Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Posted by on Dec 13, 2010 in Feature Articles | No Comments

I haven’t shared this particular story in one of my books, and I think that’s because I didn’t know how I could frame it into a learnable lesson. One of my favorite quotes from my friend, veteran development executive Linda Simensky is, “You’re not working hard enough in the animation business if you aren’t avoiding at least three people.” All kidding aside, Linda’s quote has served as a good reminder to me that not everyone we encounter in the work place is going to be someone we hit it off with. I think we animation folk sometimes assume that since we all have the same interest, we’ll be an instant happy family. If only. Everyone comes to a job with a different agenda––some behave as if they’re living the dream, others behave as if each workday is a nightmare, and many reside somewhere in between.

On one job I worked, early-sh in my career, my supervisor of the three person animation department to which I belonged, was very, very unhappy on the job. Once I was in a production meeting where he slammed his palm into a TV monitor and yelled at the show’s creator during (what seemed to my eyes) a very minor creative disagreement. That was an odd meeting. I couldn’t understand that level of anger and frustration.

Another time, my supervisor turned some of that attitude my way. After he explained some work to me, and I either didn’t understand it the first time, or maybe asked one too many questions, I heard him mumble “fucking idiot” under his breath as he walked away. The trouble was that I happened to be walking in the same direction. He hadn’t realized that, and turned around after his remark and looked embarrassed. I didn’t say anything, trying not to react at all. But, the next day, he came to me and said, “Oh, I wanted you to know that I sometimes mutter things, like thinking out loud, but it has nothing to do with anyone else.”

But, the next problem could not be ignored so easily. One day, this same supervisor quit, giving our producer a two week notice. Because of the nature of the schedule, he had nothing scheduled to do for these last two weeks. Seeing this, our producer assigned him to assist me for the entire 10 days, something that would help me catch up and make my future deadlines. I should note that my position was created fairly late in the game of the production, so there was quite a bit of work piled up that still needed attention. This was just the boost I needed to help get my schedule back under control.

On the first day of the two-weeks, my soon-to-be departing supervisor told me he’d help me tomorrow. But, tomorrow, it was the same excuse. The third day, he said nothing and offered no plan of help. The fourth day, same as the previous. The fifth day, he said he was sorry he hadn’t been able to help me this week, but he’d be “all mine” next week. I accepted his answer. What else could I do?

Sometime in the middle of this first week, the producer came to me, asking if my supervisor was helping me. I covered for him, lying that he was. I really felt trapped and alone with this problem. The other member of my department was close friends my supervisor so that didn’t feel like an avenue I could turn to for advice. And, if I complained to the producer (an idea that didn’t sit well with me) I’d have an enemy for life.

The next week came and the same thing happened all over again. Monday through Wednesday, my supervisor gave me an explanation as to why he wouldn’t be helping me that day, always saying he would help the following day. And, again, my producer checked in with me to make sure I was getting the help I was promised. Again I lied that I was, still covering up the truth.

With no solution in sight, I started working late hours to “fake up” the help I was supposed to be getting.

By the third day of the second week I was ashamed of myself for letting this happen. Enough is enough, right? So, when our office mate left for a meeting, I decided to close the door and confront my supervisor.

I told him:
“You’re putting me in a very difficult position. The producer keeps asking if you’ve been helping me. And, I’ve been covering for you. But, where do you think those hours are going to come from? To make up for the help they think I’m getting, I’m having to stay late each day. And, even then, it won’t be enough to add up to the two weeks of help that they think I’ve been getting. How am I supposed to handle this? What would you do in my situation?”

If looks could kill I would have been dead, or at least on life support. He was speechless in anger for a moment. Then he answered, “You’re out of line. I’m your boss.” And, he kept on repeating similar things like that, until he asked me how long I’d been in the business. I answered him “two and a half years,” and he said, “Well, I’ve been in the business for “four years.” But, with no good argument to be had, things just petered out and after a while, we both turned our heads and got back to our day. The rest of the day passed without us uttering another word about this or otherwise.

The next day he arrived in a very pleasant mood as if nothing had happened, and helped me on those final two days.

I remember thinking of Linda Simensky’s quote. That’s “one,” I suppose. And, I also remember thinking how hard these workplace situations can be because there was no rule book to consult. Maybe situations like this are why I was later moved to try to write such books for our industry. Hopefully they help others handle similar situations better than I was able to.

Everyone is allowed mistakes. That goes for both me and my supervisor in this story. My mistakes (to date) have filled three books and could spill into three more. So, when I recall this story my focus is still on what I could have done differently so it could have worked out better for all concerned. We always have the most to learn and gain when we examine our side of a conflict. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have so willingly played the martyr. By the second day (when it was clear I wasn’t getting the help I was due) I should have spoken up to my supervisor. But, at that moment, early on in my career, I was so eager to please and not make waves (or enemies) that I missed looking out for my needs.

One thing is certain, whether you’re the employee or the boss, being a doormat is NEVER EVER good for the soul, your self esteem, or in helping to appropriately and professionally resolve a situation.