It’s a slow walk through the building towards the employee parking lot. It is reminiscent of an insane asylum as we make it to the long empty-walled white hallway. The ugly checkered carpet doesn’t provide any softness to the ambiance of the hall. I glance at my friend to make sure she’s not wearing a white coat. The conversation is strained. The tension is similar to a therapist trying to pull out your life’s biggest secret. I’m uncomfortable because I don’t know what my secret is, but I feel that I should guard it regardless. I start to feel the weight of responsibility closing in as I see my friend starting to get upset, she cannot take it anymore. “HOW ARE YOU JUST OKAY WITH ALL OF THIS CRAP?”
This moment creeps into my mind occasionally. These tense moments do not often come to fruition in most of my relationships. But this friendship has endured several tense moments. It’s one of those rare friendships that stand against the test of time; it’s withstood the collision of both of our most horrible character flaws. In this moment, it is my uncanny ability to not care, and I have not been taking responsibility for the collateral damage. It is this very characteristic that I think Kim loves most about me, and what drives her, and so many family and friends to want to kick me in the shins.
Indifference is not a desirable quality that can take on many faces. Indifference is forced, and on the surface, it appears as if you don’t care at all. In fact, indifferent people care way too much about too many things. Indifferent people really care about what people think of them, so they hide behind things such as sarcasm and snarkiness. Indifferent people are masters of spreading the blame and taking no responsibility for their actions.
In the beginning of our careers at this particular office, we were given the keys to the creative kingdom with no supervision and oversight. Kim and I would put our heads together and create anything we wanted. Some days we spent hours brainstorming beautiful mind maps for new training programs. When it came time to development, we chose to put the extra hours in instead of outsourcing to create eLearning that moved far away from point-click-submit hell. We understood the already changed world that technology had created and we knew how to make it work with adults trying to learn in a corporate environment.
The end results of the training we created would have been the beautiful cover of every issue of a training program version of a Southern Living magazine. We worked hard and we were proud of every product we put to market.
The descent of oversight
I don’t remember how quickly or how slowly we fell under our manager’s thumb. What was once a creative playground, turned into a political chess game. I quickly knew we were the pawns. It didn’t take me long to fall out of love with this work. Our talents, hours of grinding, and the labors of so much love started to feel like a puppet show with our manager playing the spectacularly deceptive and sadistic puppet-master.
I became unhappy, quickly. So, I quickly made the choice to care a lot less about that work and chose to focus on better things, primarily my family. The ones who were getting a lot less time while I was working late hours in the office.
Take back happiness
My working hours became strict, 8 hours. In meetings, I picked very few battles, and rarely engaged in debate. Mostly it was along the lines of a smile and nod, “Sure, that sounds great!” or “I’ll get right on that.”
Shifting my focus was easy, and I was happy, but I didn’t anticipate some of the growing pains that come with breaking from the norm. Shelving some of my work values still got the work done. Despite my productivity, the shift in priorities raised eyebrows. Not a few, just Kim’s. My manager loved steamrolling everything so he was delighted to find there was absolutely no resistance to his terrible ideas from my end.
The team environment became toxic as the manager penetrated communication channels with deceit. His work ethic infiltrated projects with lazy “check the box” requirements and as a result, the quality of the work was noticeably bad in some areas. Distrust grew as quickly as he would sneakily position one employee against the other for his enjoyment. The psychological warfare took some toll on me, on some days, but I mostly just kept to the smile and nod policy I created for myself.
Sadly, I hadn’t realized that my unannounced departure from caring about that job would impact my friendship and working relationship with Kim. Which led to the awkward conversation with my dear friend and co-worker.
There is hurt in her voice as she searches my face for an answer to her question. She’s grasping to articulate the exact point of crappiness, which is difficult because there is a lot of crap that has been piling up. I am sad that this is happening. If it were anyone else, I would probably have walked away with a “you’re off your rocker and good luck with that” type of exit. I care about Kim, so I stay. I do my best to explain my position; why and how re-prioritizing this job was the best decision I made for myself. I don’t regret anything, but I’m still a little sad. I succeeded in leaving work behind, but I failed half of the mission and now my friend feels like I am an indifferent phony. Awesome. At least we’re talking again?!
Kim and I bring up that day occasionally, and we laugh about it now. For me, this moment was a big win in our friendship. I am grateful to have a friend that is capable of self-reflection and will let her guard down to share her fears as well as her joy.
This awkward conversation sparked an opportunity for me to recognize fault, and finally take responsibility for my own actions. Sure, my boss was to blame for creating the crappy work environment. We only have so much control and ability to fight the current at work before we get fired or marked up in our little files. He was to blame, but I am ultimately responsible for the quality of my work and contributing to healthy relationships.
Thanks to Kim starting this dialogue, the creative wheels were ignited again. We used our day jobs to practice collaboration and teamwork. We used our respective programs to build a supporting learning structure that was a bridge between technologies and traditional learning systems. We took these skills, and then we started our own company.
Kim and I challenge each other in many ways and we have endured more awkward conversations. She will throw me an occasional compliment, “I love that you are just you and don’t care what anyone else thinks.” It’s a skill that I am still working on. I can flex it well, but I have to reel it in or else I push people away. I have learned a good lesson.
Neither of us would be successful as individuals, business partners, as friends, or highly-functioning mothers in society if we did not accept responsibility for our actions. Sadly, it’s a concept that seems simple, but it rarely performed. Taking responsibility can be painful and awkward, but it is incredibly rewarding. I encourage you to try it, for a day… a week… a month… See what happens and share your experience. I am right there with you with this experiment in responsibility and I’m already seeing positive change.