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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Attitude is Everything, or the Truth About My Workplace Leadership, Part V

These little rants are written as though to various elements of my workplace leadership.  If you want to know more, look up part I.


By now, you've figured out that when you pulled me over for a half-hour talk about my "negative attitude," it made me mad. I admit it: it made me really mad.  When you, first, told me that I had a negative attitude, and then that it made me come across as condescending and even mean, there was so much more going on in my mental background than you could have possibly been aware of, even had you cared--which I am convinced you never would have.

You see, I have occasionally heard something of the sort ever since I was a kid. And over the years, I have become painfully, bitterly aware of some things that tend to lead to the accusations.  And I struggle to deal with them--far more than you know.

Some of what I am about to say is going to come across as awfully self-congratulatory.  I am truly sorry.  If I could explain this without doing so, I would.

Let me say also that over the last few posts, I feel almost as though I have been swimming in a cesspool.  I do not like complaining about this stuff. A very large part of me is fully aware that hardly anyone listens to complaints.  And it's not like you'll ever see or hear this. I'm posting this anonymously in the blogosphere partly to vent, so that I can express what I think without erupting all over you and any innocent bystanders.

I am tired of keeping silent about it all.  You people drive me nuts.

Okay, let's start:

I became aware when I was very, very young that many people around me reacted very negatively to my vocabulary.  It wasn't that I said bad things; it was, simple as it sounds, that I routinely used words they simply weren't familiar with.  Every kid gets called names, of course. I claim no unusual experiences in that regard. The kinds of names I was called were those intended to make me feel freakish and to take me down a peg. Naturally, I often responded in kind, calling people things intended to make them feel stupid.  And it worked, much of the time.

By the time I was in junior high, it wasn't all that unusual for someone to either pick on me or threaten to do so.  And when I got the chance, I took up Taekwon-do.  It didn't take too many reverse punches to people's solar plexi before people stopped picking on me.

I wasn't mature enough to realize that people don't like feeling stupid and a much easier way to solve the problem would have been just to go to some trouble not to intellectually intimidate people, to make them understand at the outset that I valued them as human beings regardless of their intelligence. I just got a reputation for sarcasm and rudeness--probably well-deserved.

But in my defense, much of the time I wasn't trying to make people feel stupid.  They just had the misfortune to be in the same class with the kid with the huge vocabulary and who made easy As.  And by the time I was in my early 20s, I had begun to appreciate people who didn't have the same set of gifts I had--I had been in the Marine Corps Reserves, I had worked in industrial environments, I had worked in the fast-food business.  As a matter of fact, in probably the one really positive experience I had in fast-food management, I went to a seminar and the guy leading asked what, in retrospect, was a really obvious question: "Are you getting the results you want using the methods you're using?"

Well, no.  And I began to make a conscious effort to change the way I interacted with people. And it was about that time that I began to realize what a "bad attitude" was.

I had a district manager at the time that occasionally used the term, and one day, after he said, "Well, so-and-so just has a bad attitude," I asked him, "Rick, I hear you use that term from time to time, and I'm never sure just what you mean.  Could you tell me what you mean by 'bad attitude'?"

And he said, "Anything that's not good for the company."

By that time, I had learned not to respond with the obvious: "By that definition, a gas explosion under company headquarters is a 'bad attitude.'"  I just took it to mean that "bad attitude" means whatever management wants it to mean.  It is a universal label that doesn't really mean anything except they don't like something about that guy. He may not be doing anything wrong.  The only way to guard against being labeled as having a "bad attitude" is to pretend enthusiasm for everything management says, no matter how insane or stupid. Kind of like how I behave around you, my company's leadership.

"Negative" attitude is a little different.  It wasn't until I had spent some time in sales, and, yes, some time in this job before I began to understand that one--or those two, I should say, for there are at least two kinds of "negative" attitude.  You see, salespeople spend most of their time hearing, "No!"  If they let it sink in, they're sunk, so to speak. They won't be able to work up the nerve to pick up the phone one more time.  So they--and many managers, too--have a certain psychological investment in pretending that everything is okay, and if anyone around them punctures the illusion, they therefore discount that person's opinion as "negative."

And then there's the kind of "negative" attitude that I occasionally get tarred as having.  It's a little different.  You see, as I mentioned earlier, I began to realize in my early twenties that people don't like feeling stupid, and to go to some trouble not to make them feel that way.

But by my mid-forties, the problem had grown, in some respects, rather more difficult to handle.

Have you ever heard the term "personal presence?"  You could say that it is the amount of psychological space a person takes up in the room.  And by my mid-forties, my personal presence had grown enough to be a problem for some people. It mystified me in one way; I had made so many mistakes and errors of judgment in my life that I certainly didn't occupy an exalted position in life, certainly didn't have an outsized income or lifestyle.  But what I did find was that I had read and retained so much, had seen so much of life, had interacted with so many people, and--yes, acquired a fair amount of physical self-confidence, that is, I had pretty much lost any fear that someone might be able to beat me up if they didn't like what I said, that some people just couldn't handle it. My presence in the room could be overwhelming for some people.  Some people liked it--those are the people that automatically assumed that I was the leader.  Others...not so much.

One time, a church member of whom I was actually quite fond actually stepped backwards from me and turned her head away.  "What's wrong?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know. You just intimidate me so much."

Really. I thought I was being gentle as a lamb.

As this kind of thing has become unintentionally easier and easier for me, often unconsciously easier, I have really worked hard to be gentle and unthreatening.  It doesn't always work, of course, but it usually does.  Pretty much the only time I ever have a problem is when there is something else at work, something about which I can do nothing.

That is usually when I have to say no.

I have to say that more and more often.  It is not my fault.  We have been getting more and more clients who are utterly dependent on government for every aspect of their existence.  You will say that my saying this is more evidence of my negative attitude, but the reality is that for every person who is on the dole through no fault of his own, there are three who are on it for pretty obvious reasons and a lot of these people have what is popularly known as an "entitlement attitude" and know how to play the system to get their way.  And oh, they will do it.  They won't hesitate.

So when you send me to these people to "assess" (as an aside: you do not know how to spell "assess."  You keep spelling it "access.") their equipment and situations, often knowing full well, in advance, that they are full of squeeze, that you are sending me solely so you can say that you sent the expert, and I have to tell them, "No, that won't work," "No, that's totally inappropriate for your needs," "No, no insurance or government program in the world will pay for that," "No, your equipment is in a perfectly usable state," well...they don't like it.  And sometimes they will call up and swear that I was mean to them.  And you will say, "Well, what did he say to you?"  And they--like clockwork!--reply that it wasn't what I said, it was how I said it. Short of lying through their teeth, what else are they going to say?  As I keep saying, I go to extraordinary lengths to keep from being rude!

Then you take into account the comments from the dementia-ridden, the drug-addled, the hard-of-hearing, and the stir-crazy, couple it all with the fact that you are yourself intimidated by me and constantly feel the need to take me down a peg, and--bam!--there you go. I have a "negative attitude."

I can't begin to express how galling it was to be accused of having a "negative attitude" by a man who's been known to slam down and break keyboards in a fit of rage, who's been known to holler at little old ladies, who will go beet-red in the face at the slightest provocation.

But--almost three weeks ago now!--after that little talk, I made up my mind how I am going to handle clients--and you--in the future.  I am going to make you say no.  I am going to go into these situations and make it clear that I want to help and get them what they want, but there are some things only my boss can approve--and I'm going to call you up right on the spot and humbly ask you, with the client listening, whether you will approve it or not.  If you say no, the client's reaction is your problem. If you say yes, it likely means more time on the clock for me.

So far, it's been working like a charm and you haven't even picked up on what's going on.  You're such a control freak you've been taking it as confirmation that you are the boss.

Playing you like a fiddle, m'man, playing you like a fiddle.

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