Today Kathy came to me with a problem and I asked her to draw a graph. The problem we can get to later. Let’s start with the graph I made her draw.
The graph was terrific. Or let me revise that statement. The premise of the graph was terrific. The graph was pure management. Or let me rephrase that contention. The graph was a means of picking at subterranean impulses that otherwise would have been unknown to me, as Kathy’s manager. Or perhaps I can be more direct. The graph let Kathy know what Kathy knew. About her levels in terms of performance; about her failure to keep her head above water in a high-velocity environment; about her wherewithal when it comes to knowing how to adequately get things done.
It went like this. I said, “Kathy. Hello. Thank you”. I said, “Let’s today do a boundary-pushing exercise.” I said, “Here is a sheet of regulation A4 paper and here is a marker pen”. I said, “I’d like for you to first of all construct a set of what’s called axis on the paper.” I said, “I’m not concerned about the neatness of the axes. I’m not expecting flawless accuracy. Just give me tolerable straightness, tolerable perpendicularity.” I said, “There’s a purpose to all this. Stay with me.” I said, “What we’re doing here is all about alignment.” I said, “But be quick Kathy. Make sure that you go as quick as you can.”
What did Kathy say? I can’t remember what Kathy said. Kathy’s not a great vocaliser. This is part of why I made her draw the graph.
I said, “Yes. Good, Kathy, good. You’ve passed stage one with flying colours. Haha.” I said, “Now you may be wondering where this is going.” I said, “All in good time.” I said, “I want you to go ahead and label each of these axes individually.” I said, “The horizontal axes I want you to label time. Whether you want to think in days or weeks or months, that’s up to you Kathy. But the key thing is the chronological idea of time.” I said, “And then the vertical axis. This I want you to label workplace effectiveness.” I said, “I see no need for any particular scale, any particular ranking criteria. But maybe by now it is coming into focus what this exercise is all about.”
I’d describe Kathy’s features as elephantine. I don’t say this in a mean way. She’s far from unattractive. There is just something in the severity of her brow, the grooves in her face, the depths of sadness in her tiny little eyes. She is a creature of mystery and memory. She contains unplumbable depths. Kathy intrigues me. I ask myself: is Kathy hiding something? I’d like to know. It’s important, professionally, that I know. It’s kind of how this place operates.
I said, “It’s time to produce a gradient.” I said, “Let me make that a little clearer.” I said, “I want you to draw a line for me.” I said, “This line, I need for it to convey what the labels of the graph imply.” I said, “So we have the time component. Which means the duration of your employment. And then we have the effectiveness part, which I believe ought to explain itself.” At this point Kathy made a complicated face. I asked her, “Do you understand? Am I making any sense?”
So, Kathy draws the line. I tell her, “Great.” I tell her, “Be sure to hold in mind all the trials and tribulations of your time with us. All the interpersonal challenges, the stakeholder management, the upholding and iteration of workplace processes, the documentation of your work, the documentation of your colleague’s work, those little gaps of intuition between expectations and outcomes.” I tell her, “Be reflective. We hired you in part because you demonstrated how reflective you can be. It’s not the whole reason, but it’s part of it. I want you to be honest with me. I should expect this graph at times to dip into negative territory. To puncture the horizon, so to speak. We both know there have been periods where your performance has been less than unimpeachable. Actually, let me come clean here. We both know there have been moments where your performance has been an active detriment to the goings-on around here. Actually, let me come doubly clean here. I know about the incident.”
Here I can remember what Kathy said. She had questions she described as clarifying questions. How are we defining effectiveness? Are we talking about my overall level, the accumulation of experiences and competencies over the length of my employment? Or are we talking about the day to day? Are we talking about the day-to-day vicissitude of working life? Are you sure about categorising my effectiveness as in the minuses at any point? What if I can’t remember everything? How can I know I am giving an accurate representation of events? I am paraphrasing. She said she was vulnerable to very non-elephantine lapses in memory and attentiveness that would compromise the usefulness of the exercise.
She said nothing about the incident, which I expected. It wouldn’t make sense for Kathy to say anything about the incident. She knew I had her covered from all angles when it came to the incident. She was well familiar with our 360-feedback processes. She knew the position her colleagues would take regarding the objective facts of the matter.
I said, “Don’t worry.” I didn’t want her to worry. I just wanted her to draw a line. I was direct about this desire. I made it clear to her that what mattered right now was that she drew some sort of line. It could be curved. It could be wobbly. It could even be ruthlessly straight, a line that might issue from a laser pen pointed at a low-flying plane. I wouldn’t believe her, but that would be fine. We would at least have something to discuss. We would have a starting point for constructive dialogue.
So, Kathy drew the line. Was it a beautiful line? I can’t say it was a beautiful line. It was a mess of contrivance. It was illogical and muddled. It was like you’d asked a child to do it. While she drew the line I prompted her for reference points. Was this the moment where our user-acquisition strategy went definitively south? Does this peak in performance represent your perceived success in orchestrating the swimlanes initiative? Does this middling, undistinguished period of performance convey the many moments where you simply did not give enough of a fuck?
Kathy answered in banal platitude and self-help cliché. She reached for explanation yet could only achieve explication. She pushed her hair back to highlight that titanic forehead of hers. She lost the ability to keep her mouth closed when she was not speaking. A droplet of sweat glistened in her philtrum.
By the time it was over, there was nothing more to say. We had transformed workplace hearsay and limp-limbed self justification into tangible, definitive fact. I told her, “Good.” I told her, “Now we have something to discuss.” But there was nothing to discuss. Not now. I knew what she knew and she knew that I knew, too.
What’s that? The problem? Kathy’s problem? Forgive me, I can’t even remember. We’ll pick it up next time, I’m sure. Catchups are bi-weekly and can last up to two hours.