The Oklahoma Daily (my new job) and Bob (my new boss)
I have been working at the Oklahoma Daily now for almost three months. It has been a stormy period, with many ups and downs. Things seem to have settled pretty much into the way they are going to be for the long run, but it is impossible to be sure of course. I may take some actions to change the situation, or someone else might. Now is perhaps a good time to put down some impressions. Today is the last day this term. Beginning tomorrow I have 25 days to myself (but no income).
So much of the essence of contemporary life is summed up in this one situation. I have never understood how anyone could argue that work, and the workplace, is no longer central. It may be true that no one cares about it, that it is incidental to their lives, and that their real interests are elsewhere. But they put in their time there all the same. And everyone puts in time there, everyone who has an income that is (except for the independently wealthy). Even people on dole put in long hours shuffling through the bureaucracies, places which resemble the average workplace in all the essentials. The complete perversion of communication, the perversion, exploitation, and manipulation of good feelings and pleasantries (even humor), the loss of vast amounts of collective intelligence, the drastic stifling of learning and competency, the repression of self-expression, the extraordinary waste and inefficiency – all these can be easily observed at this one, quite ordinary, workplace.
But first let me describe the ups and downs of my own experience there. As things stand now I have been locked out of any general role in setting the type, and hence from any extensive competence in typesetting. But this is the end result of a struggle covering many weeks. Bob (my boss) would probably not be unhappy if I left altogether, but he will probably tolerate my continued presence for the rest of this year, provided I stay meekly in my present narrowly circumscribed niche.
After an initial period of good vibes between the boss and myself, which lasted about two weeks, it became increasingly obvious that Bob was threatened by just about everything I did and said. He was afraid that I would soon know more about the work than he did. He even said this. His response has been to follow a policy of constant put down, all the while saying how much he appreciates my ideas, appreciates the help I am giving him, and wants me to learn the job.
It's hard to capture just what has happened in so many words – how a guy can come to dread going to work so much that it disrupts his entire life. For weeks on end I was a nervous wreck. In addition to the enormous outlay of energy I was making just to learn how to do the work, I was having to handle all the tension between me and the boss. I did not know him well enough to be able to judge his probable response to the situation and hence I was afraid I might be fired. And on that front I was in a terrible bind. All the options facing me were unacceptable. Looking for another job was out of the question. I had just been out of work for nearly a year. I simply couldn't change jobs after so short a time. It is already hard enough for me to find work and that would only have made it harder. I couldn't really fight it out with him in earnest on a daily and continuing basis. That would surely have resulted in my dismissal. And besides, that would have boiled down to just another macho fight, another pointless power struggle (pointless because it would involve no collective effort to overthrow hierarchy and establish democracy, but only a struggle between two individuals for supremacy).
Yet it was also out of the question for the tension to continue on as it was. I had tried withdrawal already, with scant success. The whole problem stemmed from the way he was treating me, and my instinctual response. Many of the things he did I regarded as blows below the belt. He probably didn't see them that way however. He just took them as a natural way for a boss to behave. And there was no ready way for me to suppress my feelings, because they were too strong. What has happened however is that I have after all, at long last, partially succeeded in withdrawing from interaction with him. And he also has withdrawn from the exchange. But since he holds all the high cards he has also been able to force me into the corner and cut me off and undermine my position. I have been pigeon-holed in one small slice of the job. He has brought in a new person and is training him to do the rest of the work.
This power to shift workloads around, divide and re-divide the work, train new people (or even make you train your own replacement), and bring in outside help, with no regard for the feelings and wishes of the people currently doing a job, and without even consulting them (sometimes not even informing them) about any of these rearrangements, is obviously a trump card when it comes to any conflict that might emerge between a boss and an employee about the work or anything else.
So he has me right where he wants me. I stay late when there is work and leave early when there is none (and I'm paid by the hour). He is no longer dependent on me but I am on him. There is only one small victory that might be seen on my side of it: he at least leaves me alone now in that small slice of the work that is mine. This is a recent development, and very welcome. It means that I am able to do my work without his constant surveillance and intervention.
What I want to stress is how all this misery stems directly from hierarchy. But before I get into some of the specifics, like waste or the perversion of communication, it might be best to begin with an examination of Bob's character. In a certain sense all the other aspects or problems of the situation are merely reflections of this character. His character is the concrete manifestation of the hierarchy. Other dimensions of the shop flow through, and are mediated by, his character. This is true of all bosses of course but the peculiarities of some bosses highlight the dynamic.
Maybe a word of sympathy is in order before the criticism. Bob is in his mid-fifties I would guess and has been with the Daily for twenty years, most of the time as a linotype operator. He is basically a laborer, with very little education. And in fact he is an ignorant man, although he knows his job. But he is no more ignorant I suppose than any average American citizen. He complains about all the pressure he is under, especially since his new boss, Fred, took over three years ago. Fred is a young man, several years younger than me probably, and is very aggressive and ambitious. He created for himself the job of Director of Student Publications. Bob says that he used to have the sweetest little operation ever, before Fred came, but now he has to work his ass off. And he does. For the first couple of months I worked there he was working 12-14 hours a day (but they had just installed the new computerized system and he was learning how to use it). It is still probably close to twelve hours. He comes in at three in the afternoon and goes home at one or two or three at night – whenever the paper is finished. It is also true that he has taken a lot of shit from Fred. Fred treats him something awful most of the time. And it appears that Fred is walking all over him. Bob does not seem to fight back even.
But all this is only a superficial view of things. At first I took his complaints (about being under such pressure) at face value. But not any more. I slowly learned that it was mostly a trick to gain sympathy, support, and most of all, compliance. If people in the shop feel he is in trouble and needs their support and help they work hard for him and don't give him any flack. He successfully used this trick on Jan the other night. She came out of the conference with him more worried about his welfare than about her own. The conference had taken place, at her initiative, because he had been abusing her for weeks on the job and the tension was getting to be more than she could handle. But he won her over with his sob story. (It helps you to begin to think differently about him after he attacks you a couple of times.)
This is one example, and a good one, of the perversion of language, words, and communication. Words have no intrinsic worth or truth for Bob. They are used to dominate. He will therefore say whatever is necessary to prevail and to get his way. It is a continuous, permanent, and inherent (given the subordination of language to the goals of the project) pattern of lying, although lying and dishonesty are concepts which have hardly any meaning in this situation. The lying is so engrained, so natural, that I suspect it is not even perceived as lying. I doubt if Bob is aware that he says one thing and consistently does another. At other times however I feel that he is perfectly aware of what he is doing and continues to do so with absolute cynicism. I once heard him say to another boss, ``You're not calloused enough.''
This is Bob's style of fighting, with both subordinates and superiors. He lays down a verbal smokescreen of kindness, generosity, and understanding, spiced with his underdog appeal for sympathy, and then he stabs you in the back at the first opportunity. He is a dirty fighter. He hits below the belt. Several people have used the words `back stab' in describing his actions. And I agree. It is confirmed by the pettiness of so much of his other behavior. He jeers at the advertising people. In fact, jeering is one of his most frequent emotions. He laughs only at the weaknesses and failures of others, especially at what he sees as their stupidity. It is a strange, sinister laugh. One person described it as a nervous laugh. But to me it is not so much nervous as it is evil, because it is always at someone else's expense, and always implies superiority and exhibits egotism.
This egotism is not exactly aggressive. Rather it is of a subtle kind, if there can be such, whereby Bob gets his big kicks out of knowing more about a subject (i.e., the work) than anyone else. He loves to be approached for technical advice. His whole identity and sense of security seems to be caught up in being better than everyone else, at typesetting, since that is his niche. That is why he was so threatened by me. When I was hired, and for a while thereafter, it had been my understanding, because that's what he told me, that he wanted me to learn all aspects of the work, so that I could relieve him from doing it so that he could have time to deal with customers, take care of Fred (who takes up a lot of time), and manage the paper.
I soon learned however that this was not to be. (Maybe Bob too realized this only later.) He was too threatened. And of course he should know the work. But that doesn't mean others shouldn't know it as well. But Bob wants to spoon-feed the work. This has been one of our biggest conflicts. He refuses (except now in my one small niche – the ads) to set the work up in such a way that various people can work on it without having to run to him constantly for the information needed to do the job. That is what makes him feel important. It also puts him in intimate control of the work process, at virtually every step.
This is of course also the very reason he feels so much pressure. The work can't proceed without his presence. Bob actually monopolizes knowledge about the work, even to the point of deliberate secrecy. And this is how he had dealt with me. He has shut me out, locked me out of the work process, so that there is no way I can gain general competency. Secrecy is built right into this job, as we will see even more strikingly when I describe the computer system. Secrecy and the monopolization of knowledge are basic features of hierarchy of course. Perhaps they are even prerequisites of hierarchy, since hierarchy could not exist without them.
Having monopolized all the knowledge and ensured that no one else can achieve competency in the essential skills, Bob is all the easier able to sneer at the ignorance of others. He condescends toward just about everyone. He calls the people who work in `his' shop children. ``Come children,'' he says, when calling a meeting. He has a big brother sign, complete with nose and glasses, stuck to the time clock: ``Big Brother Is Watching You.'' The condescension is only part of the story of course. The rest is temper. He constantly throws temper tantrums. The effect is to intimidate everyone (as well as alienate them, since these are sophisticated college kids who can easily see through such capers). Yet he complains about tension in the shop. Anyone who (he thinks) is creating tension in the shop gets a swift kick out the door. It is the usual double standard. He is the one who creates most of the tension in the shop, yet he forbids anyone to create tension, by which he obviously means tension with him or tension which he perceives.
Similarly with other things. Cleanliness is the order of the day, yet he is the most slovenly person there. No one is suppose to talk or visit, yet he carries on with everyone who comes in, as well as with anyone who is there, anytime he feels like it. Thus he is able to express himself and has an outlet for his emotions, whereas everyone else must clamp on the lid and suppress their feelings. They are not allowed to communicate (although they do, but on the sly, guiltily), but he talks freely. He wants everything to be pleasant, with everyone smiling. Yet he himself is often angry, swearing at the customers, the advertisers, the advertising department, the news department, the editor, the machinery, Fred, the student body, or one of us. But still he expects everyone to be pleasant on the job. He exploits good vibes the same way he exploits speech, in order to get his own way, secure compliance, and dominate the situation. He regularly kicks you in the ass, but then expects you to laugh at his jokes, and is puzzled and annoyed when you don't.
And indeed I did in fact undermine his authority by my mere presence, even though I had not intended to. Everyone despises him and so naturally they started turning to me with their questions as soon as I had gotten the job under my belt. This sent him through the ceiling. He invariably, if he was around, came over and interrupted and asserted control of the exchange. I detested his interventions and his constant standing around, looking over my shoulder, or simply his looking on in that queer way.
Since I dislike conflicts of this nature, and since my answering these questions was seen by Bob as insubordination and an attempt to take over, which it was not, the pressure was on to keep quiet, withdraw, and refuse to interact with the others regarding the work. In effect he has succeeded in silencing me. At least I have never said however, ``You'll have to ask Bob.'' I usually just profess ignorance. Also, those closest to me know the situation, and realize that I have more or less been forbidden, implicitly forbidden, to answer any questions regarding the work. It has been an extremely oppressive situation for me.
(On the other hand, I, in fact, don't like being approached with questions and being put in the position of an authority, and I have resisted being placed in that role many times, especially by my peers right there in our corner, the typesetting corner, of the production department. Two of the women tended to cast me into that role immediately. I don't mind answering questions when this is not synonymous with being treated as an authority. It is also a common tendency however to avoid having to go to the boss if at all possible and to ask anyone else around who might know before resorting to the boss.)
There are several minor but striking incidents which illustrate Bob's pathological need to be on top and to put me down. Once there was some trouble with the code for getting into and out of bold face and italic. This was when he and I still communicated and still discussed various aspects of the work (something we no longer do because he is so threatened and because I found it very difficult to enter into these discussions on the terms which he had set and which he demanded, even if I had wanted to). Anyway, I looked at the bold-italic problem and made an off-the-cuff suggestion that instead of going from bold back to roman and then back into italic why not go directly from bold to italic, since in fact there was no roman type in between and the roman command was therefore superfluous. He made no comment at that time, as if he hadn't heard me. The next day however when I came to work Bob was showing a new procedure to someone (the one I had suggested the night before) and he eventually explained it to me and was so happy and proud that he had been able to solve the problem. Then he slapped his knee and said, ``I'm so glad I thought of that.'' I nearly fell over. I am certain that he was not being sarcastic and that he had actually suppressed awareness of the fact that I was the one who had suggested the procedure just the previous day. I am not a stickler for claims to priority, but this was really too much.
There were many such incidents. Once Bob asked me how I was getting along with the new system and how I liked it. In mumbling a reply one thing I mentioned that I especially liked was the auto-tab feature of the system, adding a sentence or two on how it was so useful. About a week later Bob found an occasion to give me a short lecture on the usefulness of the auto-tab, to my great astonishment (he had never used it himself before I called it to his attention). ...(Unfinished)