Sarah Clein

Aug 23, 2021

6 min read
Photo by Inesa Cebanu on Unsplash

When it All Goes to S*&^ Just Think of the Gift

I read so much, so many posts about the brilliance, the joy, the new products, the great stuff that people do and it fills my heart. Really it does. I learn stuff too and occasionally I might reach out to someone to find out more. But what reaches me really, what sticks in my brain, makes me think, interested and curious about the person behind the post, actually get a sense of who they are is when I read a story about something going wrong, some learning that has happened, something which has made them a different, maybe not better, but different person.

When I left university I decided that I wanted to work in a particular bit of the public sector. I had a vaguely relevant degree, some interest and aptitude, but most of all, I decided I wanted to work in that bit of the public sector because it sounded like it would be right up my street. Why ? because a fellow student of mine had been on placement in a similar role and was allowed to wear jeans and DMs to work and spent a week doing all kinds of interesting and creative stuff. Jeans, DMs, creative and interesting. Where do I sign up ?

I started by writing to every department in the country to find out how I could be considered for a job in this work areas. Every single department. By hand. By Letter. It sounds delightfully quaint now but in the early 90’s before t’interwebs and emails was a thing, that’s what people did.

The letters poured in from all over the country, I think there may have even been a job interview offer from one of the London boroughs, but the consensus was there. Start with voluntary work and see how you get on. So I signed on the dole and signed up to be a volunteer.

Volunteering was great, I met some brilliant people and made some great connections. I learnt about the world of work, got to practice some new skills and eventually, after 18 months got given my first small contract.

I was working in a tiny portacabin in a hospital car park in those days, and was given a small piece of work to design some material in partnership with the community. My manager was a busy, important sort of person, who didn’t get much in the way of what any of us was doing. Asides from the weekly pep talks, although I think they called them team meetings in those days.

I got on with the job at hand, approaching it in my own beautiful, unencumbered by rules or experience, creative way, with little input or oversight from anyone else. Finishing the job just before a weeks leave, I made sure that the materials were distributed far and wide before I left and closed the car door that day heading off and patting myself on the back for having done a good job.

I returned a week later to a strange atmosphere, tense, nervy and I knew that something was up. I didn’t have to wait long before I was summoned into the office, door slamming, sliding shut in one corner of the tiny portacabin to be summarily, absolutely and loudly bollocked. Words ricocheting off the wooden, barely soundproofed walls, disturbing the phone calls of my nearby colleagues and possibly interrupting the meetings going on in the nearby buildings, such was the managers wrath.

It turned out that the work I thought I had completed and distributed so happily didn’t land quite as I had expected. It turns out that it had caused a bit of a fuss. I came back from holiday and walked into the middle of a hornets nest.

So, why bring this up now, why did a bollocking 28 years ago have so much of an impact that I am talking about it now. Why ? because it wasn’t just about work. It was about me. Personal and personally about me.

The conversation. No, rant, the rant started about work, my work and what I had done and the issues it had caused and then led onto being about me. My lack of social skills. The fact that I made people feel uncomfortable. The fact that I was rude, ignorant, didn’t know how to communicate. It started with me, on me and to be quite honest nearly ended me.

Truth is I’d always thought I was a bit odd. A bit out of step with other people. I’d been bullied at secondary school, losing my friends who were the cool girls and then needed to find new ones. Quickly. Those long, lonely days had been a confusing and unpleasant time and I’d never really understood why they had suddenly dropped me. What was wrong with me ? Why couldn’t I get “it” right, whatever “it” was.

So my surprise hour of reckoning, in a shabby portacabin in a hospital car park, landed like a gut punch because it confirmed all the things that I thought I already knew about myself, but had hoped that I was masking efficiently and effectively now that I was a “grown up” doing a job, wearing smart trousers instead of jeans and moved on (briefly) from the DMs. It landed like a gut punch because I immediately thought yes, you are right, I am odd, I am getting this adulting thing wrong, yes I do feel odd around these other people and yes no wonder I am making them feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable too. I just don’t know how to say that. I don’t know who to say it to either.

I left the office gutted, with a hot shame burning inside that I had been found out to be the loser that I always thought I was, but also mortified and embarrassed that my colleagues, sat in their wooden cubby hole outside the office, would have heard EVERY SINGLE WORD. What’s more they would have heard that I probably didn’t put up any defence, defer or say a single word in response. I just took it on the chin. Sat back at my desk and carried on. No one said anything. At the time I thought it was because they agreed. With the benefit of experience, I realise it was more likely that they couldn’t say anything as the manager would have heard and more likely, they would have risked being the next target.

I drove home that night with all my senses on high alert. Finally I knew I had to do something. I had been found out and I was frightened, scared witless unless I did something to show that I had listened, heard and taken on board what was being said to me, that I would be unemployable. So I found a therapist, poured out the sorry tale and the journey began.

With hindsight, as I sit and write this, I realise that the manager in question would never know what impact that they had on me. They would never know that the clumsy, cack handed, badly done way that they behaved, their lack of supervision of the 22 year old whose passion, enthusiasm and creativity far, far outweighed her skill and experience and their general lack of guidance, mentoring and care all contributed to the situation. They would never realise that their words sent me off on a tailspin but more importantly a journey, much needed and incredibly useful, but also made me fearful for years and years before I went on holiday from work. They would never know that they were one of the reasons why I always handled feedback as a manager so carefully (tried to!). They would never know that in my coaching work now, I find myself drawn to helping women make sense of themselves and their place in badly managed, toxic organisations and bullying places. They would also never know that when I work with the 20 somethings, the millennials trying to find their way in their first jobs, that I am aware that I am triggered by tales of carelessness, poor management and supervision.

That manager would never know that their feedback changed me. They would and will never know how much of a gift they gave me.