At work this week, one of my superiors called me “competent” while talking to one of his colleagues, and I almost teared up. This may sound like an extreme reaction, but let me explain.
The bulk of my professional background is in customer service call centers. Now, if you’ve ever worked at a customer service call center for a large corporate entity, you’ll know the kind of micromanagement that one labors under in that situation. When you work within that kind of structure, you are never told that you are competent. There are constant performance reviews and trainings, and in these performance reviews, supervisors and managers are encouraged by their direct reports to always find something wrong with your performance. They don’t phrase it that way, they call them “opportunities for professional development,” or “areas for improvement.” They monitor your call times, your downtime, and they listen in to your calls. There’s an entire portion of the company devoted, in one way or another, to watch you and ensure that you’re doing your job.
They never call you “competent.”
“Competent” means that you can be trusted to perform your work duties in accordance with the policies that you’ve been given. In these large call centers, that basic trust that you are able to do your job is never communicated, rather you are constantly told the opposite. Now, I like to think that most people wouldn’t work long in such an environment, but the truth of the matter is that “unskilled” workers such as myself often don’t have much of a choice.
What’s really interesting about this are the changes I’ve seen in myself since leaving this environment. You don’t realize how much the constant watching and checking up and monitoring wears away your own professional confidence until you leave that situation. For most the idea that never being trusted to do the most basic of professional tasks without shadowy supervisory oversight will chip away at your ability to function independently would be kind of obvious, but you seriously don’t notice it when its happening.
I have to be honest with you, I don’t think that the effect is an accident. I think it’s an intended consequence of this management style. I feel as though the results of this are a handful of people who are able to thrive in this structure, and the bulk of people who slowly have their confidence chipped away until they really feel as though they need management in order to work. This dynamic benefits the companies that create it, in that they end up with a cowed group of workers that are easy to lead and who feel constantly as though they are on the verge of losing their jobs, to the point that they are easy to satisfy and won’t ask for much in the way of opportunity.
Cascade was not initially that way when I started working there, but after it was purchased by MDUR it became increasingly so until the call center was closed and customer service operations relocated to Idaho.
This adjustment was a problem for me in some of my jobs since Cascade closed their call center… I was constantly terrified that I was on the edge of being fired; I was seemingly unable to make a decision without consulting a superior; I was nervous, fractious, and terrified. It reduced my efficacy as part of the workforce, and it actually impacted my confidence in other areas of my life.
It’s such a shame, too, because most people really want to work. We may not want to have your standard nine to five corporate job, and we may not want to dig ditches in the heavy sun, but most people want useful work to put their hands to. Without it, depression sets in and existential anxieties increase. Life ceases to have even the most transitory of meanings. Work is just one of those quintessentially human activities. I remember when my father retired, he sat around the house for a few weeks, and then started getting his pilot’s license and eventually ended up just getting himself another job. He couldn’t tolerate his own idleness.
Now, at a job that expects more autonomy, I have my feet back under me. My superiors and folks from other departments respect me, and I am well recognized as someone who is willing to do work and able to do it well. And I have to tell you, after just three days of full time hours, I feel so much more myself. It is as though my vision, which had been narrowing and narrowing to a pinpoint of white light, has now expanded like an opening umbrella, and I can once more see all of the things that used to make me happy. It’s not that my job is somehow spiritually fulfilling; it’s that my need to be acknowledged as a contributing part of a community is being satisfied. The absurdity of my own existence is now given some superficial structure.
And really, isn’t that what being human is all about?