That was me.
In the spring of 2016, I was miserable in my job. It hadn’t always been that way. As a matter of fact, I had spent a lovely 12 months there (with four scheduled months off somewhere in the middle) proud to be part of the team I was hired to supervise. Although I wasn’t feeling terribly empowered to change the world in this job, it was certainly a nice change of pace from what I had come from. Until she transformed.
She, my direct supervisor, transformed before my eyes. Now, I’m sure others had been witness to this Jekyll & Hyde transformation of hers before, but no one warned me. Instead, there were ambiguous references to her past behavior without outwardly offering details. Rightly so, they didn’t want to gossip or affect my own judgment of this person or situation. Noble for sure, but I wish they would have just said what was on their minds.
I had been hired to supervise nurses and medical assistants in a college health clinic setting. As it turned out, I was a staff nurse who just had extra administrative duties and no extra time to do them. My boss (we’ll call her Rihanna) had been showing some signs of disgruntlement, but as long as I agreed with her on everything, life was perfect. That symbiotic relationship was bound to end, because I have a hard time agreeing to things I don’t agree with.
One day, I came into work and my co-workers forewarned me that Rihanna was probably going to say something about how a medical assistant messed up her schedule the prior day. Having heard vague stories about some of her passive-aggressive behavior, I was prepared to actively listen to her concerns, practice empathy, and discover a third alternative with her just as any thoughtful, altruistic leader would do.
Indeed, Rihanna bee-lined over to our department and started berating that medical assistant publicly at the nurses’ station. I asked her to step into her office to discuss more and walked into that office confident I would make Steven Covey proud. And there she sat – Hyde herself. I listened to her story, wrought with disillusionment, blamefulness, disgust, woefulness, self-victimization, laziness. This anomaly from a parallel dimension was sitting in front of me, but I was too consumed with surprise and keeping my jaw attached to my face to formulate any full sentences in retort. I think I even cocked my head like a puppy trying to understand this unknown form of communication. My response was destined to be ruinous – 1) I openly disagreed with her and 2) I stuck up for the medical assistant. And it wasn’t out of spite as she tried to claim; it was the right thing to do with that very benign-but-blown-out-of-proportion situation.
Anyhow, this disastrous November day in 2015 was the beginning of the end of our superficial, symbiotic relationship. In all my years in an intense emergency nursing setting, I had never come across someone like Rihanna-and-Hyde. The following list is not an exhaustive, yet hopefully illuminating, list of her characteristics and traits:
Toxic, hypocritical, destructive, insincere, gaslighting, manipulative, caustic, Machiavellian, scheming, disregarding, coalition-building, and just plain ole miserable with life. Mediation with a person who has these psychological tendencies was useless, hopeless. I think that goes without saying. I was required to do it anyway.
Which leads me to the spring of 2016, when I felt like the skies opened up to pull me out of this miserable abyss that was taking 40 hours a week from people and things I really wanted to spend my time with. I applied for the recently-posted manager position of the emergency department where I still worked per diem on the weekends as an emergency nurse. I had established relationships there, liked to think I had proven myself clinically, and hoped that co-workers would trust in my leadership if I were hired. Plus, I wanted the hell out of this Rihanna-and-Hyde bullshit that was allowed to continue. It was sucking the willpower and energy out of me.
I can’t believe to this day that she continues to have a job there. I digress.
So I applied for the emergency nurse manager job, and within days I was interviewing. I don’t know how many people interviewed for this job, but I was pretty dang sure I had it in the bag. After working a night shift for this emergency department, I walked into the conference room wearing scrubs and looking haggard with my collapsing ponytail, glasses crooked on my face and speckled with unknown substance (could be anything, really, after that shift), circles under my eyes, and unavoidable yawns. If being awake for over 24 hours from having dedicated myself to the very department which I wanted to lead didn’t scream “leader,” I didn’t know what else would.
Here’s where the interview fell apart:
Inside the conference room were a panel of my peers, nursing leaders, the medical director (all of whom I knew well) and walls covered with metrics, statistics, goals, etc. to help motivate the staff into meeting objectives set by an out-of-touch administration. At one point in the series of questions, I was asked something about holding people accountable to departmental goals or something along those lines. The details of the question escape me and frankly do not matter because the response that was expelled from my mouth contained the phrase “shoving numbers down their throats.” Now I don’t know if that unfortunate combination of words came from a haggard brain, a 12-hour shift in an emergency department where I was not only contributing, but also remaining clinically relevant in my field as I believe any manager should, from my graduate studies that impressed upon me the value of effectively building human capital, or that I was just plain done with conforming and contorting and didn’t give a shit anymore about who heard it. Probably all of the above. As I heard the words escape in un-stoppable slow-motion through my lips, I immediately thought to myself, Well, that was fucked up. I may as well have said that out loud too at that point.
Needless to say, I didn’t get that job – the one I thought I wanted, that would rescue me from Rihanna and a job that was stifling my potential. It was, as it turned out, a blessing in disguise. Administration wanted someone who would shove numbers down people’s throats, and I wouldn’t have done that. I would, however, have supported the staff, given them the tools they needed to succeed on micro and macro levels, allowed for innovation from frontline workers, and advocated for their needs. After all, I knew what those needs were firsthand because I still worked shifts to stay relevant on purpose.
Some of those needs, like acknowledgment of post-traumatic stress that nurses experience in high-acuity settings, continue to go largely un-addressed across the country. Rather than reducing cumulative effects of daily exposures that often go unnoticed, the industry is turning out numbed, hardened nurses but demanding empathetic, kind nurses to support what nursing’s reputation is supposed to be. I’m finally seeing some more attention being given to this nursing crisis in some reputable journals and professional associations. Anyhow, it seems obvious to me to address the costly, budget-unfriendly underlying issues that are shown to cause burnout leading to high rates of turnover, loss of seasoned, experienced nurses, and poor staff satisfaction. These things cost a lot of money, but the efforts are placed in the wrong places. I digress. Again.
I suspect the universe was keeping me out of that position for the good of all humanity. I would have failed horribly according to corporate healthcare standards. Administration wouldn’t have liked me; I wouldn’t have liked them. However, I firmly believe they would have noticed organic effects, measured more qualitatively than quantitatively (and everyone knows CEOs don’t like that kind of data), that would have made their dollar-sign hearts swell. Their loss. But certainly not mine. Because now my life is changing drastically. I am grateful for this rejection.
I went back to work the next day – to the job that was sucking the life out of me – and deleted my resignation letter from my personal drive. Guess I put all those eggs in one basket too soon. As Rihanna continued to slowly ooze her toxic lava throughout the workplace, I became even more frustrated that her behavior was allowed or ignored. Not only did her behaviors continue, but systemic problems in that particular organization create an environment which makes it extremely tedious and difficult to transparently manage these employees or terminate their employment. So she’s still there, oozing her toxicity around the organization, tearing people down, stirring the pot every single day, and manipulating the organization so she can still feel powerful in her little ways. Thankfully, she has lost her legitimate power through title and status, but she appears to need some semblance of power still.
So I’m leaving this job – after hanging in for three and a half years. And it is largely (not completely) due to Rihanna. If circumstances had existed where I had a different supervisor, if I had been supported in more meaningful ways through the difficult moments, or if I saw some organizational progress in dealing with a toxic employee who affects me and the entire organization so directly, my attitude likely would have been more positive a long time ago, and there’s a distinct possibility I would have never considered new jobs or an adventure like the one I’m about to step into. I’m thankful for this experience which led me right into the hands of this new adventure.
At the human resources level, catchphrases and buzzwords need to be backed up with actions because in the end, I don’t care what the retirement plan looks like or what the fringe benefits are if I don’t feel anymore valued to the organization than toxic employees. You may be asking yourself, So…which job didn’t want her as manager? Well, neither. One didn’t hire me because of my leadership theory, and one couldn’t keep me because I didn’t feel valued, purposeful, or utilized to the best of my capabilities. I’m grateful for the latter organization’s lack of vision because I’m about to embark on a life full of life instead of a life full of working for someone else.
So, call it non-conformist or rebellious or millennial-esque, but my husband and I are selling the house, have bought a fifth-wheel toyhauler and a pick-up to haul the thing, and we’re going to go live by our own rules. You can follow us here to find out how we’re making it happen. I’ll be WRITING, and my husband will be RIDING.