05 March 2009

Really Tangled Boundaries

There's an old story about a lighthouse keeper who learned to sleep despite a loud foghorn sounding all night long; the foghorn malfunctioned and he was instantly awakened by the silence.

It's amazing what you cease to see, or perceive, when you adapt to a given situation.

I've been thinking about Mick and boundaries and my supervisor, and realized that the boundaries where I work are very tangled. I suspect this may be fairly common; and I can't recall seeing any writing about management or organizational psychology that addresses it...

let me explain.

In a comment two posts previously, I recounted how my Department Head had overheard Mick being a classic 'Help-Rejector' very shortly before becoming a classic 'Backstabber', and how the DH contacted me immediately following the backstabbing to find out what was really going on. At that time it appeared that Mick would be turfed off to another mid-level manager to train; now, it appears, he's going to be traded to the 'minor leagues' instead, and when I volunteered to talk to him - since nobody appears to be confronting him directly with any feedback or consequences - my supervisor gave me a gnarly stare.

I understand gnarly stares; I'm not bad at them myself when called for. I didn't understand this particular gnarly stare, at the time. But I've thought about it and realized - it's a direct result of tangled boundaries.

Tangled Boundary 1: The Department Head is not my direct supervisor, but he and I frequently interact as though he is.

This is not intended to cut my supervisor out of the loop. It actually arises from a very common and apparently thoroughly ignored management dilemma: I work full time. The Department Head works full time. Most of my colleagues, and both of the supervisors [we have two; they job share], work part time [that's the point of job sharing, after all].

Tangled Boundary 2: I'm not a supervisor, but I'm often the most senior person available, and therefore end up being pulled into a supervisory type role.

Working full time, I am sometimes the only 'old-timer' around when a crisis first arises, and I end up stepping into a supervisory level role in order to help solve it. Since I don't complain about this [who else is able to do it?], and I quickly step out of the supervisory role as soon as the crisis is dealt with, I rarely experience much backlash. But I hadn't really thought much about what this means, and I hadn't thought at all about how nimble I've had to be in order to avoid conflicts in this situation. I see it as Doing What Needs To Be Done And Then Getting Out Of The Way, and I've always considered that to be part of my job description.

In the Mick Incident, I didn't step out of the supervisory role right away, because

Tangled Boundary 3: when you're training someone, this is a form of supervision. I was approaching my supervisor in my role as Former Mick Trainer and offering to do some Training Involving Icky Emotional Behavioral Stuff since nobody else apparently wanted to touch it.

I don't think this is how my offer was perceived... and I do think that I did exactly the right thing by backing off immediately.

Because, in the Next Installment, my supervisor did indeed take the lad to the woodshed, and apparently gave him a First Class Shellacking [Verbal]. It just took him a few days to reach the point where he could verbalize what he needed to say - perfectly understandable. I was in real-time proximity to the situation. My supervisor wasn't, and because of his part time schedule, he wasn't around when Mick tried to backstab me to the Department Head. So he needed time to process the events before he could express his displeasure both accurately and appropriately.

What will happen to Mick from here forward is no longer my concern, and it will be a good exercise in internal boundary setting for me to keep it that way. Dealing with future Mick Machinations may well be my concern; I will not bury my head in the sand about this, but try to be appropriately vigilant and leave it at that.

However, I now need to think about these tangled boundaries.

The Mick Incident has had a strangely positive side effect: not only the newest staff, but pretty much everyone including the supervisors, have suddenly begun seeing me as a Valuable Resource Person. Me, I always knew I was; but for the first time in my entire career here, others are telling me so and thanking me for it. Previously, it was pretty much taken for granted that I would Fill In As Necessary, and I did, simply because the alternative was unthinkable.

Did I resent the lack of recognition and appreciation? Of course, but not enough to ever consider withholding essential help, which would have been not merely spiteful, but very destructive.

Ironically, just as the rest of the crew have apparently realized that Stormchild is a Very Present Help in Time of Trouble, I have realized that Stormchild Really Needs to Get Out Of The Hot Seat.

I'm going to be doing the math, and if I can sustain it economically, I may begin working part time. For one thing, it would give me much more time to write.


Blogger CZBZ said...

"For one thing, it would give me much more time to write."

Good. Your recent messages have helped me better support my daughter's struggles in her job. What we're learning (and we're learning together), is that good boundaries are essential in a work environment.

She's learning what to look for and how to intervene before employees spin out of control.

So Thank you,


07 March, 2009 14:21  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Thanks CZ

One other thing to realize - and it is a hard, hard lesson - is that good boundaries are often ferociously discouraged in some work environments, and this is never accidental when it occurs.

Abusive workplaces always discourage healthy boundary setting. Of course. Because people who set healthy boundaries are less available to be abused.

And as a corollary, you will notice - if you haven't already: one of the fastest, most accurate ways to find out if a workplace is abusive is to start setting boundaries there.

08 March, 2009 21:57  
Blogger CZBZ said...

Point taken! Try telling your boss that it's inappropriate to expect an employee to handle three jobs and only be paid for one. yea, right.

In this current financial crisis, standing up for one's boundaries comes at a very high price. People are scared...and abusers are quick to take advantage of their fears.


14 March, 2009 11:40  

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