Posted on May 08 2019
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum is one of my favorite books.
It's wise and sweet. It tells about sharing, playing fair and not hitting people. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Then, it goes a little deeper: we should say "sorry" when we're wrong, don't take things that don't belong to us and put things back where we found them.
The list is longer with many more pearls of wisdom. I would, however, add a couple for today's workplace:
1. Treat everyone, whether you're their subordinate or superior, with respect
2. Don't do anything at the office you wouldn't do in front of your Sunday School teacher or a policeman
3. Keep your hands to yourself.
I'd like to focus today's post on #1: RESPECT and what can go wrong when someone is absent the day they teach it!
My first real job in fashion was at Sears, Roebuck and Co. That's what it was called back then, although no one ever knew who Mr. Roebuck was. Sears wasn't the pinnacle of fashion that I had dreamed about but it was a gold mine for someone who wanted to know everything about retail.
Every buyer was more than a merchant--they ran $100 Million+ businesses. To compare, the average McDonald's does about $3 million a year in revenue so you can understand that these people carried a lot of influence. They ran their departments like small stores by managing every aspect required : advertising, financials, product and distribution.
They had what is called "power of the pencil". They could take a small manufacturer and make them huge with one order---a millionaire overnight.
That sort of power can do weird things to a person. Even a good person. They can develop a god-like persona that is able to destroy as easily as create. They can behave recklessly with little regard for danger. They can think they're a rockstar and everyone wants a backstage pass.
When I walked into Sears Tower on my first day I was completely intimidated. It was the tallest building in the world and literally ascended into the clouds. I took the elevator to the 13th floor which sat on an entire city block. More people worked on that single floor than lived in my hometown of Sibley.
I was naive and immature but not completely stupid about how the world worked. I just wasn't prepared for people to be so unafraid to show their dark side.
When I was still in my entry-level job I got a new boss. He had lots of ideas and a little charm. On his first day he led a team pep rally about working together and building for success.
I never saw that charm again. It was as if he had taken off a mask. He was mean, misogynistic and disrespectful. The definition of a bully. In a short time I saw people doing and saying things I could never have imagined. All they wanted was to stay out of his warpath. He lead by fear and he delighted in every quivering spine he transformed.
I was low on the totem pole so I felt relieved he hadn't noticed me. But after he was through with phase 1, breaking his peers, he was now ready to crush those below him which was my level.
I couldn't believe how quickly my work life went downhill. I was sick to my stomach every morning, dreading to go to work, but I had rent to pay.
He would love to interrogate the junior staff in meetings. He would deliver rapid-fire questions until he'd trip you. Then he'd pounce. In front of as many people as possible he'd berate you until finally there wasn't a hole deep enough to climb into.
I can't say that I was getting used to the abuse but it was what I expected. This was the new normal and it felt as if nothing was ever going change. He was delivering some significant sales increases and when that's happening most upper management turn a blind-eye to the tactics required to get those sales.
My office was, unfortunately, across from his so he did a lot of eves dropping on me. It was 6:30pm and I got a call from some friends. We made a plan to meet in 15 minutes so I was just finding a good stopping point. He skulked in behind me and said, "You know I'm going to need that report tonight to drop on Mark's desk".
I was stunned. This was a lie. Mark was a devoted family man so he was long gone for the evening. His only purpose was to hurt me. He announced he was going to grab dinner and would be back in an hour or so for the report.
I held it together---shaking with anger and frustration. When I was sure he was out of sight I bawled my eyes out. I had never hated another human being before but if I was going to start he'd be at the top of my list.
I finished the report and handed it to him, or tossed it at him, more likely. As I was putting on my coat he bellowed that I hadn't given him the numbers he needed to make his case to our VP. I explained that the calculations were right and his plan wasn't supported by these results. He was furious. He yelled, "Change the numbers so they work into the new plan!"
I stood there unsure what to do next. I was mad, tired and hungry. All I wanted was to be home and as far away from him as possible.
I sat down and made the changes he demanded and hit "print".
While he had his back to me I scooted the paper across his desk and spun around to leave. "You didn't sign it!" he said with a sneer that he loved to use when he had someone in his talons. I took a deep breath and said, "It's no longer my report. There's false information in there. Sign your own name".
I didn't bother to wait for a reply.
He and I never discussed that report again. I'm assuming he trashed it since it was more of an exercise meant to humiliate me rather than increase sales.
But there was no denying that something had shifted between us, or, maybe, I had changed.
In due time we both moved up and away from each other. His insufferable manner caught up with him and his career started spiraling to a terrible end. Just before he was fired he was led through a painful reckoning in front of the entire department by our new GM.
I remember being surprised at how much I felt sorry for him. He now looked small and weak. In the time since I'd worked for him I had gained some insight about his life and how he was mocked and abused as a child. Instead of learning as a young boy how to treat others with respect he was conditioned to abuse.
At the beginning I saw no good in this man. But with God's grace and a little distance I was able to see him as a whole person. I certainly don't excuse his behavior but I understand it. He opened my eyes to how important it is that all children feel loved and cherished and that every one of us has a responsibility to do whatever we can to make sure that happens.