Difficult Things: Demanding Dignity

I've written about dignity in the past. I'm revisiting the theme with another personal story.  

Years ago, I was leading user experience for a team hard at work shipping its first product. It wasn't going as well as we had hoped, so here we were, meeting at the office after 9pm on a Sunday night after putting in another long weekend at work. The other senior members of the team were there, as was our boss.

We were debating something regarding the product, and the boss and I were having what amounted to a philosophical disagreement. A civil debate turned into something else - he started to berate and belittle me for my stated position. It took me by surprise; I have come to expect vigorous debate among people I work with but not this. I stood there in a stew of emotions: shock, embarrassment, anger, confusion. The rest of the people in the room felt it as well based on the looks on their faces and the lack of eye contact. 

After what felt like minutes (but was probably less than 30 seconds), the verbal lashing abated. I remember taking a breath to calm myself down then proceeding to respond as calmly as I could, sticking to the discussion I felt like we were having before the outburst. The mood had obviously become extremely uncomfortable for everyone, and our boss regressed to stewing and not responding. 

The meeting ended soon thereafter with very little being said by anyone else. I followed him to his office, closed the door behind me, and faced him. 

Before I lost my nerve, I said, "It's unacceptable how you talked to me in there, and I expect that that will be the last time it will ever happen." I wasn't sure how he was going to respond, but I decided that this was a line I was willing to draw. 

He looked at me over his steepled hands – I remember that image in my mind. "I expect a lot of my senior staff, so I expect each of you to be able to handle yourselves." He wasn't aggressive like he was in the conference room, but he was anything but apologetic. His response and tone irked me. 

"That's fair, but you're the [boss], and we expect a lot more from you." It wasn't until I said this that I realized the disappointment I felt. I had joined this team because of him, and I had felt betrayed and hurt by his treatment. However, I wasn't going to accept a double standard. 

He paused and considered what I just said. "Well, I can't promise it won't happen again." He seemed to lean further back in his chair as if he was digging in. 

This floored me, and I don't remember how or if I even responded. But that's the point at which I decided that I needed to find a different job. I walked out of his office back to my desk. Most of us still there were packing up to head home to get some much-needed rest. A couple of my colleagues who were in that meeting dropped by on their way out and apologized for how I was treated. I walked out and drove home. 

I started to look for another job that week, but I didn't quit immediately. I continued to do my job as well as I could; I did and still do take pride in my work, and I wasn't going to let his treatment of me change that. However he mostly avoided talking to me any more than he needed to which suited us both just fine. It stayed that way for the last few weeks until I found another job which I was excited about, whereupon I gave my two weeks' notice. I never looked back. 

I've sometimes wondered what would make this successful, smart, driven, and often charismatic leader to treat his employees with such disrespect under difficult circumstances. He displayed some classic bullying behavior, and I'm glad I chose not to take more of it. Most of my contemporary colleagues left the team within months as well, so the behavior wasn't isolated to me.  

He would go on to lead this team for some time, but the product ultimately failed in the marketplace and has been forgotten. He has gone on to lead larger teams at other well-known companies, and those of us who worked for him in the past have often just shaken our heads. I have been pinged by recruiters from these companies over the years, but I would invariably express disinterest for obvious reasons. 

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice... 

As a manager, leader, and teacher I've aspired to treat everyone with the dignity they deserve; as a colleague and partner, I have also aspired to defend the dignity of those I work with. I haven't always succeeded, and those are the moments I regret. It's a work in progress, as always. 

To this day I'm proud that I found the courage to stand up for myself in this situation, but I'm not fooling myself into believing a narrative that it was easy. It was difficult. It meant that I had made a mistake in quitting my job, joining this team, and working for him. But I decided that if I'm not being treated with dignity, it's not worth it.

You deserve to be treated with dignity, and so does everyone else around you. I wish you all the courage, confidence, and self-esteem to demand & provide that.