As a young boy I clashed constantly with my oldest brother. I dislike being told what to do or even the way things are, especially if I am not impressed with the authority and consider myself of comparable sagacity. Without inquiring too closely of recent history, I can admit that even very late in my childhood I have refused reasonable requests and rejected valid ideas just to avoid ceding ground to this insufferable authority.
About a year ago, I was struggling to provide some kind of front-line leadership in a department where the management pro tempore was located on the other side of the building and rarely seen, and the nominal leader took care of all top priorities personally and never followed an ignored request or blatant shirking with any disciplinary action.
Since then the management gap has been filled and my highly ambiguous authoritative status has resolved to a status of respected outsider, since I am not part of the departmental hierarchy, although the working crew still baits me to take charge when they do not like what their leadership is up to.
Having played some part on both side of the line of authority, I watched the recent drama with cringing sympathy for all parties involved. The person who formerly was providing ineffective front-line leadership resigned the post entirely of her own volition. The person who succeeded her was new to the department. The departing leader knew more about the operation of the department than the new manager, or me, or the new leader; but, in character with the traits that had made her a bad leader, she did not know how to communicate what the department needed or what was generally expected of it to the new leadership. A series of mutually disappointing exchanges played out over the following months. If the old leader shared important information, she did not do it with enough emphasis, repetition, and relevant detail for the new leadership to understand its urgency, or appropriately attend to the matter. Thus the old leader and the senior members of the crew felt that the new leader was incompetent, and the new leadership (the leader and the manager) developed the opinion that the old leader was criminally negligent in passing on pertinent information.
Shortly in the tenure of the new manager, the former leader’s buddy quit in indignation. Another senior worker retired. Combined with other events, in about two year’s time this person went from being just one of the crew to the person with the most knowledge and experience of how the department worked. According to the way of nature, she was among the most skeptical of new management policies, the most convinced that the existing way was the proven best.
Like many people with sensitive self-esteem, this former leader does not like to be challenged, either in her own ideas or in her criticism of the ideas of others, and she shuts down any cross-examination with harsh self-derogatory and dismissive remarks. She has said herself that she does not like not knowing what to do and she does not like asking what to do.
Besides being new to the department, the new leader had also never been in a leadership role before. In addition to moving to a new department and taking on new leadership responsibilities, and being a mother, this person was also enrolled in college level courses–that is to say, the new leader was, and is, an overachiever. Anxious to please, driven to succeed, and not yet accustomed to the steady parade of impossible demands that management hands down, the new leader pushed her team hard and felt let down by them when they did not give their job the same desperate ultimate measure that she herself did.
I have seen an employee turn around and walk away while she was talking to them about their job responsibilities, and I saw her follow after this person to continue to deliver the instructions. The first act is insubordination and deserved discipline; the second is about the worst way of handling it, since it cedes control of the entire situation to the rebellious employee. The only time to physically chase someone is if you are going to physically beat them; otherwise, they have you on a leash. A better response would have been to stop talking, sit down, and write a report the manager who can hire and fire recommending a serious write-up or dismissal.
In the resultant friction between the new leader and the old one, the former leader has expressed her frustration through cutting remarks shared ostensibly with other employees, although not always out of earshot of the leader. This former leader even reworked the lyrics of a pop song so that they were vulgar and demeaning of the new leader’s person (not professional competence). Badmouthing the boss is not uncommon, but when you are the most senior member of the work crew and you are sharing your derisive art to the amusement of the other workers at the workplace, this is an aggression that cannot be tolerated forever.
When I was starting my position in this department, my boss told me that one of the reasons I was not going to function within the working hierarchy was because several people in the department were notoriously caustic and too rough for my unseasoned capabilities. The current leader has more seasoning in the workplace than I do, but, without any previous supervisory experience, is still facing an exceptionally tough job for a first-time leader. As often as I disagree with her method of leadership, I still recognize her genuine attempt to fulfil the responsibilities of her job rather than simply find an equilibrium between the various external demands placed upon her, as in my estimation both her predecessor and the previous departmental manager had done.
Recently, quite suddenly, the former leader was transferred out of this department to another under the same departmental manager; without her request, without warning, and under another leader whose reputation has always been almost as low as this leader’s has sunk to. Since both departments are under the same manager, he clearly has the right to transfer his employees around as he likes. But as this was done so clearly as a solution for the antagonism between the employee and the leader, this action should not have been undertaken without making it clear to the employee that her continued subversion would not be tolerated, and either firing or transfer was imminent.
Instead, because the employee’s offence could not be catalogued without sounding trivial (again, who doesn’t badmouth their boss?), the official line makes no mention of any offence at all, yet clearly punishes the employee. Because all of her friends are in this department, the employee still comes back to the same office on break times and continues to make remarks, still within earshot of her former leader, that are designed to undercut her authority; yet they cannot be easily prosecuted. It’s unconventional warfare, and I recognize it partly because I have played it myself.
If, in the course of conversation, this employee utters a commonplace obscenity, she will apologize, ostensibly to her conversant, and remark on how it is true after all, she really is a foul-mouthed person, or something of the like. Of course this is all a production for the benefit of the working leader, who is meanwhile being shunned by all of her employees. But nobody is doing anything wrong, for there is no rule against apologizing for dirty words and no rule saying you must engage your leader in conversation on break time.
So, if you are taking this to a Human Resources department, it is easy to make the employee sound nothing out of the ordinary, and the leader hypersensitive, micromanaging, and domineering. It is impossible to document the subtlety and viciousness of this attack without sounding melodramatic, unless perhaps you have the finest craft of language, but it is also obvious under direct observation.
It is easy to fault this leader. Most people, myself included, would chafe under her insistent, unrelenting style. I have a tendency toward the same excessive urgency, but I think even beyond excusing myself this fault does not deserve poisonous subversion. And yet the antagonist so fails to grasp what leadership is, and what foundations it depends on, and what responsibility to your own boss requires, that I am sure she views herself as entirely the victim, and would be honest in her own mind disavowing any campaign to politically assassinate her adversary. She would admit to disliking or hating her, but contend that it is all personal and has had no noteworthy impact on her professional conduct, since she did not once fail to do as she was told–although even here, the leader would remember things differently.
It’s a fine mess, one not easy to resolve even in hypothesis, because both parties are partly wrong and both are earnestly convinced that they are not wrong in any significant degree. I was accused by one of the other employees of “siding” with the leader, and, although the accusation was dropped because the basis was false (it was said that I would not talk to the disgraced employee, which I easily disproved since I had only been wary of whether she had concluded on her own that I was “them”). I have abundant sympathy with both sides, but I do think that the leader is in the more understandable and justifiable position–except I know I haven’t actually worked under the leader, and if I had it might change my view.
Safely ensconced as an observer, I watch with morbid fascination, dreading that this may someday be my lot. Presently I have more trepidation about the role of the leader. After all, if you are the employee, the worst they can do is fire you. As the leader, though, you might fail your own boss and your collective team.