One of the core phrases my company loves to throw around is “Dealing with Ambiguity.” It’s a competency that comes up in every performance review, regardless of which position. I remember when I was promoted to manager and I spent a month with a training manager. She told me, “It’s not possible for me to prepare you for every situation you might encounter as a manager. That where your ability to deal with ambiguity is key to your success.” Her words rang in my ears the other day when I stepped off the floor to use the bathroom and one of my employees knocked on the door. “I need your keys,” a voice said from the other side of the door. And despite my years of managerial experience, I found myself stumbling to know what to do.
On any other day, I might have figured something out. The problem was that I was already off my game that day. Just two hours earlier, I had had a run-in with my new supervisor – my seventh in four years. I’d worked for this new one for all of a week when she wrote me up for failure to execute a promotion.
She told me, “I popped into your store last week on the first day of the promo and observed that some of your employees hadn’t been trained on the new products. And I need you to know that that’s not okay.”
Her tone was soft and she nodded her head a lot. It reminded me of a preschool teacher rebuking a child for not eating their lunch nice.
“Why weren’t all of your employees trained on the new products?” she asked.
I hated to sound like I was giving excuses, but the explanation I gave her earlier that morning on the phone (“my son had to have surgery”) hadn’t changed. Of course there was more to the story than that, but at the time I was too overwhelmed by the absurdity of our conversation.
“I hear you saying your son was in surgery,” she said. “I’m interested in what plans you have to ensure the next promotion is fully executed.”
In my mind, I said, “The first thing I’ll do is make sure my son doesn’t need any further medical procedures.” But I worried this would only antagonize her. She was already employing a script that seemed more like couples therapy than corporate-speak. Besides, we were still in the first impressions stage of our professional relationship. Ultimately, I responded with some mindless drivel about accountability and root-cause analysis.
“What do you think would be some of the benefits to your entire team being fully trained?” she asked.
It was a series of those managerial questions they teach you to say when you’re in training for how to have a coaching conversation. It’s supposed to put the listener in a place where they are verbalizing they’re own action plan. The only problem is that for a wise ass like me, it’s hard to answer questions like this without living up to my reputation. They’d all be set up for success. Each of them would have the potential to operate on a level to achieve optimal store results.
At some point, she whipped out written documentation for the promo training. I remember saying that docking me seemed harsh and she reiterated, “it’s not okay that members on your team weren’t trained.” She said more but at that point I had tuned her out, my mind reeling at the severity of the entire incident.
I ran the conversation over and over in my mind as I pulled into the parking lot of Isaac’s school. He was standing next to one of his teachers and waved his cast-covered hand at me when he saw my truck. Oh, good, I thought, he’s had a good day at school. I need some good news.
Over of the past few months, I’ve memorized the facial expressions of his teachers. The slightest change in their smile instantly alerts me whether Isaac had a good day or not. This past week, the head teacher’s smile had been dropping a quarter inch per day. Today, as she opened the passenger door of my truck, she was noticeably bothered.
“Hi, bubs,” I said.
He looked down and softly said, “Hi.”
I looked up at his teacher. “How did everything go today?”
She gave me a small smile and sighed. “Well, he’s had better days.”
At times, Laurie and I have wondered if his teachers are too nice to him – that maybe they overlook some of his behavior because they like him so much. But having already had a pretty crummy day, I appreciated her grace and diplomacy.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“I’ll let him tell you.” She patted him on his knee. “Bye, Isaac. See you tomorrow.”
He looked at his lap and in the same quiet voice said, “See you tomorrow.”
She shut the door and we drove off.
After a minute of sitting in silence, I finally asked, “So what happened today, Bubs.”
“Let me see your folder.”
He took his yellow folder from his backpack and I did my best to read it while driving down the freeway. Isaac was playing rough with other boys. He raised his voice when teacher asked him to calm down.
“Isaac William,” I said, “What is this about sassing your teachers?”
“Dad,” he said, “the other boys were playing rough too.”
“I don’t care about that. What about the sassing? Haven’t we talked about that everyday this week?”
“But one of the other boys threw a toy…”
“I want to know why you sassed your teachers.”
“Dad, I tried to tell the teachers but they kept telling me to be quiet.”
“Then why didn’t you listen to them and stop talking?”
“Because they were being mean to me.”
“No, they were trying to get you to calm down.”
“They wouldn’t let me talk.”
“Maybe if you had tried to tell them in a nice voice…”
“Dad, I won’t sass them anymore. I’m going to work really hard tomorrow.”
“You said the exact same thing yesterday. I’m tired of hearing promises.”
“Okay. It won’t happen tomorrow. I’m going to work really really really really really really really… ”
“That’s enough,” I said.
Isaac propped his elbow on the door, laid his head on his fist, and gave a frustrated sigh. I knew that sigh and couldn’t help but feel like a heel. While it was true that sassing his teachers is unacceptable, in my heart I knew he was sorry and genuinely didn’t mean to. I wanted to believe he’d work on it. But I also knew that the next day we’d have the same conversation.
As we drove home in silence, the events of our day played in our heads, both of us trying to reconcile how our day had taken such a dump. We seemed to be trapped in a misunderstanding that wasn’t entirely our fault. We tried to make our cases known and only dug ourselves deeper into the hole. Each of us had been told, “Enough with the excuses. You need to show results.”
I suddenly felt sorry for Isaac. Not as much for getting into trouble, but more because even his own dad didn’t have his back. Sure he can’t be allowed to talk back to his teachers, but he also doesn’t have the arsenal to disagree with an adult, especially a teacher. Furthermore, he’s too young to know yet how to tell a convincing lie when backed into a corner.
“Do we have to tell mom about my day?”
I hadn’t thought about his mother. At some point, she’d have to know about our days. And she wouldn’t be happy with either of us. I figured I had a better chance of getting out of the hot seat if I took care of Isaac so she wouldn’t have to.
“Yeah, Bubs. We’re gonna have to tell mom.”
He gave another melodramatic sigh. “All right.”
“But you know what?” I added. “What do you think you could next time if you have to tell the teacher something important but she’s talking?”
“I could raise my hand.”
“That’s good. Should you interrupt?”
“Nope. I should wait until she’s done talking.”
“Dad, can we go get ice cream?”
I couldn’t believe it. The absolute nerve this boy had made me burst out laughing.
“What, Dad? What’s so funny?”
“You,” I said.
He gave me a big toothy smile.
“Okay, let’s go get ice cream. But don’t tell mom because she’ll be mad we got ice cream without her.”
“No, Dad, we can’t do that. That’s lying.”
I leaned over and kissed his head. “Good job, Bubs.”
We finished our cones as we pulled into the driveway. Just before we walked in the door, I thought about how much easier kids have it than adults. They get in and out of trouble so easily while we struggle and toil just for an inch. Then I remembered distinctly being a kid and thinking how much easier kids have it than adults. Either way, that one Bible verse is right. “Man is meant for trouble.”