Monday, 7 December 2009

Trying Not To Be David Brent

Having come back to work after four months of unemployment into a more senior position overseeing two offices, three managers and two supervisors, I have quickly become painfully aware of how easy it is to fall into stereotypical office behaviour.  I have noticed that in my attempt to get to know the staff I have been appointed over, I am in real danger of behaving like the David Brent character, played by Ricky Gervais (who also co-wrote the series) in the BBC series, 'The Office' (14 episodes; 2001-3).  Like him, I am middle aged, probably a bit overweight and try to come over as confident when in fact being a little uncertain of my position (I was surprised to be given the job over the 3 other candidates and as it is do not know if I will even have any staff following the restructuring in July 2010).  He tried to be 'in' with the employees and also to be an effective manager but ended up acting in highly embarrassing and ineffectual ways and ultimately being made redundant.  I have noticed that my attempts to engage my staff in conversations have sometimes similarly backfired leaving me feeling similarly humiliated, though perhaps I am better than Brent in that I realise when I have made a faux pas rather than ploughing on regardless.  I found 'The Office' pretty unfunny.  For anyone who has worked in such an enivronment (it was set in a stationery company - Wernham Hogg [their slogan 'Life is Stationery' with its apparent unconscious pun on 'stationary' reminds me always of the slogan for Shanks refuse comapny: 'Shanks. Waste Solutions']), in its Slough office but is applicable to many industries in many UK towns.

I am conscious of using 'management speak'.  Sometimes it is difficult to avoid it when people promise to 'keep me in the loop'.  I have avoided 'touching base' with anyone or thinking about 'blue sky solutions' and certainly have not 'run it up the flagpole and see who salutes', but today I was charged with ensuring there was a 'can-do culture' in my offices after I protested that the constant banging on about 'efficiency' was translated by staff as simply accusing them of being lazy.  The most comic instance of this was when in a meeting at a previous company a member of staff complained that they and their employees were being 'sucked off into other activities' and then there was discussion about whether other people had been 'sucked off', a wealth of Frankie Howerdesque innuendo followed.

There are many potential pitfalls in the week ahead, notably at the office Christmas party next week.  I have insisted I will not be dancing so avoiding a very Brent-like appearance.  Striking the balance between frosty and being chatty with people who live very different lives (all but one of them is a woman) and who as yet I do not know at all well, is a challenge.  You do not want to walk past them silently or simply grunting a greeting or farewell so you flail around for some common topic to talk about and you can only say so much about the weather, especially as my office has no exterior windows.  This is treacherous ground and you end up saying something about how alert a person looks and that is risky.  One of my staff was sitting at her desk with her eyes closed and I bowled up commenting on how she must have been tired by her lunchtime shopping whereas in fact a colleague I could not hear was talking to her and she was listening attentively.  This made me look inconsiderate by talking over this colleague and simply babbling out foolish comments.  I now feel uneasy when around those colleagues.  I have had to adopt a more aloof demeanour but am always concerned that puts distance between you and staff and so you do not get alerted to developing problems until it is too late.  It is particularly critical in the current post where the staff have had their morale constantly battered by my predecessor still with the company who felt the workers never work hard enough and explicitly said they lie to her about the burdens of her work.

To some degree her manner is a little like some of Brent's superiors in 'The Office' but she is also like more senior managers I have encountered in real life.  As yet I have not reached those lofty heights and so can only speculate whether being up there blinds you to the fact that there is more than one way to do something.  She is the second boss I have had who thinks their is her perception of how things are which is 'true' and any other perception is not only wrong but if articulated then it is a 'lie' despite evidence to support it.  Different opinions are not lies.  I do wonder if this is one reason why British business is always in such a state because of this dogmatic attitude that seems all too prevalent.  The problem for me is that now my boss feels that I am helping to promote the 'lies' and so am disloyal to the management tier when in fact anyone in my position would have come to much the same conclusion that the staff are overworked and under-resourced and uncertain about the future (there is no idea in the company how it will be structured by the summer time) further sapping morale.  Whining on about seizing opportunities, being adaptable and working more efficiently is going to do nothing to improve the situation simply to undermine the staff even further.  If I follow her line, work will not get done, but if I follow the line I feel is appropriate I know I will only get a bad reference.  I find myself in lose/lose situations quite often, but here I reall feel as if I have stepped right in and am now up to my neck in one.

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