Earlier this week I received a real letter from a real reader of this column. (No, seriously.)
This reader’s problem was common enough. After having spent years working in a great job he loved, with a boss he adored, suddenly this reader’s work-life had been turned upside down. His boss quit. And was replaced by a new chap.
The reader wrote to me that he hated this new chap. Hated him. And not just the reader, but several other colleagues who reported to this new chap as well. And why did they loathe this new fellow so much?
“All he is worried about is sucking up to the top management,” the reader wrote. The guy, it turned out, is a posterior-licker sans compare.
We all know what happens to a team when the leader is an inveterate sucker-upper: moving goal posts, meaningless deadlines, projects that make no sense and respect no social lives…
Lots of his team members had started to quit and this reader was considering doing the same thing. “Should I quit as well? What do you think I should do?” he asked via email.
Mind you, this is not a particularly uncommon problem. Throughout human history, from Marcus Junius Brutus to L.K. Advani, subordinates have had problems with their superiors that have driven them to take desperate measures.
I thought about it for a while, and then fired off a reply suggesting that the reader perhaps could think of having a chat with his boss about the bad blood. What if this boss has no idea that cubicle morale is wilting in the harsh light of his yesmanship?
This might not sound particularly insightful, but a lot of problems at the workplace can often be put to bed with a quick, private conversation with the offending party. A lot of cubiclists often have no idea how their work styles or decisions impact other people in the office. People at the receiving end often suffer in silence, or try to communicate their displeasure in indirect and passive-aggressive ways. Which usually only helps to make things worse. And then people quit.
After firing off the email, I began to think. And I realized that I had been more than a little hypocritical. If I was in the reader’s position, a face-to-face conversation with a tough boss would have been the last thing on my mind. I would have probably quit my job too. Or, at the very least, spent months hating my job, poisoning my state of mind, and wallowing in self-pity before…umm…quitting.
This is because I am petrified of conflict. And not just conflict. But of any kind of public or private non-conformance with people in positions of even minimal power. Forget conversations with difficult bosses. Even things like clarifying a doubt in class, disagreeing with a professor or colleague, questioning a manager’s decision, or even admitting that I disagree with the rest of the team on a collective decision all strike fear into the very bottom of my heart. I can’t even send a bad dish back at a restaurant without having a long conversation with myself in my head.
And I am pretty sure that this is true of a lot of people reading this column as well. Many of us are crippled by the prospect of difficult conversations.
Why are some of us like this? Why are some of us, otherwise of robust mind and body, incapable of even minor conflict?
My feeling is that a capacity, or incapacity, for conflict is seeded in our personalities right from childhood. I went to strict schools where there was no element of conversation or debate in our pedagogy. Someone spoke. We wrote things down. We committed things to memory. We disgorged it all during exams. I also grew up in a somewhat strict family environment where most elders were adherents to the “because I said so” school of childcare. Dialogue? Pfft.
Years later I was in awe of the rare few who dealt with conflict with panache. You know the type: people who complain about bad service, reject bad bottles of wine, demand that cabin crew serve an extra bun, actually ask questions during the “few minutes for questions from the audience”.
“Who are these people? Were their parents Vikings? Does ice water flow in their veins?” I often thought to myself as I sat in the last row, cowering in the darkness.
Since then I have got somewhat better at conflict. But this betterment was a direct outcome of getting a few promotions and leading a few teams. Subordinates tend to install a little steel into one’s backbone.
Still, sometimes I wish I was brought up with more capacity for non-conformance and less self-consciousness. I really, really wish I was one of those unbelievably hip guys who disagree in meetings and speak up to superiors. Instead of being the somewhat wimpy guy who gets palpitations, sweaty palms and red-hot ears… all just to ask for an extra day off after Onam.
Are you a shrinking violet like me? How do you cope with the workplace and life in general. Please tell us. Only if you want. No compulsions.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama