AWAI Writing Challenge Honorable Mention:
Prometheus’ Fire or Pandora’s Box?
Or How I went from “The Alien” to “The Brady Bunch”

My job from hell began innocently enough. Sounded like a good opportunity with professional standing, nice salary and benefits … but upper management forgot to tell me they had a secret …

The ad looked enticing: “Operations Officer” for a recently-merged savings and loan. I had the requisite experience, it was semi-local and just what I was hoping for—I thought. I traveled three hours for the interview at headquarters. And after about 8 weeks, a final decision was made. I was hired.

My first day on the job I got a call from HR wondering if they could fly down and meet me for lunch. A light started flashing.

Fly down? For lunch? On my first day? “To discuss some things.”

Certainly, I’d be happy “to discuss some things.”

They came from the sky--the HR Department Head, the Regional Manager from Corporate and pilot— landing the corporate prop plane on the primitive airstrip nearby (I think it was actually paved, but just … ). The local Denny’s was the chosen venue. In Lake County, that was as cosmopolitan as you got.

So, over my Pyramid-anytime-is-breakfast hash browns and coffee I heard their offer: A deceptively casual “By the way, would you like to be the Branch Manager/Loan Officer as well as the Operations Officer?”

Perhaps no flop-sweat was visible, but their hand had been tipped. Just a bit. Two corporate managers flying two hundred miles to meet me at Denny’s.

Hm. Sounds interesting. Where is the manager now?

She’s been ill.

Well … I’ve never actually managed a branch.

No problem.

 … And I’ve never done any loans.

Not an obstacle.

 … Really?


Of course, I took it. Probably a hubris-type thing.

Appealing to vanity, as we know, is a powerful motivator.

They ascended again. But had they left me Prometheus’ fire or Pandora’s Box?

Curiosity is a powerful motivator.

Back at the branch, things were in chaos. Piles of unfiled documents which should have been dealt with daily had apparently been waiting several months just for … ME. Computer hard copies, looming white and pale green, towered everywhere. Behind the counters. On the floors. In the staff lunch room.

In order to move things along, I would pitch in along with the tellers hoping to boost morale and increase camaraderie. Nothing.

From day one I sensed a certain stand-offish attitude by what was now “my” staff. There were four tellers, and me. One was in the process of quitting. One tried to be nice, but was also looking for an out. A third observed events with a jaundiced eye.

And the fourth? She had it in for me. Oozed resentment from every pore.

When I would request a job done it was done in sullen silence or not-too-artfully dodged. Hers was slippery passive-aggressive behavior nearly impossible to document, like misplaced messages or information known but not communicated.

Naturally, at first I blamed myself—that insecurity thing. Maybe I was not being clear. Maybe my manner was too gruff? Not gruff enough?

After about two weeks I finally discovered what upper management omitted--that the previous manager had an almost cult-like devotion from her staff and had been, in fact, fired for incompetence after a long illness under obviously painful circumstances.

The antipathy toward me wasn’t personal; it just went with the position. This helped explain the coldness and lack of cooperation, but it did not change the fact that I needed to find an inroad into, if not their love, their acceptance, so we could work together.

My tactics changed. Although I thought I’d been appropriately professional and appropriately cordial, I now made every effort to make things more personal and still get things accomplished. I made more effort to learn personal information about each staff member, and implemented personal motivators like programs to incent efficiency with extra time off for birthdays or anniversaries. I solicited staff’s ideas for other community involvement or fun in-branch activities. We sponsored Christmas activities in the lobby that made the pre-Holiday Season a delight for both staff and clients including a visit from Santa.

After about two months I sensed a shift in mood. The malcontent was unchanged and clearly resented the fact that others were enjoying the Team Spirit. Energy slowly drained from her power base of bitterness, and instead the rest of us had a happy family feeling. Not long after that shift, the resentful employee quit. This made a positive difference in the atmosphere. I hope she found peace elsewhere, for she seemed determined not to find it with us.

What I learned from this initially unfortunate alliance was:

Actions really DO speak louder than words.

Only by showing genuine concern and personal sacrifice do you gain associate’s trust. Otherwise, “they’ve heard it all before.”

Being “nice” isn’t enough.

To build respect and rapport, you have to be willing to know the work, do the work, and go the extra mile. Be willing to be in the trenches with your fellow employees through rough times—technical glitches, broken machines, sudden rush of customers.

One bad apple really does affect spoilage.

Morale can really suffer if there’s even just one “spoiler” on the team. A staff shortage is much more bearable than having one of these malcontents poison the team spirit.

Someone has to be point-man, willing to take the blame, and/or make the “tough” decisions.

That means you, if you’re in charge. Being liked isn’t really the point. Being respected, and for the right reason, is. This is not a contradiction of the first two points. A leader has to do what’s right. If you do right by your fellow employees, are honest and supportive, you will gain their respect. Namby-pamby “niceness” is not the same as genuineness and concern.

Relationships come first.

In a business, the bottom-line is the bottom line, BUT you can’t get productivity and profits without personal relationships intact. That’s an investment that really pays dividends.

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Published: September 24, 2009

1 Response to “AWAI Writing Challenge Honorable Mention: Prometheus’ Fire or Pandora’s Box? Or How I went from “The Alien” to “The Brady Bunch””

  1. Drew me right in because it was so obviously written from experience. And the adroit use of connectives kept me interested to the end. Thank you.


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