I sit at my desk in my ordinary office, surrounded by pictures of my wife and children. A clock, ticking away the first few minutes of the morning, hangs above my dual monitors. The lights hum to life above my office-standard Cisco phone. Emails begin to charge into my inbox: a random assortment of morning urgencies from those bizarre populations who choose to rise from their beds while the sun is still down. Hurriedly scrawled messages from the ghosts of meetings past haunt my whiteboard. Deliberate notes about communication initiatives and production durations beg for my attention.
Beyond my open door is Cubeland: long avenues of people working between shoulder-high partitions. Keyboards clack between snippets of conversations, some eager and others entirely casual, otherwise punctuated only by the busy footsteps of people walking past to and from meetings. At the far end, a window runs the length of the building, looking out only to the alley between us and the larger building of our parent company. Sunlight struggles into the gap.
Here, I am middle-manager-Sean, overseeing several teams with a dozen-plus members per group. I will coach, which is a nice way of saying boss-around, the people who directly report to me. I will woefully bastardize completely innocent words like ‘silo’ and ‘vertical’ to my own nefarious, nonsensical uses. I will have important sounding phone calls. And all the while, invisible and secret, I will think about the next level of Dishonored or XCOM that I am eagerly waiting to play when I am home and can be Gamer-Sean again.
But he is unwelcome here — this room, this place, this office. Gamer-Sean is not welcome, and, were he to suddenly appear, I fear he would quickly wither and die.
That sounds incredibly dour, I realize, and in truth I really like my job, my office and my co-workers. I take an unreasonable pride in having my meager office, a room that seats four comfortably, that has a door I can close and plenty of room for me to spread out my things. For years I lived in Cubeland as the Cubelandians do, a pleasant enough denizen of what feels much more like a communal space, but from my very first day I coveted the far fewer and more precious offices. It was four years and three steps through the ranks to earn myself one, and I cherish it unreasonably while already turning my ambitious eye to the next rank and the designated parking space it promises.
But I’m still a very different person when I’m here. It’s a second set of clothes, an internal identity that I can switch in and out of on a dime, but one that feels no less real or authentic to me. Manager-Me is real in every sense of the word. Not a mask, but a compartmentalized identity pulled from the handful of identities that only in aggregate make up me.
What strikes me, though, is how challenging it is to be the other parts of myself in this room, in this space, in this context. And when one of the frontline workers that reports two levels below me is sitting in my office for a conversation, and he brings up his interest in video games when I ask him about his hobbies, there is a small panic that flicks briefly in my mind. He starts talking about E3, and upcoming games he saw, and I must make the choice to engage him or play the part he’s already cast me in, which is that of the boss who is placating and politely listening to a thing that he has no interest in.
I see the way this person, who reports to me indirectly across a tiny chasm of other supervisors, sees me. I am a person to whom he has to be nice, but around whom he also has to be delicate. It bothers me, because I am figuratively begging to hear what people really think. I used to be one of them, and I know the difference between what you think and what you say to the manager can sometimes be as wide and dangerous as a toxic gulf. Some of the people who sit in my office do bring an unfiltered truth, which I hold dear and close, because that truth might allow me to actually figure out where the disconnects are between what I want and what really happens.
But most frontline employees go into meetings with me just wanting to navigate safely to the other side, and I can hardly blame them. I have enough direct peers who want only the filtered responses and mirrors of their own egos hung across from them in meetings. But unless I take a risk, why should my employees?
Now he is talking about a game he’s interested in that he saw during some E3 coverage, but he’s close to wrapping up and moving away from a topic he’s probably afraid makes him look childish.
“Oh, you’re talking about Beyond: Two Souls, the one with Ellen Page,” I say. He looks somewhat astonished. “Yeah, Quantic Dreams is making that. I’m hoping they pull it off, wasn’t a huge fan of Heavy Rain, but they made a great game a few years before called Fahrenheit. It was for the PC only, I think. You ever play that one?”
“No,” he says flatly, almost like he’s scoping out for the trap or the thing that will make this conversation fit the shape it had originally taken in his head.
“Yeah, Beyond could be good. I’ll definitely play it, but I thought The Last of Us blew everything else away at E3,” Gamer-Me says eagerly while Manager-Me sits back, wary of this gambit being played.
It pays off almost instantly.
His eyes brighten, almost astonished, as he nods an eager agreement. Just like that, we are having the first real conversation he and I have ever had. A genuine and enthusiastic discussion all about E3 and games of the fall and what genres we like and don’t. It takes up twenty minutes of our half-hour meeting, and we only talk briefly toward the end about some of the other things that are important to the business and the team. But there will be time for those conversations later, and I have a confidence I didn’t have before that when we do have those discussions, they will be much more honest and real.
I can’t help but wonder why I see leaders who almost seem afraid to connect back with the people who work for them, who are every bit as hesitant and wary as the people who come in their office just hoping to get back the other side unscathed. I believe when people trust who they work for, believe in the people they report to, they will do better. Work harder. Stay longer.
As our conversation ends, and I’m left alone again with my pictures, ticking clock and whiteboard, I realize — not for the first time — that these different versions of me that I seem to segment out artificially are really a part of a shared same, and that perhaps I am strongest when I put them together instead of keep them apart.