“I’m always aware of writing around things I can’t do, and I’ve come to think that that’s actually what ‘style’ is – an avoidance of your deficiencies.”
I love this quote. It is self-deprecating in a highly original and intelligent way. George Saunders, by the way, won the Man Booker prize in 2017 for his novel, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’.
Writers are usually lauded for their writing style. It is a little bit breathtaking to suggest that style is nothing more than a manifestation of the lengths you must take to avoid the parts of your work you are not good at.
It makes me ask myself – what’s my style at work? What deficiencies does my ‘style’ cover?
Rather than confess to anything, I’m going to create a couple of scenarios which might illustrate for you a few of the known consequences of avoiding important issues in the workplace.
Scenario One – The Problem Team Member
Divya is the supervisor of a small, high-powered team working on integrating blockchain technologies for a range of business clients. Al is the Team member who causes her the most heart-ache. He was brought on board by the two entrepreneurs who set up the company – System Blocks – 3 years ago. Divya, who commenced two years ago, has always assumed that ‘special dispensation’ applies to Al by virtue of his early recruitment by the business owners – maybe he’s a friend or relative? Divya doesn’t know and has no simple way of finding out.
What she does know is that Al is un-supervisable. He pays no attention to Divya whatsoever. His outputs are consistently good but he will not follow the simplest instruction. For instance, all team members have agreed to log their whereabouts each morning and share in a system folder their current client commitments. Al does neither.
More disturbingly, he asserts an assumed dominance over everyone in the team, arrogantly issuing unbidden advice in a manner that offends Divya so she has to assume it offends others too. She knows she needs to have a talk with him but, if she’s honest, she knows she is scared to. Supervisors must, however, always appear brave so her quietly confident persona never publicly falters.
The date for the second annual review she should have with him is rapidly approaching. The first had been a farce. “My work is good – do you agree?” he’s asked her without even sitting down. “I love my job, so there’s really no need for a review. Thanks, Divya,” he’d said, as he left her office.
Resolving to do the right thing this time, she sends him an appointment for this year’s review, which he promptly declines, adding a note, “all good at my end.”
She decides to put it off a little longer and timetable reviews for the rest of the team first.
A couple of months zoom past and, just as she reminds herself to make that appointment with Al, the company’s HR consultant comes to see her.
“We have a big problem,” she announces, sitting down firmly. “We’ve had a complaint of serious bullying by your team member, Alonzo Brubeck. Looks bad. Really bad. What’s been going on?”
Scenario Two – The Charismatic CEO
Thirty-five years ago, Claudia founded Uplift, a not-for-profit devoted to providing enterprise micro-loans for desperately poor people in the third world. The company and its operations have grown for each of those 35 years and Claudia has enjoyed exceptional success in attracting government and philanthropic support funding. More than that, she has led a growing workforce by involving each of them in a shared and laudable mission. Staff retention and satisfaction levels are enviably high. Uplift is universally respected.
She is a natural leader. When she walks into a room, all eyes swivel and when she speaks, people hang on her words.
Management is not her thing, however. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of employing people, running teams, and setting up systems for the web of micro-loans, she looks to her first employee, her sidekick, her confidante and CFO, Misha.
Misha’s loyalty to Claudia is unquestioned. He has worked incredibly hard setting up all the systems needed to run a complex and internationally accountable enterprise. It’s Misha who has made all the key management team appointments and who ensures systems and staff performances remain on track.
He sits with Claudia almost daily and takes notes on the ideas he will have to operationalise. He also listens patiently to the stories Claudia likes to tell. Misha knows her well enough to realise that Claudia’s stories are sometimes meant to carry a message – Claudia cannot state instructions directly. But, as the years have worn on, Misha’s grown tired of the stories, the hard work and the oblique messages. If she can’t tell me what to do, I’ll get on with doing things my way, Misha increasingly thinks. Incrementally, Misha’s stamp subtly overlays Claudia’s.
And so it drifts on, year after year, with an unwelcome consciousness of emerging disfunctions and broken loyalty slowly dawning on Claudia. What to do? All Claudia knows is that the company and its mission matters more than any one of them. She wishes she’d had a way to reign it all in earlier.
Finally, the only option is a swift and savage separation. Misha is given a package to sweeten the blow, then summarily marched from the office. Hearts are broken and loyalty betrayed. Other staff are horrified but heed the hidden message: listen and shut-up.
Win a Booker
I’m going to let George Saunders have the last word. This is how he came up with the idea for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’. He heard the story that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died. The grief-stricken Lincoln had entered a temporary crypt on several occasions to hold the boy’s body.
“I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write
So, the guy who says his writing style is the result of avoiding the hard bits, faces down that massive difficulty and produces an artefact that wins the world’s premier literary prize.
You can do that. I can do that. Maybe we won’t win the Booker, but we will feel as pleased with ourselves as George Saunders rightfully feels with himself.
Make winning a workplace Booker one of your New Year’s resolutions.
About Rose Scott
As manager of Worklogic’s Integrity Line service and our Digital Product Manager, Rose Scott ensures that people making a workplace complaint are given a calm and secure reception. She also leads Worklogic’s policy development team, helping organisations set the standard for ethical and constructive behaviour at work.
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