Fixed at the Edges but Broken at the Centre

The past few weeks have been some of the most difficult in my working life, and the show is set to continue, during a year that is extremely heavy on conference and meeting schedules. I am heading my small unit as Officer-in-Charge, while management makes a final decision in the recruitment process of my future boss, the new head of the unit.

The workload has been unreal, and my team are some slackers, to put it mildly. Some of them will not do an ounce of extra work without the incentive of overtime. Meanwhile I am doing double my usual quota of work in addition to the admin I am saddled with since October.

Through this, I have attended to my own waxing and waning aspirations at work. I oscillated between wanting the vacant position of chief of unit, and dreading the prospect of it. As I mentioned earlier, by all reckoning I am the only one in my small team who is willing to put in the extra work and go the extra mile. The rest are in it for their own agenda. One wants a promotion to land at his feet when I become the chief, and the others just want things to carry on as slack as ever while cashing in on the overtime.

One afternoon, they even decided to leave the office and work from home for the rest of a Saturday meeting shift without checking with me. On that day I was in and out of the office several times, dealing with one problem after the next with my son, who needed to attend a compulsory school open day, then came back from it with an upset stomach. When I finally settled my child’s ailment, I came back to find an empty office two hours before official shift end. I wrote an email to the typing team leader reprimanding her on leaving the office, and while I copied only my immediate supervisor, she went on to escalate the matter to the several heads of the Department, questioning my own lack of reporting to my subordinates on my whereabouts.

Fools have the biggest egos, and I have to manage a small incompetent team where each member has a huge sense of entitlement, whereas I have none myself. It looks like I am not even entitled enough to become their boss. I did not have enough ego to sell myself to the selection panel for the Chief’s post. Perhaps my inner dread at managing this exasperating and frustrating team sabotaged my chances at landing the job. In short I failed the interview, even though I was the top scorer on the technical part of the recruitment test. It is true that I barely make the cut in terms of the years of experience required, but the job was within reach. I have been doing it for six month already during the heaviest workload I have seen in three years, so perhaps it is my intuitive side that did not really want it.

While I was initially disappointed at my failure to grab the chance for a promotion, my feelings finally settled into a sense of relief. The battle is far from over and I have some of the heaviest challenges ahead as officer in charge, but failing at them is no longer such a big deal, because at least now I can plead that the responsibility is above my grade-level. I can allow myself to fail now, and this has eased my sense of dread considerably, especially as my stint as officer in charge might lengthen at least three more months into the future. It is going to be a marathon, not a sprint and I might as well conserve my efforts. And I should follow the example of my slacker team on this one, since I am not getting paid for the extra responsibility.

You would think that with all this going in my life I would have little time to ruminate over my other emotional problems, You would be wrong. There is always time for a little bit of heartache. When I led my team to finishing a successful meeting, and as I came down from the adrenaline rush of delivering all those documents on time to the participants and member states, there was a piece of me that missed a kind word, from the man I loved. He used to text me at the end of my night shift to check on me. The memory of this would lead me again to remember all those little moments of kindness and caring that he showed. My rational mind and my wounded heart would then start again on their well-trodden circular path of an argument that leads nowhere. My mind would tell me it was just normal and natural kindness and my heart would deny this and try to articulate what each small gesture felt like, and how they were all perceived, as part of something bigger, even before he or I were aware of them as such.

Another day in the morning I was sitting at my usual spot nursing my heartache. I wrote about it in my notebook. I was feeling blue because I had conjured him the night before in a dream. In the dream we just walked together and sat on the steps of my old college in my country of birth. I think we held hands as we walked but no further intimacies were shared. I reflected on this earlier as I was drifting into wakefulness. My brain has no reference to what it would feel like to be intimately close to someone I love so much, so I cannot recreate it, not even in a dream.

I once told him that seeing him, even from afar, is enough to bring my day off balance. But apparently even the thought or image of him, in wakefulness or asleep, does the same. In my notebook I wrote: How do I get over someone I carry within me? And that question made me weep. A Kenyan colleague I never met before stopped on her way to a morning walk, and we talked. I told her my story, and in the telling the loss and the pain intensified and became even more real. I must remember this too. I should never share it outside of paper, and cyberspace, as it will just grow and fill whatever empty space was left for my breath. I went to the office with red and swollen eyes, but at least I connected with a kindly soul.

I still walk with the pain, and on some days it is kinder on me than on others. Philosophically I try to take it as a lesson, as a teacher of endurance, patience and acceptance. If it weren’t for surviving my suffering of the past 20 months, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with the pressure and adversity at work. I would have crumbled under the weight of this responsibility, this grindstone I am carrying around my neck. Today, thanks to my training on the endurance of pain, I am still upright, and still planning on going the distance, like a marathon runner. I say to myself that being here has fixed me at the extremities but broke me at the centre, in my heart. My consolation is that a broken heart feels keener compassion for a broken world. No regrets.

A Working Mom’s Guilt Trip

Today was the last of the spring break. I mostly spent time with my son, looking after several outstanding issues, taking him for a dental and doctor checkups and putting our home in order. I have only ventured near the office on Sunday, the last day of the month, to put in a last translation to boost my average for the month of March.

That afternoon I had taken some good friends from the office out to lunch. We marked the 2nd anniversary of my arrival in New York, and my confirmed appointment as permanent staff. After lunch we walked to the office, and I took my son Robert along, thinking I will be out of there in an hour. I forgot that the office was like a black hole. It swallows all sunlight, brightness, joy and enthusiasm. So I made the mistake of reading my email, and was immediately consumed by fury at one of management ill-advised and badly thought out plans.

It seems that we in the lower ranks need a little more mental stimulation, never mind that we barely cope with the workload. Therefore we need to get excited about collectively reviewing the Arabic terminology database, by order of management. It should be noted that we the little people were singled out for the task, the seniors were excluded from it, although they are the ones who supposedly correct our work, and set us straight with terminology. There were many more problems with the division of labor, as the letters of the alphabet were considered all equal (or almost equal). This means that one colleague has to check the WHOLE section starting with Q, while letter sections like A and S were simply split down the middle between unhappy colleagues. One particularly unlucky (or unloved) person ended up with the chunk starting with P on his own, maybe seeing that p and q can simply be mirror images from each other. This review is done in addition to, and in parallel with, the work done by dedicated terminology staff, and I would not even try to explain the unwieldy process we are required to follow in order to mark the records needing reviews.

One of my good friends at the office has this brilliant strategy of just working through his task and not checking any emails until he has finished his allotted work for the day. This is something I should try, because normally if it is urgent someone would phone. Email is for less urgent stuff, or the downright annoying bickering. After reading this email, I was stuck in the warp of indignation, righteous anger and the need to vent. I started reviewing it with some of the colleagues who also showed up to work on Easter Sunday. I made tables and rebuttals, showing how badly planned this whole thing was, and soon it was night-time. My poor son was keeping busy on his tablet, making drawings, designing posters, playing the ukulele and generally being an angel. When I finally turned to the work I was supposed to do in the first place it was past his bedtime. I walked with him out of the office after ten. Throughout the hours we spent in that cave, he never complained, and although he asked to go home half a dozen times, he never raised a fuss when I told him I had to finish what I was doing.

Robert’s maturity on Sunday night broke my heart and made me regret that I made him suffer my office for so many hours, when we should be doing something more fun instead. We had walked three blocks away from the office when I realized that I left my USB key on my desk, and I said: “Oh I forgot my USB”. Robert said: “Mommy we can go back if you want”. I cried when I heard him say that. No matter how hard I try, I can never be free of working-mom guilt.  Sunday night as I registered the delivery of my document, I did not feel my usual sense of accomplishment at a job well-done, there was only the bitter taste of guilt. I felt a lot of resentment against a workplace that causes me to be unfair on my son. A lesson learned from my past, however, is that I can never influence the politics of the workplace, I can only change my reaction and attitude towards it, maybe I should ignore work emails and half-baked plans. Concentrate instead on my own plans, and on my growing son.

Life in the Hobbit Hole

In our office there is no coffee machine for the workers to gather around. There is a tiny kitchen where we occasionally meet while depositing salad in the fridge or washing  yesterday’s coffee out of our mugs. What we do is mostly a solitary activity, save for some team-building communications that serve the exact opposite, or email exchanges on terminology that keep going for weeks.

We also meet sometimes at the hub of the activity the office of programming where the documents are distributed, then each of us heads up (or down) into our individual Hobbit Holes, as a good-humored colleague quite aptly named our office cubicles. Some brilliant genius thought that translators really need peace and quiet to enhance their productivity, so they mercilessly partitioned the floors of our office block into open working areas for typists and small windowless individual boxes for translators; we do not need sunlight anyways, it will hurt our poor eyes. So we sit in these caves and translate the world’s bumbling bureaucracy into equally baffling Arabic. We are encouraged to translate ambiguity with ambiguity, because the original is most likely intentionally ambiguous. Yet, when an Arab delegate picks up a document he cannot make heads or tails out of, it will certainly be the translator’s fault. So is our life, we bottom feeders.

Nobody really cares about the lowly translator. The interpreters often get the limelight. Their triumphs (and mistakes) are broadcast on national television. Ours are relegated to the gods of filing and archive, forgotten until they are once dug up, to be passed around for the mirth and amusement of other colleagues. It is about the only pleasure we get, to laugh off mistakes, horrible rendering, or gaffes of mistranslation. Because there is little pleasure in rendering utilitarian text. I always wondered whether two years of translating them has made my Arabic writing better or worse, I am not sure.

In-house translators are not too visible. They are perceived to be highly tolerant of crap coming their way, linguistic and otherwise. Therefore the high echelons of management gave us these terrible offices; out of sight of the main campus of our organization, we will also stay out of mind, so management hopes. I have been in this tomb of an office for almost two years now, and to add insult to injury there is a demolition going on next door to our building. They mailed us tenants back in November (or December) to tell us that the demolition will take 6-8 Weeks. Well, it has been almost 12 Weeks now, and they are still going at it full-blast with cranes and jack-hammers. The combination of noise, dust, vibrations and gloom is quite nerve-racking. Last week, I needed to run outside the building, I felt close to a panic attack.  We on the  lower floors are most affected, by dust, low light and noise. Apparently the former director of our section wanted the lower floors, because the lifts weren’t reliable, and so we suffer the consequences.

I have decorated my office space, and tried to bring in some color to the gloom.  Pictures of my son, and some of his artwork to remind me why I have to keep working. Pictures of Africa and a map of South Africa to remind me of where I want to be. I have also opted out of the institutional fluorescent lighting and brought a yellow indirect light. One of my colleagues invested several hundred dollars in buying noise-cancelling headphones, I still cannot justify this type of expense, so I put up with this noisy hell-hole. Another colleague found the solution to escape to a higher floor. She works in an open plan area at a different section. I may still follow her example.

For this week though I am giving myself and the Hobbit Hole a break. I am off  with my son for the Easter Break.




Paper Men (and women)

Don’t you just hate it when you ask something relatively simple and doable from  your superiors at work and then they start quoting you the “rules” , the Employment Act and proper procedures ? Meanwhile you know and they know that rules and procedures are elastic and that they have frequently transgressed those or blatantly threw them to the wayside whenever some minor interest of the corporation was at  stake.

I had this experience many times, therefore I was not surprised when I asked my superiors a few days ago to retrench me and got NO for an answer. I just knew that they wouldn’t do it because of the way they started citing the rules. Basically it does not change a thing, I am still going to leave this company, but it would have afforded me a little better shot-term financial benefits.

I have mixed feelings at the end of my road with this corporation. I am frightened, relieved and elated, all at the same time. I might miss the benefits and suffer the lack of funds for some time,  but I definitely will not miss the office politics. I will not miss the rules and regulations that are taylor-made to restrict and obsturct the employees. I will not miss the paper trail recording everything from minor mistakes to a few minutes of late-coming. I will not miss having to explain sick days or the reason why I wanted a particular day off. And most of all I will not miss the paper men and women who think that forms and signatures will help enforcing a collection of mindless rules. They don’t! They only teach people to sign whateve stupid idea their bosses come up with thus creating more and more “paper” men (and women).

I only have to put up with all this for another four weeks. My resignation was handed in today.

Why Some Women Are Not Management Material

Being a woman myself, I say this with some regret. However, I do realise that sometimes we do not have the right temperament to lead people, and I am one of the biggest offenders.
The months I spent managing Alex Motors are a case in point. Dealing with the demands of around 20 staff members was a constant strain; it drained me physically and emotionally.
I am happy to admit that I am not management material. My absolute limit would be perhaps supervising five people, but to be honest I am most content when I only work to the limits of my own incompetence.

The staff at Alex Motors might have considered me a humane and benevolent manager, but most of the times I was weak and could not offer them the strength of leadership they needed; I stood shoulder to shoulder with them, leading from the flanks rather than the command position. My biggest fault was getting my emotions tangled in the employee’s problems, applying my own reasoning to these problems and getting exasperated when their behaviour came short and did not measure up to my principles.
In effect I placed an unnecessary burden on myself; I tried to manage and correct people’s lives for them when it was only necessary to deal with their working performance.
By the same token, I did not succeed in detaching myself emotionally from the working environment, I was troubled by the staff’s mistakes and shortcomings, because I judged them by my own standards. I also could not handle crisis, and flew of f the handle at the first sign of trouble or mishap. In short I was a reactionary and emotional leader, not at all a calm and collected trouble-shooter.

Today I was on the receiving end of the exact same type of behaviour. My days as a manager are long passed, and I am happy now to be a simple employee, one of many pegs in a giant wheel, doing a singularly unspectacular job.
Admittedly, the query I raised with management today was not of great importance. It was a whinge, basically pointing out a minor hitch in planning the allocation of break time for the agents on the floor. What I did not expect was the vehement reaction I got. The answer was simply that the planning was not perfect, and we the employees should take the initiative and fix things amongst ourselves.
I am afraid that this type of argument does appease me. These people work so hard to elevate themselves into positions of responsibility, but once they get there they try to wash their hands off the very same duties they are required to perform. I am tired of this policy of shifting responsibility downwards. I am sitting here at the bottom of the food chain, the buck stops with me, when I bungle up there is nobody to squirm or hide behind; I am simply instructed to make a statement explaining myself. Furthermore, my mistakes will directly influence my performance bonus. Meanwhile the people supervising and evaluating me, keep making the same mistakes over and over again; they mess up working schedules, shift plans, break allocations and pay cheques, and we here at the bottom are supposed to grin and bear it, no we should even take the initiative to correct their mistakes.
All these thoughts went through my head, but of course there was no way I could escape with my skin intact had I given voice to them.
I simply pointed out to the duty “manager” that even small inconsistencies should be communicated to admin, because otherwise they will be totally out of touch with the working procedures and problems on the floor. I added that there were already some people on the floor who feel that admin has no clue anymore about the actual operations here.
When I finished my sentence, the woman in question jumped up as if bitten by snake, made a snap decision of rescheduling my break, crossing out the previous scheduling for the day and arbitrarily putting in a new one, then she stormed out towards who knows where.
I was shocked at receiving this reaction, but on further reflection I realised that I was not a stranger to it. Here was another reactionary manger flying off the handle for no reason at all, when it would have sufficed if she just said: Thanks for bringing this to our attention, I will forward it on to the relevant parties.

People in positions have to realise that most of their work will be fielding questions and dealing with staff. We are human too, occasionally there will be complaints and whinges, and sometimes people will give substandard performances or not perform at all. However, it does not serve the organisation at all if the leaders jump into the fray and get themselves involved. No general jumps into battle to save one of his soldiers. A leader has to stay in control, keep a cool head at all times. Yes, it is not easy to deal with the constant flow of complaints, whinges and failures of your people, but unfortunately it comes with the property and if you can’t take the heat then stay out of the kitchen.

Leadership is an art and a discipline, it is a skill that can be honed with experience and training. However, I get the feeling that men are more capable of perfecting it than women. Women take ownership, while men take responsibility. And taking ownership is by far the more painful route to management; it implies deeper personal involvement and opens a person up to disappointment. Taking responsibility on the other hand is a more sober approach, since it excludes or limits the emotional involvement.
Taking responsibility can be done with the cool reasoning of the head, while taking ownership is a personal cruisade and a battle of the heart.
Having said that, I still believe that women can make good managers with the correct training and discipline, and if they can learn to put aside emotions and motherly instincts, but I also know that neither myself nor my duty manager today can quite cut it.