Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 6.6]

As Jax was about to attend preschool and Chris was about to shift his schedule back, I got some not-so-great news at work. In one sense it was good, I suppose, in that the executive staff was pleased with my team’s efforts to reduce employee performance errors. I’d spent the past three years building and leading a team of trainers and instructional designers in the creation of a competency-building training program for the inspection, packaging, and labeling operations. Once the program was built, we tracked any performance mistakes made, identified the root causes, and analyzed the data for trends. That gave us the information we needed to improve processes or systems that weren’t working and strengthen parts of the training program.

What caught the attention of the executives was that in three years, performance errors in our side of the plant went from greater than 175 a month to fewer than five. The other part of the plant was still generating over 200 errors per month. Because of this, they made a decision to fire my counterpart on that side of the plant and give her responsibilities to me, on top of my current ones. Just when I was feeling some satisfaction from our accomplishments, I was asked to start all over. Plus, that side of the operation had more complex processes and a greater diversity of work, so my responsibilities far more than doubled overnight. Worse than that, I knew that a huge factor in my team’s success had been our excellent, supportive manager, Michael. But, my new boss, Randy, was an arrogant ass of a manager whom I despised.

It didn’t take long for me feel stressed and overwhelmed with my new responsibilities. The thirteen new direct reports I’d acquired were justifiably burnt-out and negative. Problems had gone unresolved on their side so long, it would take twice as long to fix them. After spending a year discovering more problems than I fixed, I felt myself unraveling. On the mornings I had one-on-one meetings with Randy, I would wake up at the start of a panic attack. Some days, desperate to escape the non-stop demands, I’d slip out of the office, sit in my car in the parking lot, smoke a clove cigarette, and listen to Radiohead or Underworld for a good thirty minutes. Dissociating like this again felt familiar and good. A tiny part of me almost wished I’d get caught.

I began grinding my teeth so hard at night that I cracked a hairline fracture in my front tooth. I gained twenty pounds, probably because I came home every night and grabbed a huge glass of wine before I even took my coat off. Then, I failed a pap test and was told I had a spot of cancerous cells on my cervix. Although I took care of that one quickly, it seemed like another physical manifestation of my stress. Through all of it, I tried my best to stay fully present and positive around Jax. I was very lucky that he was so easy and delightful. I allowed him to take me into his childlike world, which was filled with exuberance and joy. I loved every minute I spent with him. He was my refuge, always the one thing I refused to screw up.

Eventually, I ran out of strategies to cope with the additional stress of work and my miserable marriage. I found myself on the verge of snapping a lot of the time. I had to change something, but I wasn’t sure what. I was scared to death to quit my job. The salary was good and the stability excellent, but I believed the growing demands might eventually kill me. Dissociating to the extreme like I had in the past wasn’t an option I wanted to exercise anymore, so I started taking an antidepressant. Initially, feeling numb was a huge relief. The panic attacks stopped and I was able to think clearly again. It was glorious to finally be able to “detach” from Chris’ subtle hostility and rejections. I became hopeful that things would be “okay” one way or the other.

After a while, a course of action became clear. During a meeting with Randy, I’d presented a proposal outlining exactly how I thought we could improve things, and I clearly justified, with data, my need for more resources. I told him a real barrier to progress was low morale. Years of poor management, disempowerment, and meager increases meant most of my staff hated their jobs and wanted to leave. I told him how a single mother on my team literally broke out in hives one day after news was dropped on her that she’d have to work overtime for the third weekend in a row.

After he’d patiently listened to everything I’d said, he stood up from the small table we were sitting at and went around to stand behind his desk. I tried to steady myself and not let him sense my fear.

The first words out of his mouth were, “How old is your son?”

“He just turned four.”

“Ahhhh…,” he said, as if suddenly everything made sense to him. “I get it now… You’re in ‘mommy mode.’ You’re allowing yourself to feel waaaay too much empathy for these people. Let me tell you a story. In my house, if my daughter falls and skins her knee when I’m home alone, I tell her she’s going to be fine and off she goes. But if my wife is home and my daughter skins her knee, she runs to my wife sobbing and whining. My wife pampers her and it turns into a three-hour ordeal. Do you catch my drift?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, my point is that your staff are pushing your ‘mommy buttons,’ and you’re encouraging them to whine and blow it all up into a bigger ordeal than it needs to be. If you stop listening to them with those big puppy-dog eyes of yours, they’ll stop yakking.”

“Hmm,” I said standing up. “I see. So, are you going to consider my proposal?”

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I will, but believe me when I say, ‘My hands are tied.’”

“Okay, thank you.” I turned and left his office.

Not only did he not want to hear my concerns, he’d obviously taken my concerns as a personal attack on his ego somehow. I thought of all the things I should have said to him, like, “I know you’re trying to weaken me with the language you chose and by saying I’m in ‘mommy mode.’ Maybe I should be offended. But I can’t be because I know how much strength and courage it takes every day to do the right thing for your children, put them before yourself, and advocate for them in this sometimes cruel world. Moreover, my staff are humans and all humans deserve compassion—even you, you pompous, ignorant ass-kisser.”

Of course, I hadn’t said any of this. At home that night, I thought long and hard about the story he shared. I wondered it there might actually be a shred—a miniscule shred—of truth in what he said. I suppose I could get them to stop talking to me if I simply stopped listening, but that definitely wouldn’t address the underlying problem that the company was abusing its employees. What else bothered me was that I knew without a shadow of a doubt he wouldn’t share my proposal with the executives, nor would he go to bat for me to get more resources for my team. He was too much of a cowardly megalomaniac.

Over the weekend, I spent two sleepless nights pondering what I should do. I knew the company politics were too big for me to take on, especially without the support of my manager. I knew I couldn’t achieve what I was charged to do or improve conditions for my staff. I weighed all this against the salary and full pension I would be walking away from. Monday morning, I placed my letter of resignation on my manager’s desk, effective immediately.

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