Sunday, December 12, 2010

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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.


Chris said...

Thanks for the story, Dave.
I had a similar experience early in my career; a team of animators was assigned to my project for 2 weeks. The catch was they had all been told that day this was be their final 2 weeks. I liked them all personally and felt for them, so I did not want to complain about them phoning it in. The end result was me in way over my head and having to go over budget hiring freelancers. I didnt want to confront them or squeal on them so it became my responsibility.
It's a good lesson for those early in their careers who may fear confrontation, and be willing to take too much on themselves to try to compensate.

David B. Levy said...

Howdy Chris! That is a very similar story. What a shame. I hate stories like this where people use such situations to get even, because not only is that an unprofessional way to behave, but it also always effects innocent people too. I'd say those folks showed their true colors at a moment like that.

Elliot Cowan said...

I worked for a very large media corporation for many years.
Managers there tried very hard to keep the creative team feeling as worthless as they could manage - almost like it was company policy.

Those of us who "escaped" sit around and talk about the place like it was some kind of internment camp.

Carly C said...

Well written. Really, I was taught that you can't be a leader if you aren't willing to do the work yourself. Learning to not let people walk all over you is also something I started to figure out in college.

mikecarloooyeah said...

that;s a really good post. I'm actually surprised you felt that you couldn't turn that into some sort of lesson in one of your books. I think this is a big issue people deal with in the animation business. I recently was put in a supervising position which is totally a new area of exploration for me in this industry, and I'm trying my best to not only be upfront respectful and professional with everyone but to also help others get along. It's a tough thing to do, and sometime impossible, but I think its important to remember that we are all apart of the same team working towards the same goal, and that just because someone has more or less experience or is in a different position somewhere in the hierarchy of the studio system, that it is super important to all work together. This sounds kind of lame and obvious, but it has been my personal experience that people don't often know the simple or obvious things about working in animation. Good stuff. Thanks.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Mike,

I think its only now that I'm able to make sense of this story, realizing that its a lesson in not being a doormat. Before that I couldn't think of what context to explain it in. Sometimes you are just too close to your own experience with something to gain the proper perspective. This one took me 13 years to figure out. Haha.. I'm a slow learner sometimes.