Believe and Obey

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The Nature & Rise of Real Relationships

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A Tale of Corporate Realities

In my work experience I have encountered some of the brightest and most engaging people I have ever met.  I have been fortunate to have worked for and reported to some amazingly talented people.  On the other hand, I have worked for, how shall I put this to be charitable?  Some amazingly controlling people.  This is a tale of one such controlling guy.

Every workplace has its own culture and vibe.  When I was in the financial services world (see my “Wholesale Ripoff” series for the dark side of this) I worked for an insurance company that had a young, vibrant, often slightly inappropriate, frequently besotted sales culture.  It was, despite, or because of (I am not certain) a successful sales environment.  The genuinely good thing about this culture was that for the most part everyone accepted everyone else for who and what they were.  People just took you as is, and we all got along well, working toward a common goal.

Now I am a bit OCD in the way I go about my work tasks.  I am a process driven person, and while I have no real need to control others, I do chafe at being controlled.  This is particularly true regarding the minutiae of my workday.  This is the way I performed best in interacting with my boss, as well as team members, and any who reported to me.

In my role on the sales desk at this insurance company, I was on the phone all day.  All I needed on my desk was my three-ring binder (my “war book” of essential product information), my phone, and my computer.  And that was all I had on my desk…literally.  No pictures of my family, none of the trophies I had been awarded, no personal items of any kind.  When I went home, I put my binder away and it looked like no one worked there, because, in fact when I was gone, no one did.  All of this satisfied my sense of order, and control and helped me to be successful in my work.

I was successful enough as the anally retentive, OCD guy on the sales desk, that I interacted quite well with my teammates.  My desk was often a gathering place for discussion, both business, and otherwise.  No one felt uncomfortable, or unwelcome coming to me for help.  I hit my sales numbers and was even honored by my peers as “team member of the year”.  I achieved enough success that I won promotion to a managerial role, all while being “that guy” who had absolutely nothing on his desk.  Everyone who knew me accepted that and I accepted them and the way they went about their business.  When asked why I did not have pictures of my family on my desk, I would respond that I knew what they looked like, and you animals did not need to.  A laugh ensued and it was all good.  All good enough for the head of the department to actively push for my promotion.

Now For a Sterile Kind of Relationship

All was good until I got that promotion and reported to a different kind of boss.  Let’s just say he put the micro in micromanagement.  Now, he was well intentioned enough, but was frankly a controlling kind of individual.  He wanted things done according to his values, even if that cut directly against the personality types of others.  His attitude is not an uncommon one in the business world, just an unfortunate one.

Keep in mind I had achieved promotion all while being the anal guy with nothing on his desk, and that this fact had not damaged any of the positive relationships I had developed with my workmates.  So, I kept to that regime in my new role.  My desk was blank, except for what I was working on, what I absolutely needed.   It was fine for my new teammates, but not my new boss.

One day he called me into his office for a sit-down.  Immediately I noticed that his office was bare.  I noticed this because a bare office was not who he was.  So, I asked if he was moving offices.  He then proceeded to unpack a box of personal mementos and explain in excruciatingly dreary detail what each of these items meant to him in his life.  Please note that I am not creative enough to be able to make any of this shit up! It was a conversation I in no way asked to be a part of but could not escape.  The “point” he claimed, was to show me that one needed to express oneself with these kinds of mementos to facilitate the growth of relationships.  So, I had better get with the program and get some of these items in and around my desk.  He was demanding that I have some “flair” about me.  All who have seen the movie Office Space will know what I mean.

I know when I see a hill not to die on, and this was one.  I dutifully got on the corporate swag web site and ordered, at the company’s expense, my “37 pieces of flair”.  I festooned my workspace with all manner of anodyne corporate logoed crap.  Not surprisingly this satisfied my all too shallow boss.  He had won his victory.  Or had he?

The Rise of Real Relationships

Had I let this micromanager get to me he would have won a “victory”, pyrrhic though it would have been.  I decided not to let him win the war.  I proceeded to tell my team members what he had done, and what I had done in response.  They all nodded because they had previously been his direct reports before I was promoted.  We had a nice laugh at his expense.  One of what would be many such laughs.

The point of all this telling of corporate nonsense is that the path to “relationships” that my then boss pointed toward was sterile, false, and ultimately self-defeating.  People see through that kind of performative bullshit and can sense when someone is not who they say they are.    If I had put up the corporate flair without telling my teammates the truth, they would have seen it as a shallow attempt of me to be a corporate kiss ass.  Instead, we all laughed at the mandatory flair that was erected at the company’s expense and went on to building real relationships.

Real relationships, of course, are developed organically, and over time.  They do not happen overnight and are based ultimately on trust.  Trust is an investment that takes a while to bear fruit, but when it does it is truly a joyous thing.  Happily, my relationships with my teammates did develop into a high trust relationship that paid off not simply in terms of business performance but in genuine respect for one another.

This is true even in business relationships.  True, you don’t really control who you work with, and much of the environment is based on decisions made by higher ups, that you have no control over.  Nonetheless, you can control the way you interact with those with whom you work.  You can recognize that you have shared goals, and values, and need each other to achieve those goals.  You learn to respect the way others are made and tolerate everyone’s foibles and uniqueness.  No mandatory flair needed.  Our team understood that, and we lived it out in the way we worked together and grew together as teammates.  We were not best buddies or hung out after hours, but we enjoyed each other’s company, respected each other’s talents, and cooperatively helped each other to achieve our business goals, all while having a bit of fun in the process.

As in all relationships each party is changed, at least a bit.  They came to accept that I was generally a no flair kind of guy.  For my part, I did become a bit of a flair kind of guy.  I was graciously given many such articles based upon our shared experiences together in the land of cubicle farms and death by spreadsheet combat.  For example, my “Supervisor Swimming Pool”, a jar filled with pennies.  This contrasted with the dollar bill swimming pools we were certain upper management swam in back in California.

I am not going to tell too much of what we shared as a team.  The rule was what happens in team meetings stays there.  I will share one “secret”.  Since they gave me a plaque in honor of my lifetime achievement of this status when I left the company, it is not much of a secret.  I was given a Lifetime Achievement Award as a “Slack Ass Lazy Bastard”.  Every week we gave out, informally, amongst ourselves of course, a ‘Slack Ass Lazy Bastard Award” to the person in the company that week who had gone above and beyond the call of duty to not do the job for which they were paid.  It was our humorous way to vent about, and deal with organizational incompetence.  It is moments such as these upon which real relationships are built.  I am happy to say that I still have that plaque on display, along with the other items my teammates gave me on display in my home office today.

Real Relationships as a Survival Technique

The takeaway here is that working toward, and allowing real, genuine relationships to organically form, based on mutual respect, and frankly the Golden Rule is not only a joyful way to go through life, but it is also a survival technique.  We will all face the micromanagers that I did (although I hope for your sakes not as micro as that guy).  The question is how do we survive the assault upon our sanity?  You do it by ignoring, and or circumventing the bullshit, and build, and cling to real relationships, and the joy and success they can bring you.  Remember that “this too shall pass”, but what will not pass is the way people make you feel when you are with them, and the way you make them feel.  That is permanent, as it should be.

Praise Be to God

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