Good Boss, Bad Boss

by Jennifer Paros

Illustration by Jennifer paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer paros - Copyright 2009

When I was in my early twenties, I had gone back to college to study art and was working at a photography gallery as part of a work-study program.  My boss was the owner of the gallery, and often seemed worried.  I will call him "Mr. Anxiously Concerned." 

One day he told me to wrap up a package and mail it, so I collected all the necessary things and set to work.  Mr. Concerned approached and watched, his breath linked in some inexplicable way to each movement I made, his sense of well being suspended as I went about wrapping the package in brown paper. His hand went up to his mouth as though to hold it closed as worrying impulses pressed him to give me direction. Although I was aware this was going on, I tried to ignore it and simply complete the task. Several times, however, his hand lost the battle, and he went ahead and shared his observations and directives.  He was uncomfortable with my approach, debating its correctness, and I was uncomfortable being given direction on something I felt could be done in a number of different ways and still be right.   I adjusted what I did, but the interaction stirred an inner rebellion in me of which he was aware.   And although I liked the gallery, after a while of this, I found my time with Mr. Concerned draining and oppressive and soon left. 

Of course, part of being a boss is overseeing one’s employees.  The definition of "oversee" is: 1. To watch over and direct; supervise 2. To subject to scrutiny; examine or inspect.  So, there’s the rub.  It’s a fine line between directing and scrutinizing, apparently. 

When I had to produce the finished drawings for my children’s book on a deadline, despite the fact that I had already drawn well-developed roughs, I became Ms. Anxiously Concerned, and proceeded to be a very bad boss to myself.  All of a sudden, I was peering over my own shoulder, my breath catching over every move I made.  Soon, my employee (me) grew pale and weak from the scrutiny and her hand began to shake, making it impossible to draw a smooth line.   This in turn increased Ms. Concerned’s eagle-eye intensity and inclination to apply greater pressure.  Finally, what was left of my confidence crumbled before my eyes, and I was afraid to make a move and "mess up".  The Employee wanted OUT, and so the rebellion had begun.  No work could be accomplished, and I was at a standstill. 

After working to reinstate encouragement of myself back into a leadership position so I could work again, I realized that how I treat myself is clearly a critical aspect of how well I am able to produce.  It’s old news that employees who are happier do better work, show up on time, are loyal and more productive etc.  But for many of us, there remains the idea that in order to get things done, and do things right, we must be on the look out for what’s wrong. In the end, however, being or having a boss who is Anxiously Concerned becomes a nightmare, for there is no soothing or reassuring one who has devoted themselves to looking for What’s Wrong in order to feel safe and in charge. 

Although the definition of  "oversee" includes the words  "scrutiny", "examine" and "inspect," I suggest that a more beneficial definition would be: to watch over (the whole of something) in the sense of looking out for.  There are very few of us who would purposefully sign up for work in which the job description involved being "scrutinized, examined, and inspected," so why do it to ourselves?  To be a good boss to myself, I watch over and direct the project (whether writing or drawing) while looking out for myself.  The employee who is overseen in this way can only feel safer to do her work and to do it well.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

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