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My Manager From Hell

May 21, 2013

A lamb to the slaughter.

Looking back on it now, with the benefit of 20 years experience, that’s what I was.

I was in my first “real job.” I’d been at WordPerfect for about 3 years. After being trained for two weeks on WordPerfect 4.2 right after I was hired, I was immediate reassigned to a group called WordPerfect Library. We were not filing books. Library was a cool little text based menu program.

We also supported the new WordPerfect Office product. It include all of Library plus an email program. The year was 1989. That assignment so many years ago really set the course for much of my career. My first day on the phones, I didn’t really get any training. A senior engineer put his customer on hold and explained how to run the setup program, (genoff /i.) And pointed me at the phones.

I quickly mastered Library and Office. After a couple of years, I was part of the Strategic WordPerfect Assistance Team. Yes, we called ourselves the SWAT team. Coolest named team I’ve ever been on.
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It was on the SWAT team that I encountered the Manager From Hell. I’ll call him Frank, because that wasn’t his name and I’ve never really met anyone named Frank. (Apologies to any readers named Frank.) Frank really enjoyed being a manager. He never let us forget that HE WAS THE BOSS. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Frank didn’t know anything about Office and I was the best Email engineer he had.

SWAT was responsible for taking escalations from the rest of support. If a problem couldn’t be solved in the teams, it eventually came to us. If need be, we got on a plane and went to the customer site to fix it. (By “need be” I mean, if they wanted to pay for it.)

One day, Frank said a phrase that has become a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) trigger for me, “Can I see you in my office?” At the time, I had no reason to suspect anything might be wrong. Frank was sitting behind his desk when I came in and he had his two lieutenants sitting on each side of him. They were all behind the desk, like a panel of judges. My chair was about 5 feet away from the desk. That put me right in the middle of the room.

“I’d like you to read this statement and respond.”

Frank handed me a paper with three allegations.

– The Support teams claimed that I was ignoring their requests.
– Marketing felt that I was trying to “create” a position outside of the SWAT team.
– Testing felt that I was not respecting their role, and basically being rude to them.

I told Frank that I really had no idea why these groups would say these things. I certainly wasn’t trying to do any of this. We talked a little more and they dismissed me.

Well, I’ve always been a proactive rather than reactive employee. I went to see the Support Team Manager and find out if I wasn’t helping her team enough.

“No. Things are good. Not sure why Frank would suggest that.”

I called the head of Marketing and asked him if he felt that I was pressuring him to create a position?

“No. I don’t see a problem.”

Finally, I went up the hill to the Testing building to see the head of the Office Testing group. Sue was fairly direct.

“I never said that. I’m going to call Frank!”

Her end of the short conversation went,

“Why did you tell Rodney that I felt he didn’t respect testing’s role? I never said that! Ok. Goodbye.”

Turning to me as she hung up the phone she said, “Frank wants to see you in his office.”

Okay, at this point I was starting to get an inkling that today was going to get worse. I didn’t realize how much worse until much later.

Frank was not happy. And he let me know using language and a volume that was hardly damped by the thin walls of his office. I tried to explain that I was trying to solve the problem that he had presented to me. He was having none of it. Physically he was a large man and not above using his considerable bulk to physically intimidate his employees.

It’s been years since that day in his office. I avoided going into management for a long time because I never wanted to be required to have that kind of a conversation with an employee. It took me years to realize that good managers never do.

Just about everything about that day was wrong. Just a few points that could have gone differently.

1. Obviously someone gave him some negative feedback about me. Rather than defend his people, he turned those accusations on me. Had he been a good manager he’d have known what kind of a job I was doing and either corrected me for things he knew I needed correction on, or he’d have told people, “Nope, Rodney wouldn’t do that.” He took the coward’s way out.

Defend your people. If you do they will move mountains for you. If you don’t, they will never trust you and they will leave as soon as possible.

2. The setup in his office was almost comical in its attempt to intimidate. He wanted me to feel uncomfortable. It’s a stupid tactic employed by bullies. He should have pulled me aside one-on-one and discussed any concerns. I’ve always tried to talk to my employees without a desk or a table between us. And certainly not while they were sitting in the middle of the room.

3. He got mad when the Head of Testing called him. More accurately, I think he got embarrassed. In hindsight, it probably made him look bad in front of the Testing manager. One of his employees had told Testing that Frank was putting words in their mouths. First, he should have realized that if he pointed out a problem to an employee, it’s actually a good thing if that employee attempted to fix the problem or repair the damage. But, even before that, he should have checked with Testing before he told me they had a problem. Again, he took the coward’s way out.

4. In 20 years of business, I’ve never found it necessary to yell at an employee, nor found it necessary to have a manager or leader yell at me. I’ve had to fire people for screwing up. I’ve had to tell people their contracts were not being renewed and they had a melt down in my office. We aren’t 12 years old yelling insults on the playground. Looking back, if a manager that worked for me, treated an employee like that, we’d have a very serious conversation and if they didn’t correct their actions they’d be gone.

In some ways, that experience all those years ago has been a blessing. It’s created a negative management touchstone. At times I’ve thought “What would Frank do?” And I’ve often found the opposite choice to be the right one.

However, to this day, it strikes fear in my heart and my stomach knots up if my manager says, “Can I see you in my office?”

(Edit: Someone asked for a larger picture of my SWAT business card. Here it is)

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