Warning: This post will be long, rambly, possibly ranty, and probably boring. Continue at your own risk.
A few years ago, I let myself get broken.
It’s not that I wanted to be broken or even that it happened suddenly, all at once. No, it was more like the frog in boiling water, like the straws on the camel’s back. I can’t tell you exactly when I went from whole to straining to broken. I can’t point to one day on the calendar and say, “There! That’s when it happened!” But I’m broken, and I don’t know how to get unbroken now.
In 2008, I took a lateral job move. I went from crunching massive amounts of data for management to designing a software application. It had been seven years since I’d done “real” software development, more than hacking out macros in Excel and helpful tools in Access. I was excited and scared. My new manager was encouraging and supportive, and my team members were smart and energetic and fun.
I was tasked with developing a process library for the team, but the encouraging and supportive manager did not take my advice on one important principle: you have to document what is actually being done, not what you should be doing or what we want to be doing a year from now. It’s a big enough change for workers to go from the ad hoc freedom of no processes to the structure of a process library, and once you’ve crossed that bridge, then you can do the gap analysis to take the processes to the next level, to what you should be doing. So we ended up with a set of processes that were somewhat idealized, and a team who saw them as unimportant and unnecessary busy-work.
Then the encouraging and supportive manager was assigned new responsibilities, and a new manager was hired. He seemed encouraging and supportive, and he took prompt care of some administrative stuff that was hanging around. But this manager had never overseen remote teams, and our team was spread from Florida to Virginia to Illinois to Minnesota to Utah. He was physically in Minnesota, and this is where he took input for his decisions, from the other team members in the same physical location. Those of us spread across the country got left out, marginalized, excluded. It wasn’t intentional, but it happened.
The new manager gave me a fancy new title — project manager — and the responsibilities to go with it. He said he was giving me authority, but he undermined this with every decision I made. He was a harmonizer, so he wanted the surface waters of our team to be calm and placid, but he was unable to work out the seething, writhing, explosive conflict below those glassy waters. He began to blame his employees for having conflict.
He gave me another responsibility: quality assurance. It’s important to realize that QA is not testing the software. QA is ensuring that (a) the process library exists and meets requirements imposed by higher-level management policy, and (b) the team is following the processes in the library. Well, the team wasn’t. The team never was, from the moment each process was enacted. I was responsible for being the project manager who was on the developers’ side, translating between Customer and Geek, and facilitating that flow of information. And at the same time, I was responsible for being the Bad Guy, who points out all the problems that are happening and requiring those to be fixed before moving forward. My manager gave me these responsibilities, but not the authority to fulfill them. He would listen to the unhappy voices in the office where he physically worked, and he would contradict and countermand my decisions.
When I sat in on program reviews, in my manager’s stead, his peers laughed at him. They talked about how he managed to be on vacation playing golf several months running, instead of showing up at the program review and presenting his information.
Finally, my manager’s boss called a “Come to Jesus” meeting. Four of us sat in a conference room at a different company site for a week, directed to work out the issues. I don’t know whether I was already broken before this meeting, but I do know that I was broken when I left it. I got so frustrated by the destructive incompetence of this manager that I ended up shouting, shrieking, weeping. I was told that I have a great gift for assessing a situation and knowing what needs to happen. I was also told that I was destroying relationships with co-workers. It was implied that I was the one person most responsible for wrecking this team.
On every single project I’ve worked since 1997, I’ve been told, “You’re the heart of this team.” Co-workers pointed out my passion for excellence, my ability to chew through work at a superhuman pace, my drawing everyone into the team, my focus on not just doing the right thing but doing it in the right way, my efforts to make sure all our team members were included and valued. Nobody has said these words to me since this disastrous meeting in early 2010. This heart is broken.
I returned to my desk after the meeting, no longer responsible for trying to project-manage or to do quality checks. I turned over those tasks to other team members and was assigned as a semi-permanent loan back to the team that had originally hired me back in 2003. Since then, I’ve helped on a couple proposal teams, written some useful little tools, and mostly tried to fly under the radar, to stay hidden in the dark.
See, I’m afraid. I’m afraid to care about a project or a team any more. I’m afraid to care about my work. I’m afraid to do the annual review on our process library, because working with those processes was part of making me broken. Even though this manager left the company over a year ago, I’m afraid of really working on a team again, where my passion and drive could fracture relationships and break other people. I can’t even handle it when I receive correction for the most minor issue; it sends me into a spiral of terror and despair, and I end up staring at my monitor, paralyzed, for dozens of minutes.
Most of all, I’m terrified that I’ll lose my job. I’m almost unemployable right now. I work a 32-hour week, with Wednesdays off to recover. I telecommute. I have physical disabilities that require a number of accommodations. My technical skills were already stale when I was hired in 2003. And now I’m broken.
Now for the ironic part. How many times have I talked about fear? Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear is the rejection of faith. Fear underlies anger, despair, bullying, abusiveness. Every day when I sit at my desk and log in to work, I am crushed and crippled and paralyzed by fear. I’m not sure how to address the fears, though. I suspect that this I won’t be able to just turn away from my fears; no, I’m almost certain that I will have to plunge into the dark forest and journey through my fears and to the other side of them. And that scares me. (Well, duh!)
So yeah, as I mentioned earlier, it’s time for the annual review of our process library. I need to talk with the few remaining co-workers on this team, to figure out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and to get that documented. I have to look at these process documents and all their history, and I have to get them right this time. Somewhere I have to find the courage to work on these day by day, without losing myself in my fears.
Please pray for me, my friend. I need all the strength and help I can get!