Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Importance of Liking Your Own Work -- Part One (an IWSG post)

Back when I first moved out to California, I worked at Toys R Us. At the time, TRU was one of the worst possible places to work at. They had incredible turnover amongst their employees, and, the funny thing is, they couldn't figure out why. After all, they paid minimum wage, right? Anyone should be happy with that. A job where they hire no full-time employees so that they don't have to provide benefits. A job with no employee discounts. A job with absolutely no flexibility to your schedule and, even worse, no routine to it. Really, they did their best to own you by making you be available to them whenever they wanted you to be.

But you should be thankful for the job.

I've heard that it's better there, now. Well, at least, now, they have an employee discount program. I'm not sure about the rest.

And, yes, I'm sure I just described quite a bit of corporate minimum wage retail jobs, but I only have experience with the one. [And when I say that it was one of the worst places to work, I'm not saying that from my experience. During the time I worked there, it was ranked in the top 10 worst retail places to work and, I'm pretty sure, had the highest turnover rate of any retail chain store.]

But all of that is beside the point. Background, if you will. I suppose it's important to note that no one worked there because s/he wanted to work there. No one aspired to working at the local Toys R Us. [On the other hand, I did actually know people when I was growing up (and, remember, this was the South) who did aspire to work at Wal-Mart. Their goal was to one day get to be a manager!]
[I'm totally serious about that.]
[Completely, totally serious.]

To cut through what could be a long story, it wasn't long before I was put in charge of other people. Actually, for someone that started at the complete bottom of the TRU food chain (maintenance (a fancy word for janitor)), it was incredibly quick (as quick as they could make it without violating any of their weird policies). It was unhappy-making for some people that had been working there for years, but, see, I was self-motivated (meaning I didn't wait to be told what to do (because most people, upon finishing a task, would just float around the store until someone found them and gave them a new task (which meant a lot of people spent a lot of time just avoiding being found))), decisive, and more than competent (meaning I didn't need to be told more than once how to do any particular thing).

Which brings us to the interesting part of all of this: I was put in charge of other people because of those traits. I was good at figuring out what needed to be done and making sure it got accomplished. [Actually, my biggest issue was with delegating, because I feel much more comfortable just doing tasks myself rather than depending upon someone else to do them.] These were things the managers liked seeing in their employees. They were not traits, however, that the other employees liked so much. Specifically, they were not traits that employees working under me particularly liked.

Every morning, all of the department heads had meetings with the people that worked under them to hand out tasks. Mostly, this was a pretty uncomplicated interaction that went kind of like this:
"Okay, Employee 1, you need to do Task A, today. It's not a rush job; you just need to be finished with it before you leave for the day." [That's eight hours to do a job that shouldn't take more than two or so to do, but you had to leave in time to help customers. Still, those kinds of tasks shouldn't have taken all day, although they usually did.]
"Employee 2, you need to do Task B. This is a rush job, and you need to focus on getting it finished as quickly as possible. If a customer has a question that you can't answer on the spot, call someone else to help her."
"Employee 3..." [I'm sure you get the idea.]
Seems straightforward, right? Except this one morning, a young lady interrupted me by saying, "Why do you always act like you know everything?"

I think I stared at her for a moment, because, really, I had no idea what she was talking about, then said, "Excuse me?"

"Why do you always act like you know everything?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You never say 'I think' or 'I believe,' you just tell us what to do like you know everything."

Point #1: If you think something or believe something, it's redundant to say "I think" or "I believe," because, obviously, if you're saying it, you must think or believe it.

But that's not what we've been taught in our current society. In a world where everything is subjective, we're supposed to always preface anything we say with a phrase that casts doubt upon what we're saying. Personally, I think that's bullshit. [Yes, I prefaced that with "I think" on purpose.] I don't go around saying "I think 2+2=4." Why? Because I know 2+2=4. Sure, I could be wrong (I'm not), but I believe that I'm correct, so I just say it: "2+2=4." People, though, get all bent out of shape with when you act confident about anything more complicated than that, because, you know, we're all entitled to our own beliefs.

And, see, I believe that. We are all entitled to our own beliefs. But that doesn't mean I have to be wishy-washy about what I believe. And you shouldn't either. If you believe it, if it's really what you think, drop the preface. Just own it and say it. Don't make it sound like you don't know, yourself, if you're sure about what you say you believe.

My response was something along those lines, "If I'm saying it, I must think it, so why should I bother to tell you that's what I think."

"Well, other people say it that way. They tell us what they think we should do. They also ask us if that's what we want to do. Why don't you ask us?"

"Do you mean I should say, 'Hey, would you like to re-do the endcap on aisle 7, today?'"

"Yeah, why don't you ask?"

"Because it's not an option. If I'm giving you the endcap to do, you don't have the option of saying 'no,' so why should I ask you if you want to do it? That would be misleading."

By this point, the other 5 or 6 people under my charge were all staring open-mouthed at us.

"Well, why don't you see which things we want to do and let us pick or something? I don't want to do [the task I was giving her for the day]."

"That's why I didn't ask. It's my job to assign the tasks to the people I feel best equipped to handle them, and you get to do [whatever the task was she didn't want to do]."

Point #2: If you're in charge of something, if it's your thing, it doesn't matter what other people think or feel about it. You have to make the decisions. Trying to figure out how everyone else feels about a particular thing and making it work for everyone will result in some things never happening. Like, you know, when someone smeared poop on the bathroom walls (and, yes, that would happen in the boys' restroom every couple of months), someone had to go clean that up. It wasn't something that was really up for debate, because that's one of those things that no one ever wanted to do, so saying, "Hey, who wants to go clean the bathroom?" wasn't going to get you any responses. You had to pick someone and tell them to do it and ignore any "Why do I have to do that?" and "I don't want to"s.

You may be wondering, at this point, what any of this has to do with, as a writer, liking your own work, but both points are very relevant. And I'm not saying that feedback can't be useful, but too much feedback, or trying to accommodate too much feedback, is debilitating. It's yours, your work. Believe in it. And I'll talk more about all of this in part 2.

Just to wrap up the story, as it turned out, that particular employee had been passed to me through about three other people who couldn't get her to do her assigned tasks. They had not been firm enough and had given assignments out as if they were options: "How would you like to do..." or "Why don't you take..." or "It would be great if..." She had taken all of those assignments as if they were optional and opted out of doing them. So they gave her to me, and she did what I assigned her even though she didn't like it.

However, about two weeks later, on a day when I was not at work, she had tried on a manager what she had tried on me, and she was fired on the spot. Actually, she was told she could "go home for the day," because they (TRU) never actually used the term "fired" (except that one time the one guy was caught stealing a buttload of video games, but that's another story). Then, she was never re-scheduled and when she came in for her paycheck, she was told "things aren't working out" and let go. Don't you just love all the euphemisms? I think they're great.

This post has been brought to you by Alex Cavanaugh and the IWSG.


  1. I think, no, I know that it is mean spirited to ridicule a person who aspires to become a manager at a Walmart. As you said yourself, in order to achieve the position of manager at TRU you had to possess superior traits that were desirable to an employer. Why would you view others who would like to be in retail management as somehow "less than" you?

    There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. The first is appealing, the other, not so much.

  2. People who try to get by with as little effort as possible...
    If I believe it, then it's true to me.
    And yes, I know you're serious about the Wal-Mart thing. Some people in the south think if they can get in with Wal-Mart, they have it made.

  3. I believe you are right. :)

    Dammit, it is tough getting past cultural stuff!

  4. Clarity and "take charge" attitude are critical in the work world. So is diplomacy. I've worked in the field of public education since my mmd 20s'. The first years were about managing kids - some of the years 8th graders and some of the years primary age kids. I certainly wove choice into the day in some arenas but, bottom line was, you followed my direction. The last 12 years, I have been in admin role - managing children and adults. Same thing. Diplomacy counts when looking for effective management.
    That woman employee who questioned you needed to hear those responses. Really, woman? You are getting paid to do not what YOU want to do but what I say needs to be done. This is job is not for your entertainment but you are here to take care of what I decide you need to do. Sounds like a case of entitlement.

  5. I applied to Toys R Us once. They made me fill out this whole pyschological exam. I'm not sure how much of a surprise it is to say that they didn't hire me.

  6. WHOA, cleaning up poop on walls? Wish I could say I've never done that, but I'm a Mom. Don't want to do that at my workplace.

  7. WHOA, cleaning up poop on walls? Wish I could say I've never done that, but I'm a Mom. Don't want to do that at my workplace.

  8. Feedback is always tricky to deal with. You have to figure out what resonates for you and what doesn't. But if you get consistent comments about something, it's a pretty good sign there's a change that needs to be made. Part of being a good boss is knowing when to be flexible too.

  9. Funny thing is, in my professional life I have worked in many different capacities. From scrubbing toilets at a cleaning company, to bagging bait fish at a marina-but I have also had the privilege of working (for many years) in the corporate world in the capacity of "boss"; I was in charge of the hiring, firing, and asked to mediate work place disputes between people who hated each other and somehow found a way to make them produce and all get along. I've done all of that and more, with a confidence and success rate I had no idea I possessed. (To this day no one in from my prior workplace has been able to beat the records I set) But for some reason, in my writing life, I am riddled with a ton of insecurities and doubts I never suffered from in the work place. Why? Why could I make so many hard and fast decisions with insane confidence, but crumble when it comes to writing? Just can't seem to figure that one out!

    Looking forward to reading Part II of this post.

  10. An interesting post. You should send it to Toys R Us.

  11. I really love what jaybird said!! I feel the same way. I hired and fired people with no insecurities yet in writing I have a ton. Funny.

    As for how to manage people, that's a whole different subject. You're dealing with emotions. I find it easier to lead with understanding.

  12. Anne: I'm not viewing anyone less than me. I am saying, generally speaking, from decades of working with teens, that the aspiration to work retail -as a goal- has to do with those kids having a poor view of themselves. Kids should not dream of their future job, right of high school, at Wal-Mart, and they certainly shouldn't be dreaming that as a career choice. That's giving up before you started. People often get stuck in jobs they don't like--I worked at TRU--but they shouldn't aspire to hit the bottom rung of the ladder, so to speak. Unless they actually -like- it, but that's different. When it's a case of "this is all I'm good for" (which was every instance I ever dealt with), then it's a bad thing.

    Alex: Yeah, really, all she wanted to do was hang out in the store all day and get paid to do it.

    David: It is tough to get past.

    Graciewilde: I'd repeat what I just said to Alex, but I just said it to Alex.
    I did give choice past the first assignments. When someone finished a task, they got to pick from the less pressing jobs. Bottom line is, though, when you're in a place like TRU and on the bottom rung there, you don't get a lot of choice.

    PT: Oh, yeah, the psych eval. I handled some of those. I got to do hiring every once in a while when the actual manager in charge of that was too busy.

    JKIR,F!: That's kind of the least of it, too. I didn't want to get too graphic, though.

    L.G.: I'm flexible! Like an iron bar!

    jaybird: It's probably (and I'm guessing) the haziness of writing. When you're doing something in a typical work place, things are fairly straightforward. You have to accomplish X, and there are only a few ways to go about doing that. However, when you're writing, there are (literally) infinite ways to go about doing that, and there's no clear sign as to which is the correct one. Except, well, the one that -you- like, which is what I'll get into in part 2.

    Michael: Oh, I'm sure the TRU spies have already flagged it.

    Elsie: I'll point back up to my response, there, then.

    And I think I did understand her. I understood that she was trying to not have to do anything real. Because, well, I caught her at it frequently enough. Mostly, people liked working with me, because I was always clear about expectations.

  13. Andrew, I'm going to be honest here...when I saw the length of your post I was going to pass it over for later, but the more I read, the more enthralled I became and, then, I had no choice but to finish it.

    Seriously, sir, well done. Looking forward to part two.

    Have a great Fourth!

  14. Delegating is probably one of the most important skills any manager can have, but it is a skill and has to be handled with finesse. It works better if you and your minions consider yourself a true team. It's about respecting others like you want to be respected. You get back what you give out. As for the feedback part, I think you know organically what feels right and what doesn't. If a CP or beta makes a good argument, I'll consider it.

  15. Mark: Well, I'm glad to hear that. I am prone to long posts, but it's not something I'm likely to change. I'm glad you found it worth your while.

    Nancy: Well, there were no "teams" at TRU. You just got whoever was assigned to your section for that day, and, since people worked schedules all over the place, you never knew whom you would have.

  16. I'm in Jamaica and now I'm scared of Toys R Us poor employment plan. You made some great points and yes belief doesn't need to wishy washy.

  17. Sheena: It may not be as bad now as it was then. I don't know. I have read that they finally took steps to create a better working environment so that they could have some employee retention.
    I think people should -know- what they believe.

  18. We have a similar work ethic, only I was managing theaters, not TRU. My employees were all teens (college students at the theater in Oregon), and it drove me nuts when people couldn't look around and figure out what to do on their own.

    However, I do find that I temper things with "I think" and "I believe" more than I should. It's my way of softening what I'm saying, though I mean what I'm saying. I especially do it when speaking to someone who is technically more qualified than I am at something.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  19. As someone who used to shop at Toys R Us on occasion, this explains a lot. Those stores were always a mess.

    I've seen a few questions around and about lately about "How much is too much?" and "When do I say no?" in regards to feedback and criticism. AT some point, you have to take charge of your own work. Figuring out what point that is is the challenge. Great post!

  20. I know I'm a day late on this -- or two days, I guess -- but I'm finding it hard to keep up with my blog reading as the book I'm reading gets better and better.

    Anyway, so much to comment on! First, people are not entitled to believe whatever they want. If I say "I believe gravity works the opposite of what you say it does!" that's not a belief I'm "entitled" to have. Beliefs are only entitlements when they cannot be proven or disproven. If you believe when we die we go to purgatory, and I say we go to Heaven and get to marry Jennifer Aniston there, neither of us can be challenged.

    As for the boss/employee thing, I happen to be a boss, and I see the point of some of what you say. For example, I almost NEVER ask input into personnel decisions, administrative matters, or rules about work before putting them into place. I'm willing to listen to suggestions after the fact, but if you ask someone "Hey, should this be a rule," then the people that vote against it will resent it being a rule. So when I recently installed a requirement that people print their time sheets and give them to me at the end of the day, I didn't ask, I just told them "that's the rule."

    (I have a side policy that you have to do something for 30 days before you can suggest changes. Works AWESOME.)

    But, as a boss, I almost always phrase things as requests. Once, I went to Loyal Assistant and said "Hey, can I ask you a favor?" and when she said "Yes" I had her make a bunch of copies and go file them at the courthouse. She said "You know, you don't have to ask," and I said:

    "I know I don't HAVE to ask. It's just polite. I'm never ACTUALLY ASKING you if you want to do something."

    Good employees understand that requests from supervisors/bosses are not requests at all. Good bosses remember that you don't have to be bossy.

    (So far I think I'm a good boss. I buy the staff ice cream almost every week.)

  21. Oh, and writing?

    Other than maybe correcting grammar, I generally refuse to ask someone whether they think I should do something different with a story or post I've written. I write for fun. If others want to write a different kind of story, they can. Asking someone how I should write a story would be like asking someone whether I should do a certain activity with the boys: I'm not interested.

  22. Incompetent people drive me nuts. Lazy people, too. Lazy and incompetent? Practically unemployable...
    Yes, we must believe in ourselves, our writing, and our convictions. Sharing all of those with confidence is important. However, having someone give feedback is a necessary step in the writing process. We're too close to the story, so having someone else's eyes is key.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  23. Shannon: I'm not especially good at softening what I'm saying. Who knew, right? Still, I'm a lot better at these days than I used to be. SO, yeah, be scared of my younger self.

    JeffO: What's scary is how much better they are now than they used to be. I also, briefly, worked at a TRU in Louisiana when I was right out of high school, and the policy then (the real, actual policy) was to not help the customers. Seriously, that's how they instructed us.

    Briane: No, just one day, which is no big, because LOOK! here you are.

    Oh, I know that's true on the being entitled to believe whatever, but we still seem to think that. Some people refuse to believe that there are proofs for things, like those people still clinging to the whole "flat Earth" idea or people like my great-grandmother that believed the moon landing was a hoax. And, really, we can't tell them, "Hey, you're not -allowed- to believe that," because that's not how we work.

    Unfortunately, in a place like you TRU, you never have more than about 50% good employees, and, at least then, there were always so many new ones that you couldn't risk assuming.

    I agree with you on the writing. I mean, if you look back at virtually all of the greatest books ever written, none of them were written with critique groups and all that stuff we talk about now. If Lewis can write Narnia all by himself in a few months without checking with a committee every few chapters to see if it was working...

    Tina: To continue what I was just saying to Briane:
    I don't think that feedback is necessary. Lewis didn't have feedback on Narnia. Dickens didn't have feedback. None of the greats had feedback. The only possible exception is Tolkien who read pieces of Middle Earth at Inklings meetings, but he wasn't soliciting suggestions on what he should be doing with the writing; it's just what they did. And his feedback ranged from Lewis' "this is great stuff" to that guy whose name I can't remember who would fling himself onto the floor anytime Tolkien was going to read and proclaim "not more bloody elves!"

  24. Retail jobs are the worse jobs ever IMO. I'd rather scrape gum off sidewalks then deal with customers in person for someone else's corporation.
    Some peeps always try to get out of working. Always. Even so, i do believe in diplomacy in the workplace to keep things pleasant. But hell if i don't dream of working in a place where I can tell peeps exactly what I think. lol :)

  25. Pk: I've never worked fast food, so I can't say for sure. My cousin, who spent a summer at McDonald's, claimed there was nothing worse than fast food.
    And I exercised a LOT of diplomacy in that I never told an employee exactly what I thought. For instance, I never said, "You are a waste of air," no matter how often I was tempted to. This includes not saying that to the guy that went to the hospital because he had gas and didn't want to come to work. Seriously.
    And then bragged about it later.

  26. This is the story of why I always aimed for management in any job I wanted to keep for a while. If I didn't want to manage, I'd move on to another workplace and that didn't happen too many times.

    You've provided a good illustration of why some people are best suited to become managers and others just linger long enough to collect their paychecks in the easiest way possible. I think your story also illustrates why the American economy is going to be overtaken by countries like China. Many newer generation Americans don't want to work unless the work is easy and entertains them.

    Looking forward to what you have to say about liking one's own work. If I don't like what I write, then why should anyone else like it?

    Wrote By Rote

  27. Lee: Many newer studies show that most Americans think that they're above menial labor or minimum wage work. They feel entitled to "better" jobs. And, yet, at the same time, we want to complain about the people willing/wanting to do them.

    And I agree with you completely, but many people would (do) say that it's completely unimportant whether you like your own work. You should try to write to your audience only whether you like it or not. Needless to say, I don't agree with that.