“Don’t get tired. I know you are. But don’t.”
It sounds like one of those melodramatic lines in a romance novel or movie, when the guy or girl begs the other to stick around, or stay in an obviously unsalvageable relationship. But it actually came from my boss. Believe it or not, we’ve had arguments which sounded more like lovers’ quarrel than colleagues reasoning out. With such a claim, I must, however clarify I have a perfectly professional relationship with my boss albeit an unconventional one.
By unconventional I mean to compare him to my previous supervisors.
In my first job, I had a laidback Aussie who carried the down-under lifestyle to the workplace. He was young and diplomatic, and it was obvious he exerted effort to be as pleasing a manager as he could be for the locals. He only had to look over minimal staff so it must have been easy for him to calculate his moves. That doesn’t mean he walked on eggshells in running the company. While he was a good chap, he was well aware of the working Filipino’s mindset (crab mentality, tardiness, office gossip) and was relatively straightforward in admonishing it. I distinctly remember him calling everyone for a meeting to discuss the increasing cases of tardiness in the office, arguing, after one of our quality assurance officers blamed the unpredictable traffic Manila for his failure at punctuality, that “Traffic in Manila is not unpredictable. There will always be traffic in Manila. It is expected,” silencing our lazy asses with common sense, and then politely closing out the meeting with his favourite word, “Excellent”.
When I moved to a new job two years later, I was assigned a Filipina boss who oversaw the consumer branding department of a multinational company. While she wasn’t as laidback as my Australian manager, she held a great deal of empathy for her staff, something I believe is uncommon among Filipinos who tend to have a “me and my family first” attitude rather than “society or everyone else before me” outlook. She was like an older sister who was easy to get along with but who still kept a very professional distance from her subordinates, affording her a clear view of our work performance without micromanaging to a fault. You knew, or could sense, she had a great deal of respect for the people in her department, and it showed in the way she pushed everyone to do their best without choking our throats.
While my first two bosses must have had their own quirks I never quite got to know or be exposed to, my present manager is anything but them. He’s temperamental, aggressive, “bossy”, fastidious, demanding, and sometimes even cruel. His professional training (which I will leave out to ensure his privacy) would explain a lot of why he is who he is. It became quite clear as I started out and got accustomed to my present job that I wasn’t going to be in the usual collegial relationship, and I was not in a usual rank and file job.
What my boss and I do have is love-hate, a dynamic that friends of mine have labelled as the “office spouse” phenomenon. Although the term usually denotes a relationship between the opposite sex, I have found that the struggle of working with him is almost akin to marriage (at least based on my vicarious experience of the vocation thanks to my parents) in that there is a lot of grating, shouting, pushing, shoving, testing, doubting, and at the end of the day – respect and maturity.
Still, the last thing my boss is is diplomatic. Given his temperament, even the slightest of faults (at least in his eyes) is magnified into a tumultuous event which involves a very vocal scolding with his booming tenor echoing across hallways. You could only imagine how flushed I am with humiliation knowing other units and departments hear my boss correcting me with language (thankfully not profane) that involves calling the names of all the gods in vain interjected by “bwisits” and with hands flailing in the air, trying to swat his invisible frustration (or my face).
But more than the verbal tirades, it’s the way he puts pressure on me which I find most exhausting and difficult to handle. Imagine coming to work from a long commute, and just when you’re about to sit and organize yourself for the day, your boss sees you and immediately calls you for a meeting or update. My butt has barely touched my seat and I’m off to his office trying to recall reports, numbers, names, and strategies. Imagine being on your way home, tired and exhausted, only to have your mobile phone ringing because something “urgent” has come up. I’ve tried ignoring his calls only to get indirect hints the following day about how he abhors it when men do not answer their phones. We’re almost always in touch I’ve practically memorized his number, and already now the tone of his voice even in text messages.
Some days I see my boss as the male Miranda Priestly. He gives outs tasks with nonchalance you forget what he’s actually asking from you is to undermine SOP or overlook protocol. By his desk, he dribbles his fingers expecting you to do just what you’re told. Anything that deviates from his instruction would mean a remark on how I “rebel” against his instructions (yes, he used rebel to describe me). So if he wants a check ready by the afternoon, even if it means bullying the accounting office and disregarding policy, then a check must be ready. If he needs a signature, he’s going to ask you to barge in any meeting, regardless of its level, and pull the signatory from the room. In my boss’s world, there is always a last resort, and there is no excuse in not accomplishing a task.
But there is also love, as I’ve mentioned. Truth be told, my boss is genuinely concerned about my career progress to the point I can sense subtle hints that he’s psychologically manipulating me (I thought there was love?) to “like” him or see him in an admirable role as mentor. After all, he has expanded my networks more than I thought was ever possible, introducing me to people from all sorts of field, and giving me one-on-one coaching on social etiquette (i.e. how to drink wine or posture myself at meetings) in order to improve my professional bearing. He is well-read and well-travelled, sharing with me anecdotes and stories (and mostly unsolicited advice) which offer me insight into his own life and professional success (sometimes, in honesty, even disappointments). He mentions countries, books, people, concepts, and events, overwhelming me with information and ideas I assume he speaks of for me to filter.
I understand he depends on me greatly, as I depend on him. After all, he is still my boss, and a certain amount of loyalty must be for him. From the outside, I may appear like his sidekick, his not-so-obedient servant who’s constantly on his tail like a shadow. During one of our many business meetings, an acquaintance of his mentioned I am my boss’s Friday, a reference to Robinson Crusoe’s personal assistant. While the description is quite accurate, I am not as all-obedient as the native in Daniel Defoe’s novel.
Modesty aside, I don’t see anyone else being capable enough to handle my position, a thought I’ve had several times when contemplating on resigning. I’ve grown tough enough to handle my boss’s tirades, although not tough enough to claim immunity from emotional and physical stress. Our back-and-forth professional relationship is as much work as the work in itself, and it requires a great degree of maturity to go past the “drama” and re-focus to finishing what has to be done. It’s tough “love” for a tough job and I don’t know if anyone would be as “meek and humble” as I am to see past that managing style (or lack thereof) of my boss, or even put up with his quirks.
Regardless, I’m quite glad I am where I am now. It’s not the ideal job, and my boss is quite far from ideal too. But over the last two years, I can really say with all certainty I’ve grown. I’m a much tougher person now than I was when I first faced the realities of the working world. I know my boss pushes me hard because he sees I can still do better, even if it’s almost torture. One can argue the ends do not justify the means but in this case, the means carry a strange, new, life-altering message that demands me to test the limits of my malleability, perhaps see how far I can go, and when too much is too much. If it means making a huge difference in society, as is the nature of my job, then let me be Friday even at the cost of my own Friday nights.