Sunday, February 16, 2014

Selectively Direct

I'm going to tell two stories in this post; one is umm, shameful, if not sad and mortifying, and the other is exactly how things should be.

The summer my mother passed away, I was one of her primary caregivers when her health deteriorated to the point she could not do things for herself. My sister was her other primary caregiver. Towards the end, she was wheel-chair bound (but thankfully not for years and years and years like her own mother), and the circulation in her extremities was very poor. We put cloths on her legs to protect her skin. We had a process, and it was very particular. Cloths had to be set in just the right places to make sure Mom was comfortable. Getting her into and out of bed had to be done "just so." 

One day, I was helping Mom get settled for a nap. I was tired. Tired because I not slept well the night before; tired because I had been helping her for months by this point; and tired because I didn't know how much longer I was going to have to do this. Just tired. I was having trouble getting the cloths set right, and she was telling me how I was doing it wrong. Rather than jokingly saying, "I *know* how to do this!" and laughing about it, I became curt, barely giving one word responses. I'm sure I had a painfully pinched scowl on my face, and anything I said to her was spare and only exactly what had to be said. 

I made my mom cry. My sister told me later I had scared them both by being so icy. 


When KISKA was attempting to return to homeport after spending an extra few days in Honolulu unsuccessfully chasing that damn shaft vibration gremlin, it was a snotty, snotty day. Winds were howling at 20 knots sustained, gusting to 30-35 knots from the northeast. The Alenuihaha channel was 12 to 15 feet with wind blown waves. I was not really looking forward to the trip, but we were all ready to go home. We got about half-way through the Kaiwi Channel between Oahu and Molokai, special sea detail was secured, and most people had laid below to secure themselves for a shitty transit. There were probably four or five people on the bridge, watchstanders, break-ins and maybe one or two folks who just weren't ready to rack out yet. As we pounded through the waves, with the waves spraying over the mast, the gremlin came back with a crazed vengeance. 

The engineers made a mad scramble for the engine room, while we shut down the starboard engine from the bridge. Nobody on the crew could have missed the noise and feeling of the vibration, so they trickled up to the bridge to find out what was going on, and what they could do to help. Within about seven minutes, we had about 10 to 12 people on the bridge. The radios were turned up to hear any local traffic and comms with Sector about what had happened. There was traffic around us, a tug maybe, that we needed to figure out what we were doing with it, since we had come about so precipitously to provide a better course for the troubleshooting ninjaneers. People were all talking at once. We were losing the bubble. *I* was losing the bubble.

"SILENCE ON THE BRIDGE!" I commanded. 

Yes, it was a command, given with authority and directness. Everyone immediately shut their mouth. The radios got turned down. XO started sending people below, to make preps for returning to Honolulu. Movement returned to normal speed.

But for that split second, there was *silence* on the bridge. 

In both these stories, I fell back on what I think of as my training -- which was, at the time 12 years of military service where orders are given and received with minimal need for anything extra. The operational community of which I am part values directness...maybe more than values, maybe actually survives and thrives on directness. 

But Sheryl Sandburg in Lean In talks about how women who are direct tend to be thought of as bitchy and mean (I'm paraphrasing here since I don't have a copy of the book in front of me). Women are supposed to be nice and non-confrontational, empathetic and supportive. And anytime we step away from those characteristics, we risk being labeled "ball-busters." 

I'm ok with that. But I'd like to have my cake and eat it too. Because I think that I should play to my strengths, get as much value as possible out of being supportive and nice. There is no better way to build a strong team than having a team-member in a leadership position who visibly cares about and values the other people as individuals. The individuals are the building blocks of the team, and when they feel valued, it just makes sense to me that the team is better at what it does. 

I also want to have access to the power of that "silence on the bridge" moment. I want to know that I can be stunningly direct to achieve immediate results. No one on that bridge thought I was harsh or bitchy for cutting through the chaos that morning. In some ways, I think they may have been grateful for being given direction and a sense of purpose.

But in between those two ends of the spectrum is a whole lot of space. A close friend sent me a text a few days ago, "How do I stop being a pushover without becoming a mean, nasty person?" I think she is struggling with how to energize her apathetic team. My half-asleep answer was, "Set expectations and hold people to them. Including yourself." After thinking about it a little more, I would refine it to "Communicate clear expectations, and hold people to them. Including yourself." 

My expectation for myself is to be a caring person with strongly-held high standards. I think that works in both personal and professional settings. There is definitely a personal aspect to this, especially having opened with the story about my mom. But I've also been reminded lately that I can be direct in just daily interactions, especially if I haven't eaten in longer than I should have. So step one for success in meeting my own expectation is to not get hangry. Hangry or tired directness is the bad kind. Clear-eyed, know-thyself directness is the good kind. In my mind anyway. 

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