Working Without A Net

“Give me your control binder.”

The administrative professional managing proposal production — a nit-picky, stressful, thankless task — hands over her precious back-up volume without a word. She knows she has no choice: my tone has clearly communicated that. More, she knows I have no choice: the client’s Big Boss has just arrived at this proposal review with a surprise guest and we are now one copy short.

Carrying her binder over to the temporary board room set up in this rented office space, I try not to stomp, but I am some pissed. At these meticulously planned and scheduled reviews, a guest is completely without precedent. Before this morning I would have said, completely unimaginable.

Long hours under constant deadline pressure for more than six weeks have gotten us to this point: our first external review of the document by executives and technical experts who were selected, notified and scheduled for this date a whole month ago. Working late last night, we finished the needed binders: a wee marathon of printing, copying, hole punching and assembling. There being neither time nor energy for needless work, it is, as always, a Goldilocks solution. Not Too Few, Not Too Many: Just Right.

And now this.  With no warning, an extra reviewer. A Guest, for God’s sake!

It’s been several years and I can still taste my indignation. Worse, I still feel the burn of the acid underneath it: my sense of failure. Somehow, I should have been prepared, even for this. Never mind that in more than 10 years in the business I had never even heard tell of such a thing. A Guest, damn it!

It is my irrational sense of failure that drives natural indignation into unnatural rage. As the review begins behind closed doors, I am freed to stomp, just a little. In one circuit around the room outside the inner sanctum, I stop by a colleague’s desk. In his second career, this sometime-mentor has practical, real politik depths belied by his cuddly-teddy-bear persona. I rant for a few minutes about how bringing a Guest shows a complete disregard not just for due process but for how hard we have been working, and for how long. If we have to start guessing what other surprises the Big Boss might spring, and divert energy to preparing for them, we will, quite simply, not get done.

My mentor-buddy listens impassively.

“Can I tell him?”

Unsatisfied with his lack of reaction so far, I practically spit my question. He doesn’t even look up.

“Only if he gives you an opening.”

And with that short sentence, my life changes.

An opening? You mean I can’t just ambush him and holler? I have to wait for him, say, to ask me how the review went? Or mention his Guest’s contribution? Or even enquire why I am looking stunned and cranky? What are the odds of that?

But as my rage subsides, I recover something — not my perspective, which has been MIA for at least two weeks; and not my sense of humour, which has been markedly absent for maybe the last day or two; but at least my sense of self-preservation. Ah yes, I seem to remember having gotten into trouble before, beaking off at senior people. Yes, this time I will wait for an opening.

And so I wait, in vain as it turns out. Although the much-rehearsed conversation never occurs, something else happens: I learn some restraint. Not much, perhaps, on the bell curve for the general population, but an amazing amount for me, not known for holding back. Not that I make cavalierly hurtful remarks — or so I hope — but Impolitick ‘r’ Us, that’s for sure.

In the weeks and months following, I think sometimes of The Opening and begin to realize how widely it applies. Bosses are not the only folks who annoy me from time to time: colleagues, friends, family, neighbours, store clerks, help desk staffers and even passers-by step up to this plate. Oddly enough, though, almost none of them give me an opening to mention it. For the first time, I now note that absence and feel — free, oddly enough — to let things go. Not all the time — leopards keep their spots, after all — but at least once in a while.

Fast forward a few years.

I am standing behind a graphics wizard who is helping me with a personal document. As I lean forward and around her to point out something on the screen, I can feel her stiffen. Oops. Have I intruded into her personal space? I retract as quickly as I can, but she has gone quiet. We finish the project and I thank her and turn to leave, then hesitate, stop, and look back. Yup, she’s definitely looking stunned and a little cranky.  I have no idea what the problem is, but it’s clear there is one.

What to do? Giving her explicit permission to speak is working without a net:   I cannot predict what she might say. Yet I remember how hard it was to wait for an opportunity to speak that never came.

Uncomfortable as hell, I take the plunge, speaking as calmly as my racing heart will allow.

“I’m sorry — Is something wrong?”

And, just like that, there it is: a thing of beauty. An Opening.


This entry was posted in Management and Work, Thinking Broadly and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Working Without A Net

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    Yes! “a thing of beauty. An opening.”
    Sometimes we make our own and regret it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yup – it’s a hard thing to force. Giving an opening is far better than taking/making one….

  2. Gary Cerantola says:

    I can not think of one so called opening that didn’t get me into trouble
    For me it’s always been worth it to wait it out and take it as a life lesson. I learned a very insightful saying from my father -in-law
    “As one freedom is given, one is taken away”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Gary – That’s the flip side, of course – just accepting that things aren’t perfect and learning to let go. I guess that’s a middle-aged (or older!) point of view – I was far more demanding of life, back in the day.

  3. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – when are we both going to do the smart thing and retire from doing proposals?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – You know what they say: Too soon old, too late smart. But if they were unrelieved misery, we wouldn’t have stayed with it all these years….

Comments are closed.