Going Over to the Dark Side?

Employment Matters column, i711.com

Anyone with a fair amount of work experience knows that workplaces can sometimes be a battleground. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Ideally, everyone works together as a team and stays focused on getting the job done. But in the real world, it doesn’t always happen. Tensions arise between co-workers, between workers and management, between businesses and customers.

There are an endless number of triggers for frustration – the annoying co-worker, the pressing deadline, the demanding customer, the obnoxious boss, and sometimes just the Monday morning blues.

A few years ago, I had an ugly encounter with a former boss who was having a bad day. Our workplace is a medical facility, and staffing is a constant problem. We must have staff available 24 hours a day, every day, all year long, and the work is not easy. My boss was hearing; most of the staff is deaf. As she was venting her frustrations, she singled out the deaf staff and commented that they were behaving like children. I challenged her on that point – “you mean to say we’re all just immature slackers?” – and she answered yes.

Before that moment, we had a good relationship. But things were never the same between us afterward, and she left several months later.

Lately I’ve been tasked with more responsibility, and some of it is work usually done by management. It has given me some insight into the sort of things that frustrated my former boss. Her outburst was, and remains, inexcusable. But I understand better why she lost her temper.

I’ve found an interesting thing happens when you take on some of the roles of management. Suddenly, the staff – some of them, at least – will see you differently. Their picture of the working world is Us vs. Them, or Workers vs. Management. Anyone stepping beyond the ranks of workers and into management is moving over to the Dark Side.

And of course, there are some managers with the same view, but reversed – Management vs. Workers. The way they see it, the staff is like a herd of stubborn mules that only work well when pressured to do so.

Where I sit now, I can see both sides, and it’s quite a view. And I what I see, mostly, is the same thing that Cool Hand Luke noticed. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

If you have the bad luck to have a bad boss, you can be forgiven for thinking the boss has a cold, mechanical heart that only beats faster when thoughts of sadistic torture stir the mind. Now there are people who enjoy power just a little too much, but more often, they’re just stressed out. Being under pressure can bring out the worst in us, and that applies to bosses too, because they’re caught in the middle – squeezed from above by management, squeezed from below by workers.

The ugly part? Sometimes a boss has to enforce rules that make no sense, and the boss knows it makes no sense. When the workers complain – justifiably – a supervisor has to set aside personal feelings and support a dumb policy. It happens. I’ve seen supervisors protest bad policies privately to management in support of the workers. Sometimes management listens, sometimes they don’t. And when they don’t, the boss has to endure the complaints and become the bad cop. This is why being a leader can be a lonely job.

What I consistently see among people who do well as supervisors is they communicate constantly. They are very good at dealing with the question that always comes up; “Why?”. It’s not enough to introduce a new way of doing things and then say, “That’s how it is, no questions, get back to work.” Sometimes the reason for change is obvious and necessary and nobody questions it, but there will be unpopular changes now and then, and a good boss will be prepared to answer the frustrated questions in a satisfactory way. Not doing this tends to generate suspicion and distrust, hurt morale, and break down the goodwill that supports teamwork.

The need to communicate doesn’t only apply to bosses. And it takes on a whole new importance in a workplace where deaf and hearing staff work together. When people aren’t trying to understand each other, then – surprise! – misunderstandings arise. People get lazy – they retreat to their comfort zone, talk only with the staff they can already communicate with easily, and slowly but surely a gap appears between deaf and hearing staff. I see it happen where I work, and you may see it in yours.

And what we, as deaf people, need to do in this situation is take the lead. Don’t whine to the boss, don’t complain bitterly about the hearing staff, and those of you who are hearing, don’t write deaf staff off as immature. We all need to do two things; get out of our comfort zone, and start talking.

I know, I know – it’s slow, it’s awkward, it’s frustrating and it eats up a lot of time. But that’s when you’re just starting out. It takes patience, but when you get a little momentum going, when you build up enough mutual vocabulary that you can actually begin to have a conversation without resorting to pen and paper or other substitutes, it’s very rewarding.

You have the power to make this happen, and you have to overcome the fear and reluctance that gets in the way. Doing this one thing makes your job easier in the long run, and just as important, it makes your boss’ job easier too.

Taking the path of least resistance, staying in our comfort zones – that’s human nature. Inspiring others to do better, by example – that’s leadership. That’s how we can take on the dark side and make it bright.