Friday, December 2, 2011

In these days before Christmas

Nothing works at work anymore. That’s just the sad truth—a fact of life. And no matter how much the administrators and leaders want to paint a smiley face on everything around us, the fact remains that no one below them much believes in anything they say anymore. I often say that the only reason some things do work at all is because employees generally are good people and want to do their very best (den gode viljengood will) with some few exceptions here and there. In the twenty-two years I’ve worked here, my peers in the lab, the students, the technicians and the secretaries—all of them have done their best to make my workplace not only function, but be a nice place to work. Believe it or not, it has all been done without much direct involvement from any leader over the years. Why that was, I am not sure. Many of them felt ignored by the management over them and perhaps didn't care enough, but mostly I think it was the 'every man for himself' attitude, which is rampant in academic environments. You learn not to care too much about your potential competitors, and they can be your peers or your students. I think my present workplace is one of the few places that has functioned without much leadership over the years. At present, the extreme opposite is the norm. We now have five levels of administrative leadership; none of them know what the other level is doing and it makes for a very confusing workday. But each of them want power and control, and each of them want to control us. My situation is no different than many others I know; conflicting messages time and again. I am encouraged to join one group in a coordinator function to help out the department, but given no authority or no personnel to help me in that task. We are moved around from here to there and back again like pawns on a chess board. They say that our wishes are important to them, but we all know that it sounds good to say this; and more importantly, it can eventually be written in a report that the employees' wishes have been taken into consideration. But they haven’t. Because we haven’t wished for anything like this in our wildest dreams. And unless you’ve experienced what it’s like to be told more or less to drop what you’re doing now in order to do something else, and then in six months you get another message telling you to drop that and go back to doing what you were originally doing. I think this is a type of sickness; I’m just not sure what kind of sickness. Is there a diagnosis for it? Egomania perhaps? Or perhaps insanity?

I cannot remember one time in all the years I have worked here that any leader has bought a cake, or champagne, or any other such thing to celebrate the ending of a work year, or Christmas, or grant funding for the institute, or just to thank employees. We pay for our own Christmas parties; I can recall possibly two after-Christmas parties in recent years that we didn’t pay for; those are no more. But of course when there are birthdays, or births of babies, or weddings or any other such thing—it is the employees who have baked cakes, bought presents and acknowledged the event in some way. And then the leaders show up—to eat cake. They were and are always there to eat cake. But buy one themselves for their workplace? In my group, we have never gotten a Christmas gift of any kind from our group leader. I used to give him one in previous years, but no more. He did comment once when he first stopped receiving anything from me, but that didn’t change my mind. He once commented that he never received a Christmas card from anyone; I asked him if he ever sent any, and he said no. So then I said that there was a great place to start—write some. We in the group however, have always exchanged presents. What a far cry from my lab at UCSF—where my boss not only gave his employees small Christmas presents, but Valentine’s day chocolates and a single-stemmed rose as well. He was (and still is) a thoughtful man. It made me realize that it was possible to be professional and thoughtful—a nice definition of emotional intelligence. My boss at Memorial was the same.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol comes to mind in these days before Christmas. Scrooge was transformed from a miser in all respects to an emotionally-intelligent man whose heart, like the Grinch's, grew in size in order to accommodate the immense feelings of generosity that suddenly overtook it. He understood that before he died, before his body rotted to nothing in the earth and was forgotten, that he wanted to do some kind things for others. And he did. So it is never too late. My fervent wish for my workplace is that the leaders are visited by ghosts from the past, the present and future, and that they are shaken out of their miserly prisons and personal hells, into some kind of warmth and emotional intelligence, so that they can stop being scrooges in their daily lives. It will be too late for them to undo what they have done to the current generation of employees; but perhaps future employees will benefit from their generosity. What they could do for their older employees is to at least apologize—that would be a start. My fervent wish for myself is freedom, and maybe God will bless me with that in the near future. I can hope. And that is what the Christmas season is about—hope--in the age of cynicism, egoism, me-ism, narcissism, and any other ‘ism’ that has destroyed workplaces, good will, and the happiness associated with doing a good job.

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