S08E01: These are for me, actually

Okay, so last week I said I was going to take 8 weeks off to focus on the thing I was doing. I assumed this was because I would be too busy to write about what I was learning.

Then Sam – who is wise – pointed out that I’d written a good reflective thing last week and I realised that these are for me, actually. I love you, reader. I do. You give me the endorphins I crave. But that’s not why I write these: I write them so I have somewhere to come back to and reflect on what I’ve learned.

Anyway. Here comes season 8.

I’m really struggling to start this blog. I’m struggling because the first sentence I reached for was my team. I wanted to say how excited I was to take some time off and come back and know that everything would still be running on all cylinders. And then I wasn’t sure. They are my team, in the same way that my siblings and parents and nieces and nephews (currently all canine, but give it time) are my family but still themselves, you know, like they’re their own people and in the same way that when I say my family you don’t assume I’m putting myself at the head of that little unit –

which is not to say that work colleagues should be treated like family because I love my family almost unconditionally, and I don’t know if you should feel that way about your work, you’ll burn out, money will never love you, the work will never love you, it hungers and hungers and its mouth is a tunnel that lights up with 15 unread emails at 0702am –

but listen the point is that when I say my team I mean the team I’m lucky to be part of, and have a role in, and have an expertise that I lead in, but I’m not in charge of –

I’m really struggling with the blurry line between being in charge and setting direction. What does in charge mean? It means power over, and not power with. If I were the person in a small team who simply sets direction, with folks free to agree or disagree – and leave if they disagreed – I’d have power with, because setting direction only for yourself is great unless you’re in a group of people. But if I’m in a small team, and I can ask people to leave – or be made to leave – if they don’t align to the direction, I think that’s power over. And if they can’t leave because they’ve got mortgages or responsibilities or they just think the work is too important to quit over this new asshole, I’m just inflicting violence on people. That’s where power over ends up. You kill people in a hundred little ways and you never feel the slightest bit of blame, because they’ve got free will, which is a lie us folks with privilege tell ourselves as we move to jobs that make more money, or slightly less but not enough to actually inconvenience ourselves.

Anyway, look. My excellent team got up and running this week, and we’re hoping to bring in a few contractors to complement the work and do some funky specialist work that we can’t do. Everything is flowing nicely. The team is coming together and I’m working out how they work, and I think they’re working out how I work. I got compliments on how I chaired a meeting, and accidentally promoted by typo to Director in the consequent minutes. I got some good feedback – I rushed too quickly to solutionise a problem and could have caused a kerfuffle if my boss hadn’t caught me and judo’d me. It was well delivered feedback too: I am genuinely very lucky to have a good manager.

I also got some bad feedback: someone told me bluntly that the paper I’d written was ‘barking’. This is not terrible feedback, for what it’s worth. It focussed on the work, and not on me as a writer. It wasn’t ‘you’re barking’; it was ‘it’s barking’. Small steps.

Of course I am also barking, lads. I’ve got a note from the doctor and everything. I’ve got a 36-page document describing in exquisite, agonising detail the specific areas in which I am barking. Sometimes when I want to feel sad for a bit I’ll re-read it.

(That’s a joke, team. I read it once and it hurt so much I put it back in the envelope and haven’t opened it since. When I needed to get my NHS number for my vaccine I hunted through documents from my last relationship rather than open it again. LOL)

So to that end, that was bad feedback, because it’s not actionable, and also it’s a shitty thing to compare something you think is bad to madness.

Onwards though, eh. I gave some feedback to someone about something they’d written. Some of the feedback was around silly mistakes – things that could have been caught if they’d had more time to proof the thing. That was my fault, but the way I discovered that wasn’t the way I expected. I fell into the trap of thinking people are like me, and that the power dynamics between my (white, male) boss are the same as the dynamic between this (black, female) teammate and me. There’s two things at play here, by the way, but let’s talk about context first. I opened my mouth in a meeting and said “We will get you the minutes to you by 3pm tomorrow.” I was not writing the minutes. I did not ask the person who’d volunteered to take the minutes how long it would take to tidy and prepare them.

That’s power over, where I make a promise on behalf of someone else without asking them. It annoyed me no end when my boss used to do this – set ridiculous deadlines and then give me aggro if I missed it, because it made him appear less authoritative – it made it clear that he could not effectively wield power over. And here’s me, doing exactly that thing. And I can only do that because – for reasons that are more to do with luck, and whiteness, and maleness, and a kind of charisma that is only acceptable in this white male shape – nobody is going to challenge me on it because they don’t want me to appear unable to wield power over.

So. There were a bunch of silly mistakes in this paper, and the root cause was absolutely me wielding power over. If we want to avoid blame, we can say ‘there wasn’t enough time to proof it properly’, but that’s a fig leaf. Let’s ask the unspoken question: who promised the thing without asking how long it would take?

And again: where I would have messaged my boss in the meeting to say “Shut up, we’re not going to get this done by then, please row it back”, this woman stressed out to hit an arbitrary target that I’d set because I’d just opened my mouth. Because these power dynamics are not the same, and I can’t pretend they’re the same or bleat about the fact that I wish she’d done something differently. I’m the one with power over, even if it’s unconscious, and I’ve got to be better at realising that and doing something about it.

There are so many tiny ways that I wield power over and they are so, so fucking hard to unlearn. But it’s gotta be done.

Leaving this here for when I need it again, because I’m going to fail again. I hope I fail better.

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