I’m Not Here To Make Friends

I spent my 2 hour commute home yesterday obsessing over an email I had sent to a co-worker right before I left the office. It had been a hectic day, and I was a little stressed and noticed something had been sent to a customer that shouldn’t have been, so I shot out an email asking about it and then packed my shit and hit the road. And then commenced a rather unhealthy obsession over whether or not I had come across as a total bitch.

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Which, in reflection 24 hours later, is completely ridiculous because A) I had done nothing wrong in the situation in question with the customer and B) The email itself wasn’t rude. Concise? Sure. To the point? Yes. A little cold? Maybe. But since when is that grounds to lose one’s shit for an entire evening??

Part of me wants to say it’s the struggle of being an assertive, vocal woman in sales who is constantly trying to find the balance between having a voice and wanting to be liked, but that would an unfair, completely oversimplified generalization. Plus in this case, I don’t think it had anything to do with being a woman, but more to do with the fact that I’ve been struggling with anxiety pretty heavily recently, and this was just something I happened to fixate on.

And in case you’re all wondering, the issue was resolved this morning – there was no fall-out. The entire office didn’t start whispering about me, and I wasn’t forced to bear a scarlet “B” to repent for my crimes.

But, it did get me thinking. Well, more accurately it got me talking, and I forced Gil to entertain the fact that people might think I’m a complete monster at work and hate me with the fire of a thousand burning suns. OK, he didn’t really entertain that idea, but he did challenge me to consider what kind of vibe I might be putting out there, and to make changes if that’s something that is important to me.

On a side note, can I just say, it’s INFURIATING sometimes to have a partner who is so calm and rational and logical and exists so solidly in reality. I live on emotions and rainbows and panic attacks and FEELINGS. So. Many. Feelings.

Regardless, his rational response to my wildly irrational meltdown got me thinking about how people perceive me at work, and whether it’s something that really matters to me.

On some level, of course it matters. It matters to all of us who have chosen to enter the professional workforce. We enter into an unspoken agreement to be generally palatable to the rest of the people we interact with and to shower on a fairly regular basis. Beyond that, there is really no obligation to be liked or make friends with those you work with, although countless studies will tell you that a big part of job satisfaction has to do with having friendships at work.

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And I work at a tech company in the Silicon Valley – a place where culture reigns supreme. There’s been countless resources and energy directed towards creating a workplace where people are encouraged to be very social, from lawn game Olympics to regular happy hours and karaoke nights, to company trips.

I think that’s fantastic, and I feel incredibly lucky to work for a company like that. I have realized however, that I’m a bit of an odd man out, as my general feeling when I go to work is that I’m there to make money, not friends.

Some of it has to do with the fact that I work in sales, and I make a good chunk of my salary on commission – which is to say, if I don’t close deals, I don’t get paid. So for me, work has always been more of a hustle, and less focused on the social aspect of it. Sales is not exactly a team sport.

And sales can be brutal, man. I’ve worked in other organizations where they purposely pitted sales people against each other, and we were encouraged to screw each other over. I’ve had managers spread lies to my coworkers about things I never said. Somewhere along the way in my sales career, I was taught that relationships at work were a liability. So I tend to be a bit more reserved and cautious about forming those friendships now.

But it’s also about the fact that I’m in a different place in my life than most of my coworkers (I feel so old just typing that). I’m in my early thirties now, and many of my coworkers are just a year or two out of college. My current company has created this kind of fabulous extension of the same kind of social interactions from college that allow people to blur the lines of their social and professional lives until they don’t really exist anymore. They WANT to go to the bars with the people they spend so much time with,  to cut loose and talk about things they can’t share in the confines of the office. They WANT to catch up on Monday mornings about all the crazy shenanigans they got into over the weekend. Hell, they want to live with each other and commute to work together. I get it. I think when I was in my early twenties I would have wanted all that too.

But here’s the thing. I don’t want that now. I want to come home and take my pants off. I want to come home after work and hang out with my boyfriend. I want to have dinner with my friends and meet their their new baby. I want to come home and ice my ankle because I am an old busted down lady now who has permanent arthritis due to an injury.

Is there anything wrong with this? Nope, not at all. Is it actually pretty common in most professional situations? Probably. Am I acutely aware of how I am perceived, in such a culture-focused Silicon Valley tech company? You betcha. I struggle with it.

And I don’t think I’m alone. Especially here in the Valley, your assimilation into the culture is a huge part of your success at work and something you are formally evaluated on in many cases.

And last night, Gil very logically, objectively, and INFURIATINGLY, forced me to look at things a little closer and strive to find a better balance. The last thing I want is to be like the cliche girl on “The Biggest Bachelorette Survivor Housewives of Whatever” defiantly shouting at the camera, “I didn’t come here to make friends, bitches!!”

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How To Survive A Shitshow At Work

Ah, the shitshow. It comes in many forms and can strike at any time. It can be as minor as a dinner party gone awry, or it can play out on a national stage, like that time in 2013 when the federal government shut down for 2 weeks because they didn’t want to play nice with each other.

What I’m talking about it somewhere in between. The mini disaster at work that isn’t going to cost you your job, but requires damage control.

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Personally, I am at the tail-end of just such an event. I, unfortunately, was the catalyst for this particular event. I misunderstood something that a customer wanted, and it set off a chain reaction of events that quickly escalated into something much bigger. Much shittier.

The details would bore you, but it wasn’t good. There was just a breakdown in communication. Which, incidentally, is the cause for pretty much most problems is it not? Gil works with 8 year old kids all day long and has taught them to resolve conflict with rock paper scissors so everything is fair and there are no misunderstandings. Maybe we should implement that in corporate America…. but I digress.

Anyhow, a work shitshow takes many forms: A new boss doesn’t understand your process at all and slams you in a review. You messed up a purchase order that is going to impact inventory in your store for weeks. You almost gave the wrong dosage of medication to a patient. Your panties fell down in front of a group of high school students as you were dancing on stage as Minnie Mouse.

These are all things that have happened to people I know. It’s not fun. But there are some things you can do to mitigate the damage and survive the situation with grace. This happens to be my personal list for just such an event.

1. Own up.

I’m listing this as number 1 because not only is it the first thing I think you should do, but because I actually think it’s the most important. And what is that saying – the hardest part is admitting there is a problem? Once you identify it, own up to your part in it.

The minute I realized my mistake with this customer, I let my boss know and took full responsibility. You know, after that gut punch feeling had passed and I had bolstered myself with caffeine and chocolate (which you may want to skip so you’re not vibrating down the hall).

2. Wear a power outfit. And fierce eyeliner.

This one sounds silly, but stay with me on this. Basically, do whatever you can to build up your confidence and keep yourself feeling good. I went into work today with a killer outfit on and perfect cat-eye liquid eyeliner. Head held high. Because whether it’s an incident meeting you have to attend, or you’re just going into the office in the midst of the drama, you owe it to yourself to be kind even if everyone around you isn’t.

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Plus, if you don’t go in with your tail between your legs and your head down, people will be less likely to try to pile on blame and will instead see you as the confident, capable employee you are, who just happens to have made a mistake. People tend to use your behavior as a cue for how they are allowed to treat you.

3. Be loud. With intent. 

The squeaky wheel gets the grease right? If there were other issues in play that contributed to your own personal shitshow, be vocal about them. But beware – timing and tact are critical here. This is not about using outside circumstances as an excuse. Remember number 1 – OWN IT.

However, if there are other issues that need to be evaluated that may have contributed to the problem, point them out. But make sure you are bringing solutions and ideas to the table, otherwise it just sounds like a complaint. If you can approach your team with the attitude of “Hey, I know I dropped the ball here, and in the interest of making sure it doesn’t happen again, I’ve been looking at our process and I think there are some simple improvements we can make,” you put yourself in a much better position. You’ve now made yourself an active part of a solution. Sweet.

4. Agree on a plan for the future. 

Once you’ve brought your suggestions and insights to the table, make sure everyone is clear on how similar situations will be handled in the future. Maybe there is a process change that needs to be implemented – agree on  how is that going to be communicated, who is going to enforce the change, etc.

This is when you will really learn a lot about your colleagues’ personal communication styles. Some may prefer to be completely non-confrontational and need to be handled more gently than others. Some respect blunt directness more than anything. Take note of how everyone handles the shitshow and the plan for moving forward, and make note so you know how to best approach them in the future.

5. Move on.

Open a bottle of wine. Get a massage. Go test drive an entirely impractical car. I did all 3 of these things over the weekend. I didn’t think about work once. And while there will still be some fallout from this particular shitshow, it’s manageable and it’s not some shadow looming over me.

That frees me up to keep doing what I need to do and bring in business, which is my number 1 priority. And for me, I’m lucky enough to work for a great company where people want to collaborate to make things better, and this is just a blip on the radar. A learning experience.

If you happen to work for a company or a boss who has no interest in actually working through this process with you, then moving on might actually mean moving on from that job or that boss.

I’ve been in that situation too – I had a boss whose idea of conflict resolution included hurling a teapot in my general direction and screaming at me in front of the rest of the office.

I quit. His company went under. So sometimes things work out the way they’re supposed to. Because while we are all going to experience a shitshow at work every once in awhile, it should definitely be the exception, not the rule.