or, things are not always what they seem.
This is my coffee cup at work. I've had it for years and I use it every day.
It’s one of Gary Larson's The Far Side cartoons. I bought it for myself many years ago when I changed jobs. It seemed highly relevant to the situation I found myself it.
I’d been working in a government department for several months in a job that was boring beyond belief and where nothing much happened. The work I was doing, when there was any work, was something that could have been done by someone two or three levels below my level. It used none of the skills that I had needed to demonstrate to get into the department in the first place – writing, research and analysis, problems solving and so on.
As a result, I was bored, unmotivated and felt like I was losing my skills through lack of use. Every day my confidence in my skills and abilities decreased a little more, to the extent that I was feeling like I’d never be able to get another job at the level I was at, and that promotion was definitely out of the question.
Fortunately, the senior managers were aware of my predicament, and one day I was offered an opportunity to work in a new area that was just being set up.
Now, you’d think that this would be the chance I’d been waiting for to get the hell out of where I was. Normally this would have been the case. Except the head of the area was to be a manager who had a reputation as having zero people skills, being a demanding perfectionist, who had been known to reduce staff members to tears. I was terrified of him, and I don’t think I was the only one. Working for him was not exactly what I had in mind when I said I needed a change.
Someone had once told me that if there were people the department wanted to get rid of, they’d be sent to work with this manager, basically to push them out the door without the department doing anything. (I might add that this is an unconfirmed rumour and in no way reflects the policy of the department, which in any case no longer exists.)
So I hope my hesitation was understandable. I was pretty sure I wasn’t someone they wanted to shunt out the door. I believe that I had developed a fairly solid reputation as someone who was pretty good at their job, despite there having been limited opportunity to show that in recent months.
But the thought of spending any more time than I had to in my job, and the implications for my professional development of staying there, scared me more than going to work for this manager, so I agreed to the transfer.
I bought the coffee mug, because it was how I felt at the time.
Out of the frying pan into the fire.
It won’t surprise you to discover that the manager was nothing like his reputation suggested. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he’s one of the best managers I’ve ever had.
He managed to give me work to do that was just a bit more difficult than I thought I could do and he expected that I’d do it. And for the most part, I did. My confidence in my skills, which had taken such a beating over the previous months, returned and I started to enjoy my work again.
Yes, he was demanding. He set high standards and expected commitment from his staff. He wasn’t always easy to get along with.
And not everyone thought as highly of him as I did. Another young woman working in the area wasn’t able to live up to the manager’s high standards, due to her own particular circumstances. Unlike me, she had a very miserable time working for him.
There is a quote somewhere – I can’t remember what it is exactly – but it’s something like: ‘one man’s wine is another man’s poison’. And this situation at work illustrates it perfectly.
The funny thing is, if I had been in different circumstances – if I’d gone to work for him today – I doubt I’d be able meet his expectations. If my life then was my life now, my opinion of him might have been totally different.
From my perspective, I went to work for him at the right time. I learned a lot and am grateful for the experience.