Tech Support Issue #8: woman vs. man(ager)

Dear Tech Support, 

Hello from an unnamed Big Tech company - one you *cough* may or may not be intimately familiar with.

I was recently, according to my manager "unintentionally", tasked with working on a bunch of projects next quarter with one fellow engineer "because it's the sort of thing we've both expressed interest in".

Except... this engineer does not do work. Does not write code to a degree that has always astonished me. It's a multi-year pattern and I've always been annoyed by it, but I deal with it by telling myself, "Well, he's off in a corner and it's not my business." Now, as the would-be lead of these upcoming projects, I have been voluntold explicitly to come up with things he can do that won't block my own work, and to meet with our manager and give status updates. Oh, and to not expect him to do any work.

One other thing, the only people who have been asked to come up with work for him like this are women. I find myself stuck on this point in particular, because I really can't see any of the men on the team being asked to do the same work. 

My question, dearest Tech Support, is this: what do I do? On the spectrum of do nothing to write my manifesto and take my talents elsewhere, what would YOU do? 

- Sick and tired of being sick and tired (is that a lady thing?)

Dear S&T^2, 

One of the things that most fascinated me on my way out of Giggles Inc. was the total abdication of leadership, large and small. It was as apparent in the mind-numbing lack of accountability for the complaints and cultural issues raised in the Walkout as in the fucked-up, circular, day-to-day issues in my department (though I’m sure another task force made up of “just happy to help!” junior folk are going to fix the systemic issues/primal screams raised in Googlegeist this year!). Why is it so hard to fix things that seem really simple from the outside? Your manager has a sluggish non-perfomer that’s dragging the whole team performance/system/vibe down. Rather than dealing with this person directly (this is literally what “performance plans” were made for, it doesn’t have to be some complicated psychological jujitsu), they’ve chosen to erect (PHALLIC PUN COUNT: … ) this bizarro misogynistic dynamic whereby the female employees are rewarded for their niceness/helpfulness by being saddled with thankless additional labor that is bound to burn them out, build resentment, and force everyone but the actual slacker dude off the team. It’s simply bad feng shui, and even your manager acknowledges it isn’t working (did a spit take at him actually telling you out loud not to expect the engineer to do any work! Next-level inspirational management there dude). 

So yeah, el jefe es no bueno. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of faith in the checks and balances that exist for bad managers (though maybe in a strong, functional workplace? do those exist? in any event the stench wafting off of Gerbil Inc does not exactly register as “institutional health” at the moment). When the manager’s the problem, it’s not really solvable, per se. In bad culture, the managers kind of stand for the system itself, so questioning them = questioning everything, which of course is not really tolerable for the top brass. My most recent Google manager was capital-b Bad–not a good person, really, in addition to the kind of “multi-year patterns” of team mismanagement you mention (I really don’t hold a grudge/mean to unduly disparage her…ahimsa and all that…it’s just rich turf in my personal history! everything is copy!!). and anyway, for years, I accumulated observations about it, letting a low level of frustration simmer on the proverbial back burner. When the bell tolled for me w/r/t this manager and I ended up lodging a formal complaint, I had a very systems-trusting, pencils-poised attitude (“I look forward to swift action being taken, sirs!!!”) and I’m jumping ahead a couple of plot points but this ultimately resulted in the head of my department emailing thousands of people saying I had fabricated my claim (very cool memories!!). There are obviously some particularly dramatic elements of my story but let me be a cautionary tale: the system seeks to protect the managers and honestly, for the most part, in the phase of capitalism we’re living in/through, the badder the better.

Lest I be drifting into “resistance is futile, babe!” turf, let me dramatically course correct by telling you about a book! I just breathlessly finished (39% of) The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner (who is Ben Lerner’s mom for all my fellow Atocha Station-heads heart eyes emoji nerd glasses emoji), slapping my thigh and whispering “yass yass queen go off” all the way along. The basic gist is that women are taught to repress anger, which doesn’t work, so end up channeling it in indirect/unproductive ways, which makes things worse, so it really IS all our fault, ladies, but in kind of a hopeful way, because it’s within our power to effect change, but only within ourselves, really, because we really can’t change anyone else, and people will vehemently resist any challenge to the status quo, no matter how dysfunctional, but I presume that’s something we’ve learned to accept by the book’s end? It’s chill. Exhale.

I was reading it with your plight in mind, Sick and Tired, and what I’ve gleaned/am probably butchering is that your greatest weapon is personal clarity. The two questions “lighting the path forward” (it’s not new age, I promise) are “what is your responsibility?” and “what is not your responsibility?” There’s a lot in that latter bucket–it’s not on you to push your manager to raise the extremely low bar he’s set for both the under-performer AND himself as a manager, to say nothing of changing the overall team/culture/company dynamics, as plucky an upstart you may be, as eviscerating a manifesto you may write…but what’s in the former? You’re the manager of these projects now, and it’s perfectly OK to have standards and practices that don’t involve walking on eggshells around the slacker. I would think of it in simple terms: assign work to this person that befits their level and abilities. Your manager has opened the door for status updates, so if the slacker doesn't deliver, raise it, question it, don’t accept it. Low-key, unemotional: if the slacker can’t do the work, you want them off your project. Your manager pushes accountability down, you push it right back up. I think that’s what personal boundaries are?

You might actually be kind of powerless here—for all I know, slacker guy is Larry Page’s cousin in law or something. Leaving is always an option. But in the long run, learning how to stake and hold your personal ground will serve you x1000.

Have a query? askclairest@gmail.com.

Claire

P.S. if you were subscribed to Down the ‘Tube you know I built and grew an audience for the sole purpose of evangelizing John Early videos 2x/year…anyway, there was a new one this week and it’s absolutely perfect/canon and I’m not about to let the fact that my newsletter has nothing to do with comedy hold me back from my life’s truest mission: