A friend recently lamented about some ongoing b.s. between himself and a supervisor. Knowing the guy isn't wild about him but not knowing why is stressing him out. I shared the following incident with him as a cautionary parable about how bad things can get when long -standing resentments are allowed to fester especially when they're mutually felt.
In my case, it came to a head one day when I showed up for work and was told the captain wanted to see me. Walking into his office, I found him perusing a memo. As the man was visibly ignoring me, I spoke up, advising him that it was my understanding that he was expecting me. The captain said yes, then resumed his reading.
Leaning against the doorway with my arms across my chest so as to emphasize my own dismissive attitude, I waited impatiently. A lieutenant entered the room briefly, was told by the captain told him that the document read fine, then left. The captain and I were again alone. Volatile situation, that.
The captain advised me that he'd received a memo regarding an off-duty incident of mine that occurred a few days before. He asked why I hadn't submitted my own memo about the episode, his tone suggesting to me that he enjoyed having me at his questionable mercy.
My defensive reaction was...defensive.
"Well, that's typical of the department's chicken-shit way of doing business." I asked, "Why don't you just write my ass up now?"
It wasn't the smartest thing I'd ever said, and it pretty much set the tone for what followed.
"Shut up with that smart-ass attitude!" the captain yelled. "Sit your ass down!"
"No, I'm content to stand."
"Do you have a problem working under my command?"
"I don't like, respect, or trust you," I replied matter-of-factly. "But other than that, I can work with you."
"Well, I don't care if you don't like me. People don't have to like one another. They can come, do what they get paid to do, and go their separate ways at day's end. But if you can't trust me, then I can't have you working for me because I can't have a person working for me who doesn't trust me."
"Then if you want me to put my transfer in, I will."
"Fine. If you have a problem with me, we'll get you out of here."
By now, the adrenaline was coursing through my veins so powerfully that my legs began to feel wobbly. Reluctantly, I took up the man's offer of a chair.
"I'm not normally one to be picky," the captain continued. "But if that's the way you want to play it, then what are you doing coming in at ten minutes past the hour?"
Business as usual, I thought, but refrained from comment. It was the first time I'd censored myself during our conversation.
"Look, why don't you just relieve my ass of duty right now?"
"Stress? What have you got to be stressed about?"
"I have a litany of things I'm stressed about, and this is just one more chicken shit thing I've had to worry about since you came back to the station. I notice that the department's really good about documenting negative stuff on your ass and filling your personnel jacket with crap that can come back and bite you in the ass later. But when it comes to acknowledging the good you do, it's curiously lacking."
I wanted to make sure that the man knew that I found him particularly culpable.
"When you were out here in the field as a lieutenant, you were present on multiple incidents wherein I was the on-scene supervisor, including one where there was a murder suspect holed up inside a house. You called the suspect on a cellular phone and tried to talk him into surrendering, but couldn't get him to do it. But I did. Or the time we had a shooting with multiple people dead or wounded that was itself followed by a deputy-involved shooting. I'd supervised the initial call-out, coordinated multiple crime scene containments, walked the duty and area commanders through the incident, and left everyone - including yourself by your own admittance - with a damned good impression about how the incident was handled. Each time you told me that I did a great job handling the situation. But did you ever document one of them? No."
I went on down my list of opportunities when he might have been as vigilant in writing me up as he was in documenting my being late, including a time when a judgment call on my part "probably resulted in lives being saved" (the captain's words, not mine).
The captain made his first overture of being conciliatory.
"Maybe you're right, I should have written you something along the way."
"And then you come back here. At your staff meeting you went down the list of station supervisors and when you came to my name, you rolled your eyes like, 'I know about *this* one,' thereby obligating the lieutenants to defend me in my absence."
"Well, I did know about you. I worked with you at Central Jail, and I remember that force incident involving you and (another sergeant)."
That was when I realized just what'd been coloring the man's impression of me all these years. It involved a custodial use of force incident near shift change that wasn't handled appropriately. And blame rested squarely on both my shoulders and those of a sergeant from the previous shift. The captain continued.
"Don't you think I have the right to ask how my employees are doing?"
"You have the right to ask without editorializing the matter by rolling your eyes. The fact that more than one lieutenant - lieutenants who respect me and what I do here - brought the matter to my attention should underscore the fact that you were out of line. Now, in light of all this shared history, would you trust you if you were in my shoes? Would you think that you had my best interests at heart?"
"Maybe I did make some arbitrary judgments on you," the captain admitted.
"It'd be disingenuous of you to say that if you'd been dealt with in this manner all this time, you wouldn't have felt the way I do. I mean, are these actions consistent with someone who has your best interests at heart? Whatever else, I've not lied to you. And whatever my feelings about you, I've not said a negative word about you to anyone here at the station. I try not to say anything about anyone that I wouldn't say to their face."
During the next ninety minutes, we cleared the air on multiple fronts and I found the captain more empathetic than I would have expected. I also realized that I was not without my share of culpability for the man's impressions of me. Still, when all had calmed to a relative peace, I could see that the captain retained some valid concerns about a particular supervisor: Me.
There was a brief pause in our conversation.
"So what happens now?"
The captain's question was rhetorical, but I answered nonetheless.
"I don't know. I will say that if you're willing to let me work here, I want to. This station has the best morale of any on the department, and I'm not anxious to leave it. But at the same time, I don't want to continue feeling vulnerable all the time. Would you be willing to have me work for you? The question is: Can you trust me?"
"This is how much I trust you."
And with that, the captain tore up the damning memo.
Dammit, there's never any Kleenex around when you need one.
The captain allowed me to return to the field. This, from a man that I knew didn't -
...or RESPECT me. At least, not until that moment.
But he would he would have me work for him.
And as there was no shortage of things I could be taken to task for - insubordination, failure to document an off-duty incident, conduct unbecoming an officer, late for work, drama queen - I knew then that he was putting his ass on the line for me, too.
As it was, I worked for the man for a few more years, during which time he actually gave me a coveted position. He eventually promoted, then retired.
Looking back, I wonder how much of the sordid drama that played out between us might have been prevented if I hadn't kissed off an incident early in my supervisorial career. Something that precipitated some manner of administrative work for the man and for years colored how he saw me.
Whomever the responsibility for handling that long ago force incident might have laid with, if I had simply taken care of the situation I might not have not only avoided leaving a bad impression with the man, but might have created a favorable one.
Instead, I'd resorted to sublimating my frustration by showing up for work late, and never more than when he was watch commander.
Kahlil Gibran said that most hover dubiously between mute rebellion and prattling submission, so I guess that you could say he certainly had my number.
Looking back, I should have seized the bull by the horns and saved the then-lieutenant some aggravation. Failing that, I should have asked the man years earlier just what the hell he had against me in the first place.
Taking a tack similar to the one I took with my captain that day is ill-advised for my frustrated friend.
But if there are residual issues between yourself and a supervisor or subordinate, then perhaps you might be well-advised to lay your cards on the table.
Because, really, if things have gotten that bad between the two of you, what have you got to lose?