. And when I thought back to my phone blunder a decade earlier, I knew that I should either ask?respectfully and with explanation?for a little quiet, or else just let it go.
Which I did.
Being in charge of other people is rarely easy. But regardless of the circumstance, I have to always remember that I can?t expect others to just conform to my inner struggles. It?s my job to make good, rational and reasonable decisions at all times, keeping in mind that my problems are just that?my problems. And if I want the ongoing respect of those who report to me, I have to earn it every day. Sure, I get a little wiggle room in the long haul, but ultimately, they?re watching and listening all the time.
The challenge is filtering any of my inner turmoil before I speak or act, remembering that if I make demands of others, I?d better do the same myself. Respect is difficult to gain; it?s easy to lose.
I like to think I?ve come a long way since that telephone day, and I try to treat everyone I supervise with the ongoing goals of helping them succeed at their current projects, while improving overall as professionals.
It?s my favorite part of the job. And also the most difficult.