Another story, this one from early in my career, that was brought to mind by a recent incident at work. I worked for a media company that had founded a division to do web stuff at the dawn of the general publics’ use of the web (circa 1995). We had awful internal morale issues – lots if bickering, infighting, histrionics, thrown chairs, the works. I was not above participating in those days and was in fact known for my volatile temper, though I never threw anything or otherwise physically expressed my frustration.
(as an aside, I’m now convinced my volatile temper in those days was actually a reflection of the undiagnosed diabetes, with high blood pressure and high blood sugars – basically my system was always running at 130%)
Anyway the company decided to take steps to address these issues, and arranged with the director of HR to facilitate a set of off-site intervention meetings where we would participate in a variety of team building exercises as well as take the time to sort of expose and discuss the core issues that were causing so much tension.
Shortly before one of the first sessions, a coworker had asked me out, the latest in a series of invitations. She had been pursuing me off and on for a couple of months – mostly, at first, with hints (do you like this new movie that’s coming out? Me too!) and then ultimately with a couple of direct invitations. I had blown her off, politely but firmly, with the ‘I don’t date co-workers’ line. I wasn’t attracted to her.
One of the exercises we had to do on this day was a team building exercise that involved a large sheet of paper hung to the wall for each person, divided in half. Half was the good side, and half was the bad side. Each of us had a post-it notepad, and we had to write one good thing and one bad thing about each person in the room and stick it to the appropriate side of their sheet of paper. Once we had all done this, we had to stand before our piece of paper and pluck off the post-its, read them to the room, then discuss them.
When my turn came around, I plucked a bad post-it off and read it to the room. It said (and I can remember this almost verbatim) “David is poorly socialized, has terrible communications skills, fails to behave appropriately in professional circumstances, and should learn to be more respectful of his coworkers.’
I had to respond to that in front of ~20 people, back when I was a less confident public speaker. Ye gods! I recognized the handwriting of the culprit (of course it was she of the rejected advances) and my first thought was to simply expose her, as inappropriate as that would be (she thinks I behave inappropriately?! wait till she sees this!). But my common sense won the day. It helped that most of it was absurd. While I was known for my volatility, I’ve also always been known for my verbal communication skills, the ability to condense complex technical issues into summaries that non-technical folk can understand, and my willingness to fold to superior logic. I was also president of my frat in college, for crying out loud, and regularly hung out with a significant portion of the staff in the portland bars.
Anyway, I don’t actually think I did a very good job of responding at that time, I was too flustered, but the incident has stuck with me ever since, and instilled in me a very deep suspicion so-called team building exercises (which, as an aside, were an abject failure in this case. The core of the issues had to do with how sales interacted with the production folks. Sales had no technical acumen and we all knew they were, quite literally, stealing from the company through clever sales incentive scams and we had no respect for them professionally or personally. Most of this, of course, was not exposed in these team building exercises. What was one to do? Write ‘steals from the company and gets away with it’ on the post-it and stick it to the bad side?).