A cautionary tale… please read to the end. I commend each and every parent that encourages a healthy lifestyle and physical activity for their children. I deplore the habit that has become more and more prevalent with kids found with alarming frequency sitting on their posterior while some form of electronic babysitter absorbs their attention and they develop the sedentary habits of their elders. I had the misfortune of observing the results of those habits in the last few months in more than one geographic area as I saw children… yes children… not teens or tweeners but actual children of no where close to puberty that I approximated as outweighing my own considerable bulk. I’ve gone back and forth on the obesity as child abuse argument, but in extreme cases, I can definitely see their point. I also observed in the same proximity that the parents probably weren’t going to find any concern with the pattern in question because they had already given up that particular battle themselves. And so it went with mom, dad, and two or more young ones who were huffing and puffing along with effort… in order to sit… yes sit upon the expanse of beach. No running up and down. No surf jumping or body surfing. No gleeful squeals as they built a creative castle or sand sculpture. Zero activity, until it was lunch or snack time when copious amounts of processed snack foods and sugary drinks were handed out. Honestly, I get it. It is vacation. Kids should be able to enjoy their life. I don’t watch these people 365 days a year, and this may be a treat… but I’m guessing not. If it were only one group of this general description, I could probably feel concern or sorrow, but this was literally every other family I observed over a recent patriotic holiday season at the seaside. I am by no means a svelte individual, willowy and ephemeral. I believe I have described my own physique more than once, but observing this sort of situation makes me twitch a bit. I’m trying to avoid being judgmental. I really don’t know any of the observed families, their genetics, their health histories, or their regular habits. I am making assumptions (like ya do) based on superficial observation. The problem is that I know that while I might question my own assumptions and try to look past to find answers and other attributes, the rest of the world does not. What are these parents setting their kids up for in the future. As I mentioned, children are more sedentary than when I was younger. There are a lot more electronic reasons to sit on one’s butt and be still. While many parents would call this some “@#$ @%$# peace and quiet!” it really isn’t the best or most natural thing for a child to do for so much of the time. Additionally, I’ve been made aware that children don’t have as much physical activity planned into their school schedules. If the child isn’t an athlete, they may not get more than an hour of physical movement in a day. Even when they return home, they are often from a young age given homework to keep them busy all evening, or if they do not, the electronic babysitters probably get hold of them until dinner. I’m making generalizations (before any of the parents out there start screaming at me that they aren’t like that). I know not everyone participates in this same pattern. I’ve got friends who literally make their kids go outside and do something active. And that sorta makes me scratch my head… Why?!? Why is this something a parent has to make them do? When I was a kid, they couldn’t get me to come inside (especially in the summer) until after dark on occasion. No one made me go run around outside or play. The only sedentary activity that might occur was reading, and sometimes even then, they couldn’t get me to do it inside, because if weather permitted, I would much rather do the reading out in the sun and air. I have to wonder what changed. When did playing outside become a chore? However, my “Dear Parents,” wasn’t only about my ponderings about what has happened to physical activity with children today. I come now to the other side of the argument. Again, I absolutely commend parents who encourage physical activity. I applaud them for setting examples and helping their children develop an interest in physical fitness and exercise. I think that it is wonderful when children express an interest in activity, exercise, and want to even “workout” (though, I still think that full body building activity doesn’t need to start before they’ve even hit puberty… seriously people). BUT… You totally heard that coming, didn’t you? Please … PLEASE do not let children around exercise equipment unattended. There. I have said it. I personally do not believe that children below a certain age belong in a gym. I happen to belong to a gym where the corporate policy is to not allow children. There is a reason, but they caught an enormous amount of flack for making that policy. There are, I know, people who would disagree with them and me. They would say that with supervision children can learn to use equipment and weights and develop healthy habits that will follow them for the rest of their lives… blah, blah, blah. And chances are, they would totally miss that part of their argument that is frequently… well… missing. Supervision. It is one thing for a parent who has a responsible, well-behaved child with them and is engaging them the whole time and supervising them at every step, but that is not what often occurs. As you might expect, incidents have come to my notice rather unpleasantly in recent history to prompt this particular post. I will share with you two of the most glaring. Both incidents occurred at a hotel fitness center. I travel quite a bit for work these days, and because I am not always where I can conveniently access a branch of my own gym, I try to book lodgings in hotels that do have fitness centers. The quality of the equipment can vary drastically, but it usually will suffice for my basic fitness requirements. The first “incident” occurred when I had gone down to the fitness center which, in this case, was more than adequate. They had relatively heavy duty cardio equipment, free weights, and some decent multifunction resistance machines. The problem was that there were three children between the ages of 8 and 12 years old in the center with no visible supervising adults. There were, as it happens, sufficient options in the center for me to have my workout with the children in there. It wasn’t my first choice, but I could do it. However, about the time I was entering the facility, the eldest of the three misused and caused a malfunction in one of the machines that took it out of commission (he broke it… yep, one of his younger siblings also managed to misplace one of the little metal bar doodads that allows you to adjust the weight on the machine, fun times). I chose not to have my workout in the fitness center at that time. Perhaps I should have immediately reported the incident, but I waited to give the miscreants time to get clear. I’m no snitch. The kids removed themselves post haste to avoid getting caught, and I was eventually able to use the fitness center without being blamed for any of the mishandling myself, though unable to use any of the resistance and weight training equipment since it was effectively disabled for the foreseeable future. In the second situation, the outcome was a bit more scary. Again, I went to the fitness center; this time a little less large, the equipment a bit more Spartan. Upon reaching the door, I see two young boys, perhaps 8 and 6 years. I groaned inwardly as again I saw no supervisory adult. I just wanted to get in my workout and go deal with some additional prep work before meetings in the morning. I decided this time to brave it. I started my own cardio on one of the elliptical machines. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. It was too fast to have done anything to prevent. The youngest was playing with the treadmill (without the little safety clip attached to him in any way). He had been just riding it back, walking up, and riding it to the end. At some point he must have touched the wrong button, and the spinning tread shot the kid back catching a small foot in the handrails where they attach to the base and I heard (or imagined I heard) a slight pop… and then the scream. My workout was done, but for the kid, there would be no activity of almost any sort for a while. I did the first aid thing and asked the older one… ok, I firmly told the older one to go get an adult. An annoyed, then frantic woman arrived, and off they went to the hospital. I had several thoughts cross my mind: 1) It was a card key access. Who gave these two not yet 10 year olds a card key and let them wander about the place (did I mention this place also had an indoor hot tub and lap pool? Think about that for a minute… also card key access)? 2) We live in a litigious society, would the “No Children without Adult Supervision” sign clearly posted on the door and walls actually protect the hotel? I think it is great to get kids interested in fitness. There are even gyms that are geared precisely for parents and children to workout together. But please… please… parents out there, supervise your children. Don’t let these kids put themselves in danger of injury or worse, or even damage equipment that the facility probably paid some decent sum to acquire and provide for guests. Dear parents, if you want your children to be healthy, happy, and active, take/make time to play or workout with them. They will likely appreciate that more in the long run anyway… and it will have the added bonus of getting you off your posterior as well. So, here endeth the lesson… it was a little harsh for the little dude and his parents, but perhaps not the worst that could have happened (remember that pool that was also card key accessible).
For all of us with professional PTSD…
Today, I had a “skip-level meeting.” Now, for those of you who do not know what a skip-level meeting is (I had to Google it, actually), it is a meeting with leadership to whom you do not directly report. I actually had never heard my meetings with upper management described in this way. It was a little unsettling at first.
So, to give a better idea of what goes through my mind when I have meeting invitations from management, I need to talk a little about my own past relationships with managers. I’m going to attempt not to air any dirty laundry. It’s not exactly my style to talk out of school, but without an understanding of my history, most of what I’m going to impart is not going to make much sense.
I’ve been both blessed and cursed in my employment history. The managers and supervisors to whom I’ve reported have run the gamut and hit all points on the scale of managerial aptitude. I won’t take you all the way back to the Stone Age, but I will say that my initial forays into the world of the working weren’t really all that bad. I personally did not grasp the sitcom stereotype of the horrible boss. I figured, in all honesty, that most employers and supervisors had their good days and their bad days, just like anyone else.
And then… I worked for a dragon. It wasn’t so much that power image of dragoness. It was more breath that could kill at 20 paces and a somewhat ungovernable temper that caused an entire office of people to walk around on eggshells. I suppose this was also my first experience with “skip-level meetings” since I was frequently called into her office (and yes, just like it sounds… always felt like getting called into the principal) though I reported directly to the person below her. It never boded well, to be called into that office, and she was one of those types that actually designed her office with the visitor’s chair sitting lower than hers while she presided behind a large desk. Now that I am older and more experienced, if not wiser, I recognize these behaviors for what they are: Power manipulation. But back in my days of innocence (do not laugh), I just felt exactly what I was supposed to… intimidated.
Escaping from that situation felt like surviving the Titanic. At that point, I figured nothing could be worse… Never challenge worse.
As it happens, my next superior was like a breath of fresh air. Honestly, he smelled better, and he was kind and supportive. I could not have asked for a better teacher and clinical supervisor. I learned a great deal reporting to him, but bless his heart, he was disorganized. Think absent minded professor, but better dressed (I actually believed his spouse assisted with that last bit). However, it detracted not even slightly from my experience as an employee. I learned to remind him of things that were important, and what I got out of the relationship with regards experience and knowledge was well worth any occasional frustration when he couldn’t find the paperwork I gave him three times.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. In this case, my dearly beloved clinical supervisor and boss moved on to greener pastures and we got a new director. It wasn’t bad… for a while.
I’m not going into details of the next several years. Suffice to say that the majority of my current levels of work-related post traumatic response is due to the years that followed. To be honest, I cannot lay all the blame upon my employer. I can lay a large portion of it, because some of the things done were ethically and morally reprehensible. However, I will also say that I take responsibility for my own weaknesses and naivety. Because I lacked confidence in my own worth, I allowed myself to be manipulated and believed that I had no choices but to continue working for someone who made it their purpose to make the workplace toxic to me until I would comply with some, shall we say less professional requests. Eventually, things got beyond what I could tolerate, and I woke up. I handed in my resignation without any idea of where I was going next, but I could no longer put up with what I knew to be… in plain language… just bloody wrong. I walked away with thoughts of leaving my career path entirely. Anyhow, the universe rewarded me for making the right choices, and a new job was offered before the week was out. It came with a pay raise and the second of the most admirable bosses in my life.
Again, I was lucky to have this boss come along at that point in my life. He was everything that his predecessor was not. That said, it was a traumatic occurrence for both of us the first time we had a one-to-one meeting for feedback and supervision. I really do feel sorry for him. It was a little too close to my recent traumatic near-decade of abusive work relationship. He led off with “You are one of the smartest people I’ve met…” and I burst into tears. Yep. Poor dear. He didn’t know what he had done, but that particular phrase in my past always prefaced something truly horrid. Terrible, demeaning statements that left me feeling small and worthless. Hell of a thing, isn’t it, and not expected at all given that you would think being told you are intelligent would bolster the ego. Again, my poor boss was at a complete loss. I excused myself and took a moment to compose. I was absolutely certain that I would likely be considered a complete basket case and my time with my new employer would be curtailed. In all of this, I underestimated my new boss, probably because I wasn’t used to professionalism or compassion anymore. When I managed, with great embarrassment, to reenter the room, I managed to explain what had overwhelmed my ability to maintain composure. He not only did not hold it against me, but he understood. Perhaps he had some sort of experience that was similar in his own past. He recognized that I was recovering from being bullied in the workplace. I am grateful to him for helping me step away from that shadow and remember that a manager doesn’t have to be an ogre. To this day, this is the boss I think of when I am trying to gauge my behaviors and manage my own staff.
I’ve had a few more managers in between. Some good. Some, not so much. One of sad facts of humanity is that we often retain the experience of negative much more readily and with more clarity than the positive counterparts. Thus, my motto of “blessing my teachers” more often applies to the less pleasant interactions in my past. I wish that it were not so.
Going back to my “skip-level” meeting with the director, I was irrationally anxious. It didn’t help that it was rescheduled several times (the director’s schedule is positively ridiculous, and I don’t know how she does it, but that is an entirely different matter). The thing is, by the time that the meeting actually occurred, I was positively freaking out. I had all manner of unpleasant projections of what the meeting would entail. Again, I remind you that we tend to remember most clearly the negative, and just like Pavlov’s dogs, I went straight to my worst experiences of the past. As it happens, the meeting was very positive. She’s a brilliant business woman and understands way more of the corporate political machine and what it takes to run the business than I ever will. My fears were irrational and unfounded (no, kidding). It just made me ruminate on the differences between the leadership I have experienced and the bosses that have been inflicted upon me that resulted in my workplace PTSD.
Coincidentally, I’ve been participating in a management group training about the culture of our organization. Our last session was all about what sort of shadow we cast as a manager. By that, they mean for us to think about how our employees would describe each of us as a manager. We talked about the difference between being a critic and a coach. Critics find flaws, present obstacles, interrupt, nitpick, and listen only to judge or criticize. Coaches encourage, focus on outcomes, find the gold in the ideas presented, are willing to hear other points of view, and listen to understand. That’s a pretty simple, boiled-down version, but I will tell you for whom I would prefer to work.
Each and every manager participating discussed their own nightmares from the past and the common element was those supervisors who were always a critic, but never a coach. That did not mean everyone wanted cheerleaders exhibiting all the traits of Pollyanna. The idea is to be sincere in praise and positives, but if something is wrong to address it as an opportunity for learning or improvement. Yeah, I know. It’s not always possible to avoid the negative entirely. Sometimes, you have to pull out the bitch card (I actually have some of those… I got them for a birthday present one year). However, that should be the exceptions. What I took away from those sessions was that I want to be remembered like my clinical supervisor and the boss that started my road to career recovery. I do not want to be remembered for power struggles and gamey manipulation. I want my staff to know that if I say it I mean it (whether it is bad or good). I want to lead, I don’t want to merely drive.
I hope that not everyone who reads this has had some of the incredibly traumatizing job situations that I have had the misfortune to experience, but I’m realistic. I know that most have had some bad jobs or bad bosses that have impacted you and your expectations of treatment in the workplace. For those who have, like me, moved into management or supervisory roles, I encourage you to be a coach instead of a critic. Lead your people instead of driving them. Be a leader, not a boss. Maybe we cannot change our history, but perhaps the managers of today can help decrease the amount of workplace trauma going forward.