The Camel’s Back


I spent the better part of last night trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m going to have to find a new job.  Before I had just been researching and only sending resume’s to jobs on a case by case basis, most of which were kind of a stretch due the the number of years of experience they wanted because I didn’t really want to leave my job.  I just wanted this job to work well, and in a lot of ways it has.  During my tenure:

Client engagement was the highest it had been since the 1970s

We completely turned around a workforce and boosted their performance and productivity and increased our lower level leadership retention and their effectiveness (they work well together because my position doesn’t authorize me to solve their problems, my options are to either report concerns that merit attention from my direct supervisor or to involve those at the lower levels in critical thinking discussions with one another so that they can listen to and work together to understand each other’s perspective, decide what’s going to be the most effective solution for all of them and to share accountability for the decision making) and I record the outcomes.

Even my direct supervisor admitted that we were in a much better place than we were last year (since they restructured my role)


Unfortunately (and you must forgive the duplicitous nature of these writings; they’re written to try to make sense of something I find incredibly vexing not to criticize or condemn anyone for their inexperience), my supervisor seems to believe that this progress happened under queen bee’s watch, because he implicitly trusts her  (and she does a lot of thing well) but when looking at the performance records the retention of knowledge, skills and dispositions for the workers she supervises is considerably lower because she only knows how to tell workers to complete tasks; she doesn’t clarify the standards so we have considerably more disciplinary issues under her watch (and we have evidence to support that) and my workers end up picking her workers’ slack (which has provided some great opportunities to engage my workers into the discussion about why the work they do is important and they seem to be receptive to it).

But all grumbling aside, my workers really have been happier and more productive than they’ve been in the 6 years I’ve been a part of this organization. Our clients comment to me about the differences they’ve noticed since I became involved in the oversight and training.  But now that my workers understand that their contributions and effort will not necessarily be rewarded, which was a surprise to me given our institutional mission (one of my workers upon hearing about the promotion of the ill equipped colleague angrily grumbled “yep, I should have realized; it’s all about who you know!), I’ve been wrestling with how to keep them intrinsically engaged with their work, so we’ve been talking a lot about higher ethics and the goals of our organization and how these lessons will make them more effective and equitable leaders once they transition to real jobs and are responsible for the livelihoods of others after their contracts have ended.

Ironically enough, I found myself in the position of having a similar conversation regarding ethics and expectations with my direct supervisor yesterday.  We seemed to be at an impasse because we have different expectations regarding what the standards of our department within our organization should be.  He advocated for more of a constructivist model in which we just let our newly promoted supervisors feel their way out, which I’ve adhered to but may not necessarily agree with, but admits that he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in our organization most of the time because he’s stuck in his office trying to sort out whatever the crisis du’ jour is at the time.  I am of the school of thought that the time that we invest in training our workers on the front end pays off, because once we’ve clarified our expectations of them, it becomes easier to acknowledge and positively reinforce good performance. And as they build skills and accountability we can provide a structure for them to operate with a degree of freedom within those parameters and to equip them “as they are ready” with the training and guidance they will need to be able to diagnose and troubleshoot how to prevent some of the operational issues that arise from not having a clear sense of what your role is, or what’s expected of you.

It kind of reminds me of the following exercise:

I initiated the discussion because one of my workers lost it with me during the morning shift.  She was one of queen bee’s buddies and was pretty upset with me for putting her on cleaning detail (which is more or less her job description).  She had grown so accustomed to blowing off her shifts, or hanging out and goofing off at the desk with queen bee while others were working, that she perceived that I was treating her unfairly by asking her to complete the items on the cleaning checklist for the one room which she was assigned — something that has been asked of every worker who has been on cleaning duties.

When I asked her get started yesterday, she immediately lay into me.  I spoke with Queen Bee and your direct SUPERVISOR and they said I don’t have to do that and that the level of detail that you ask me to clean (and she made sure to reference even when it’s the bathrooms) isn’t necessary because someone just cleaned it two days ago. I don’t know whether I made a blank face or  not (more than likely it was probably any combination of these):

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What I took away from this discussion was that albeit my goals were in alignment with the overall organization, that the top leadership in my department had elected to opt out from participating in this vision, but also felt it necessary to actively discourage my participation in it.  And I suppose it makes sense. I’m the only one in the department who attends the trainings, forums, and other organizational events. I am the only member of the department active in the planning committee, so I feel liable for my workers and colleagues, because the other departments perceive the success and failings of my own department with what they believe to be my level of accountability. And the department doesn’t have the best history, which they explained in my interview as their justification for hiring me.

But every time I receive a new set of instructions or they restructure the department (it’s happened 6 times in the past 2 years), I only get bits and pieces of information about how it changes my responsibilities.  In the context of the lego exercise, the instructions I receive are as follows.  At any given point in time, I can be any of these: but let’s say that we start our way from the front-line and work our way up.

Person C


I don’t know what the hell we’re building anymore (besides a mess).  I have two runners giving me very different sets of information.  They can’t see one another although theoretically they really should.

Runner 2 is very adept at hiding because 2 doesn’t want  runner 1, who also acts as 2’s director, to know that they don’t really understand what they are doing.  Runner number 2 fears a loss of control.

And I sincerely believe Runner Number 1 really wants me to succeed (because they really invest a lot of effort into affirming my contributions and have spent a good deal of time and resources in equipping me).

No. 1 has really been intentional about defining my success as being interconnected with the success of the entire organization. I haven’t really received any indication that Runner number 2 is looking out for my best interest even though I’d like to believe that 2 wants to be sensitive to those needs.  In fact, runner number 2 often gives me instructions that make me wonder what their idea of success looks like because it’s so far off the organizational standards for our institutional vision,  and they don’t spend enough time on the ground to really even know what parts I’m working with or what process are involved in the process of building that I feel less inclined to trust their instructions even though I know I am required to abide by them.

Thankfully, runner number one (who shares that outlook and whom I trust and trusts me) has been gracious enough to inform me that I will be responsible for building people who have good work ethic, who feel valued, who act with integrity, who treat each other with respect even when they don’t always agree and so on.  I can buy into this vision.  I may not always be able to recognize the pieces that I have to work with, but I have built people before.  I’ve seen it go well, I’ve had moments when I didn’t know what I was doing because I didn’t have anyone helping me identify the pieces before and things fell apart.  But as a general rule, I have a good understanding of how to listen, how to identify when I need to listen and when I need to speak up, and how to make decisions about what kind of feedback I need so I can ask or equip myself with that support.  So as long as I have one runner who I know is willing to do everything to support me I just try to make the best of things and do the best to stave off any fires that may get out of control when I feel signs they’re igniting.


Well you know, I certainly couldn't say sir...

Well you know, I certainly couldn’t say sir…

When I ask runner number 2 for operating parameters because they haven’t taken the time to articulate their needs, or to even gather feedback to ascertain that I understand what it is that they would like from me; I get nothing. This is mostly in part because they’re too busy doing damage control in their area, so I doubt they have even really taken it into consideration. And when I ask, and we finally agree upon a solution, it doesn’t get communicated where it needs to, which has generated this recipe for conflict with queen bee and company.  And God forbid I even try; even in an open and inclusive format, to make any attempt to recommend anything because even though I rank higher in the organization, in the department I no longer have the positional authority for her to feel like she has to listen to me, even if there’s a cliff on the other side of her next step.  And she walks right off the edge just about every time.  And I don’t harangue her about it.  My workers just pick up the slack and try to pick up the slack and try to re-build some sense of normalcy, so we don’t appear to seem so mismanaged or disorganized.

So I suppose my job in real world terms has devolved into the role of putting out those fires so that we can free up our supervisors to avoid scrutiny.  But in lego terms,we can prevent those fires by working to build an organization that understands the value and the process of fire prevention so we can provide a meaningful resource to our clients to use within the greater community.  Runner number 2 doesn’t like the clients or the community because they call a lot of unnecessary attention to the very serious fires number 2 is (unsuccessfully) masking.

That being said, in role C I am not being told not to build people, just to train them not to build fires. And interestingly enough, I have found that the best way to do this is integrated in the way that I build up people:


Hey, so I notice that we have a fire here that’s getting out of hand… yeah, it sucks… well it doesn’t have to. It really just depends on how we manage it. What are some of the sensations you’re experiencing that lead you to believe you might not have a handle on controlling this fire…. well, they keep getting mad at me for not adding sticks, but I’m allergic to sticks so I have to use this shovel and it makes it really hard to control how many stick I’m putting into the fire… hmm’ have you checked with Gary to see whether he happens to have an extra set of gloves, perhaps he might be able to direct you to where you can get some… that actually makes a lot of sense, thanks for the reminder.

Yesterday when I discussed my role confusion with my direct supervisor, especially since we’d seen an increase in fires pop up since I stepped out of the role of builder and into the role of go-between or runner.  I was essentially being asked to train without giving instructions (in my job description and the departmental structure it is outlined that my role is to train them with skills, that I am liable for the work that they do in my functional area and that my role is to assist in the absence of a designated supervisor. I am also liable to the rest of the organization if I watch the fires happen but don’t intervene to try and stop it, but queen bee and my direct supervisor complain that they are too busy to be accountable for their areas so when I don’t intervene the area goes neglected and inevitably a fire pops up).

I think part of the problem is that queen bee and I work opposite shifts.  And my direct supervisor works during an overlapping shift, but really he spends most of his time working with queen bee.  Because they work the evening shift, when they come in, a lot of the work of running the facility is done mostly by the morning crew. So the perception of the need for oversight may not be as high on their end because my crew ends up doing all of the damage control and can’t do any of that stuff because that’s during the peak time for our facility when it generates the most traffic.  Queen Bee scheduled her buddies to share that shift, so for the workers who are used to working with me, during the time when we are frequented by departmental administrators, and some of our higher value clients, the expectations about what is required to remain in organizational and OSHA compliance is clearly defined and executed, not just by me but also the supervisors that I train who assign those tasks.  And since I’m literally the only point of contact representing our organization during that shift for days at a time, I can understand how these factors may have generated queen bee’s perception of competing loyalty (but I think that’s because she’s used to viewing it through the lens of a silo-ed organization because that’s the only model with which she’s been trained.

When QB’s workers have to make up shifts (that they’ve blown off to go to the tanning salon) or get caught hiding in the restroom snap-chatting and tweeting for hours at a time for days on end (they do get pretty pissed when I ask them to go back and complete a task that they’ve blatantly half-assed).  Yesterday’s eruption had to do with one particular instance in which one of QB’s social media all-stars finally got pulled from her regular cleaning duties, and asked to wipe down an area directly within eyesight of the service desk (an area that we have to keep clean because not only does it collect a lot of pathogens daily, but also an area gets a considerable amount of traffic and that we would be extremely liable for if someone were to get hurt or an infection).  She cut a lot of corners and came back to my desk five minutes later.  It takes our biggest under performer who was not scheduled to clean the area that day at least 40 minutes, so I asked her whether she had finished.  Her reply to me was: “finish what?”


After considering it for a moment, I concluded that it was a fair question given that she hadn’t had much experience performing the duties outlined in her job description and showed her the duties for the assigned area we had outlined on the cleaning list (which are visibly displayed at the supervisor’s desk (who just happened to be out for a doctor’s appointment) with guidelines pulled from the departmental files so that they were consistent for everyone. All-Star flippantly stated that she hadn’t done them but that she also didn’t see a point to having to do it (she was looking for an excuse to duck into the bathroom to update her profiles again) and I explained to her that since we didn’t have anyone scheduled to come in and that since we were responsible for keeping the area clean considering the usage and risk of infection, that we needed to focus upon cleaning that area, since it was often neglected (which is true, we have morning crew workers in there every week working upon items from the list that under-performer blatantly neglected). The worker was pretty angry by the end of her shift.  I typically just give it enough time to blow over and then discuss it with them during their next shift so that we can establish mutual respect and ground rules for what the expectations are moving forward.

So when All-Star came in to work yesterday morning, the moment I asked her to get started she was out of the gate, “getting me told” so to speak before I could even initiate the topic. I could tell she had rehearsed it.

“Well I talked to Queen BEE and Runner no. 2 and THEY said I don’t have to because it was cleaned two days ago and I know for a fact…”

I let her air out her frustrations at the desk, mostly because I didn’t have the coverage to be able to redirect our venue to a place more appropriate for the discussion.  As I engaged in standard active listening pose, I noticed something fascinating out of the corner of my eye. Queen Bee was THERE (she wasn’t even scheduled during my shift)!  She was literally hiding in an alcove trying not to be noticed (in a neon pink shirt) watching the whole thing go down.


So I replied with the very textbook explanation (albeit firm and direct I still kept it very respectful) that any discussions that had taken place with her supervisor had not been communicated to me, that I would be happy to speak with them on the subject but in the meantime she was not being asked to do anything inconsistent with what had been asked of her peers. That her concerns for having to clean that particular area were valid, but for different reasons. And that if she had in fact spoken with Queen Bee and runner no. 2 that she must have been made aware that she was being assigned to the space because of concerns that she was cutting corners or neglecting her responsibilities altogether and hiding out in the bathroom stall. So while the intention wasn’t to initiate conflict, the assignment was given to protect her interest and to provide her with a task that we knew she was very capable of performing. That she was welcome to disagree with me if she felt uncomfortable completing a task as I understood it my responsibility to create a safe and respectful environment, but her approach, given her tone, indicated to me that she was more interested in pursuing conflict than in coming to a peaceful agreement.

Naturally she was very defensive, probably more so since she had the audience. She argued that she wasn’t hiding and I pulled out pages and pages of documentation and asked her if she knew what the forms were for (that I had collected the information and just because I chose not to address it with her did not address it with her directly did not mean that I did not notice and that it was my responsibility to report it if I noticed that it was a recurring issue), but rather that we (I wasn’t the only one of her supervisors who noticed) that when we provided her with other opportunities to give her the benefit of the doubt that it had only confirmed the concern (but while the intention was to confirm the behavior, correct it and move forward, not escalate this into a larger issue). So if there were concerns that I was treating her differently, I would not deny it, but that the deviations were based upon the merits of her performance because I believed her to be disengaged with her regular assignment, but that I wasn’t sure of the degree until she raised this issue.


Then I added that in the absence of a supervisor that I was who would be responsible for assigning tasks, so given that we were both in this situation that her options were to either let me know what it was that she was willing to clean or that she we was welcome to clock out and come back during a time in which she felt more comfortable when she could work with queen bee.

Then she left. I wanted her to.  I don’t like power plays but I am also wise enough to know when I need to clarify a boundary so that I don’t get run all over.  I think the hardest part is that anything that deviates so much from my cooperative style of communication, makes me feel as if I’m mismanaging the situation.  It’s like handling lego bricks that I’ve never seen before. I can feel the nodes and know that they assemble to something, that they have a defined boundary and specific use, but I have no sense of whether I’m using it right even though that’s the tool I’ve been instructed to use (healthy boundaries).

I could hear her venting to Queen Bee who was still standing off in the corner (total ninja fail btw). And I could feel my entire inner being shaking.


I went back to my work, and during moments of distraction when I could feel my mind start to wander back to that place I’d look at the post it note of a Marianne Williamson quote that I keep taped to my desktop monitor:

“Everything we do is infused with the energy with which we do it. If we’re frantic, life will be frantic. If we’re peaceful, life will be peaceful. And so our goal in any situation becomes inner peace.”

I didn’t feel peaceful. If anything I felt scared.  And I didn’t want to transfer that energy to anyone, even if they really did deserve it.

So the moment I got coverage I left my desk for a bit, went outside and I cried.  Then I prayed for a little while.  I prayed for peace.

Apparently the mass text had been sent out because after I got back I kept getting crazy looks from All-stars friends who had made it a point to drop in to the facility so that they could establish solidarity by snubbing me.  And I can understand their sense of loyalty and willingness to protect their friend.  But I didn’t dare challenge them with reason or try to amplify the shortcomings of their friends.  I had no interest in focusing upon all of that.  I was still pretty distraught when I spoke with Runner No. 2 about it that afternoon.


“She was probably just upset because we had already talked to her about it.” was his reply.

“She’s the one who initiated the conversation,” I informed him.  “The conversation literally started with me asking her to get started cleaning and she leapt out of the gate telling me what it was that she did and didn’t have to do.  And from what I observed of Queen Bee hanging out in the corner, who made no effort to intervene, it sounds as if you discussed quite a few things with her that I had to hear from the worker that were not communicated to me… and she’s not a good hider.  I’m not sure what that was about, but it sounds like you all have discussed concerns about me that you’re avoiding discussing with me. ”

No. 2: Well I’m not here very much and it sounds like you and Queen Bee have very different standards (I do have a tendency to go for the win-win or at least to stay within compliance of established standards since we have so many volatility that erupts from our fuzzy boundaries).  So I don’t really know what’s going on around the building but I trust Queen Bee to tell me.

Me: But we go for long periods in which I’m the only one in the building and if we don’t have a supervisor scheduled then that creates a position in which the responsibility falls upon me, and I’ve asked for parameters for what you and queen bee want on more than one occasion and since you haven’t made a decision about what those should be, I have to go based upon the guidelines outlined by our organization.

No. 2: Well I was going to sit down this summer and try to figure out what I’m going to put into their training. I mean it’s hard, we only get 3 days and then that’s it.

Me: Well we have supervisors returning. Do you think it would be useful to have newly promoted Queen Bee involved in facilitation training and some of your strategic planning so that she can learn how to run some of those trainings? The organization kind of expects that departments conduct continuous on-going trainings since that’s kind of the goal of our institutional programs. When we had it structured, it took my staff 3 months to learn how to do their work well enough to be unsupervised, and that was just in my functional area.  You’re giving them only 3 days to learn how to operate this entire business without any supervision or senior level experience and if you don’t figure that out, the organization’s eventually going to notice.


…but not necessarily…

And it sort of went on like this.  We agreed on the need for a lot of the same things.  For some reason he was under the impression that I didn’t and I had to clarify that.  I also explained what my front line experiences were and referenced the performance records. He suggested that when I noticed problems occurring that I should make an effort to bite my tongue and just email him to let him know that these problems were occurring, so that I wouldn’t step on Queen Bee’s toes.  And I reminded him of the pages upon pages of unread reports lying in the disheveled pile upon his desk (in addition to the emails) that provided him with all of this information before any of these situations escalated, and that I had made a special effort to bite my tongue because I didn’t want to create any perception that I had made any of my observations under bias, but that in the absence of feedback with how to proceed, I begun to rely heavily upon the performance records , institutional guidelines and my documentation for an accountability mechanism because that critical component of our working relationship had been neglected, and that the confusion about my role also fueling this confusion and relational conflict (p.10) that we were experiencing because of the way it was being managed.

What on piggly wiggly earth do I dang diggly wigglly do woo oo?!

What on piggly wiggly earth am I expected to dang diggly wigglly do woo oo?!

I kept calm as we discussed it and I know I probably sounded hypercritical.  And I did make sure to mention that I didn’t like complaining, but that this was something that I really was struggling with in my role within the department.

Meanwhile, I have other departments who have been trying to poach me from the beginning, and the improvements we’ve made during my tenure would signal disruption if I applied for a transfer which is why I’ve been trying to figure out this whole job search thing for the better part of a year now. And I’m nowhere near as bitchy or cynical as I feel like I come across in my criticisms of these colleagues. But I’ve been pretty silent for the better part of a year, and now that I’ve received affirmation from the organization that the behaviors in which I’d been actively discouraged from participating in were actually expected from the organization all along, I think I’m starting to feel angry (like genuinely angry) about it, not just at my colleagues, but also because of all of the fear based, overly cautious excuses I made for their behavior.  Hey, runner No. 2, wanna hear something?:

You’re not too busy; you’re just disorganized.  And the person that you implicitly trust the most might actually be crazy…! I’d call her a narcissist but she spends a little bit too much time focusing upon what I’m doing for that to be the case entirely.

(Do I give up my job security, benefits, etc. to go somewhere else? And if so, what indicators do I look forward before even applying that will help me trust that I’m moving into a healthier, more organized environment?) I can embrace a lack of structure if the organization has an open culture (what I’m used to) in which we can discuss observations and make suggestions in a way that people still valued and engaged to be accountable for their contributions.  And if I’m looking for the right things in the wrong place, what danger do I risk to my professional reputation if I leave without having made a genuine effort.

It’s unsettling to have the esteem of other departments and my workers, but not the colleagues in my department. But I also don’t think I can continue to take anymore of this either:


I can be patient to a point, but in light of the way things have escalated, I’m losing the will to stay because I can see how it’s affecting my attitude, my imprinting and my capacity for patience.



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