Saturday, January 27, 2007


I swore silently to myself when I realized I needed to talk to Henry on Monday. There was data I didn’t have and someone kept asking me about it. I needed the information. Henry had it. My dealings with Henry have historically been less than pleasant.

I walked slowly down the hall, dreading the exchange and wondering if this would be one of the times I responded to criticism cheerfully, glared silently or started to snap at him. He keeps his door closed – the only one in the department with that habit – so I knocked and waited politely for him to respond. When he did not, I peeked inside after opening the door mere inches. He looked up and waved me in. I sighed and entered his office, asking for the required data.

When he looked at me blankly, I explained what I needed. He told me it wouldn’t work. I listened to a drawn out explanation as to why he believed that and nodded along.

“I understand your point,” I said, “but there has to be a way to make this work. It must be a common problem.”

He went into another spiel about how he would correct the problem – a solution requiring much time and inconvenience to others – and I nodded. It would work, I acknowledged, but I wasn’t going to do it that way. I had my own ideas.

I explained that politely and he finally moved the coveted files to my USB drive. I thanked him politely and prepared to leave before this exchange degenerated into one of my typical fantasies of kicking him in the shin. Really hard. We were slowly developing a workable relationship. He didn’t seem to express nearly as much irritation or disdain when he was with me and I was more capable of tolerating it without becoming all pathetic when he was mean.

“I have an idea.” He said, and I paused, halfway out the door. “For the experiment this week.”

“OK.” I said, leery of spending more time in that office, especially to discuss this particular collaboration. He never lets me run the machine. I’m forced to sit silently while he makes mistakes I recognize but would be berated for pointing out. I don’t get to look at the data without a lengthy explanation as to my purposes in doing so. Plus, he’s not my favorite individual.

When I interviewed here, I had already given my seminar many times - my current institution was the last stop on my interviewing tour of the country. My talk was both rehearsed and natural – those 60 minutes were when I was able to shine. I was then able to bask in the questions. I based my decision on post-docs based on those moments. People were eager to offer suggestions and opportunities as much as clarifying my methods. It was completely lovely. Well, except for my interaction with one person.

Henry slouched in the back of the room, interrupting someone else’s question to ask his own. I paused, looking at Tim in confusion over the slip in decorum that seemed so out of place in this department.

“Please.” Tim said. “Let Henry go ahead.” So I did, making a mental note to return to Tim when I was finished. But I turned my bright smile toward the back of the room and cocked my head inquisitively. I started to frown as the question turned into a monologue about highly technical details as he did calculations in his head.

“So it should be ¾…no, 4/3. [Talk, talk, talk, blah, blah, blah] If you did what you said you did, then the experiment would take 27 minutes!”

Then he laughed at me.

Shook his head. And laughed at me.

I’m sure my surprise was vividly clear to everyone in the room. Boss started to ask another question, but I kept my narrowed gaze on Henry.

“It did not take 27 minutes.” I said tightly. “It was a 6 minute experiment.” Then I turned to Tim and started to speak.

“You’re wrong.” Henry said loudly from the back. “27 minutes.”

“I’ve done the experiment.” I said. “It takes 6 minutes. I’m sure.”

“27.” He insisted.

“6.” I stated, clinging to some semblance of polite behavior.

“27.” He repeated, shaking his head and laughing again as the rest of the room looked on in tense silence.

“6.” I hissed. Then I took a breath. I actually wanted this job and I was hardly impressive at the moment. “Perhaps we could talk later.” I suggested with forced interest in my voice. “I don’t think we’re understanding each other very well, so maybe you could help me see your point after I’m done here.”

Then I avoided him for the rest of the day. I barely bit back a sarcastic “If you say so.” when Boss told me how brilliant Henry was and how helpful he could be with some of my work.

Since working here, I’ve been unable to avoid Henry completely. We’re forced to do experiments together – at Boss’ insistence – and I get pushed aside and ignored if not subjected to some other display of rudeness. It’s infuriating, frankly, and I’ve complained to friends more than once about Henry. Especially after the time I got to use the equipment, finally getting the experiment to work after many failed attempts. Thrilled with my accomplishment, I was mapping out future directions of the project for Boss later that day.

Henry arrived, shook his head and said to Boss, “This project is moving really slowly. Katie just doesn’t catch on very quickly.”

I gasped with indignation because I had just made things work! For the first time! By myself! He was the one who screwed everything up! I had friends – mostly online – who validated my feelings and tried to soothe. So I’ve continue to work with him, dreading every moment and learning very little. I skip experiments when I can think of reasonable excuses.

I was speaking to Jill one day when Henry came to drop something off.

“He thinks I’m an idiot.” I said, shaking my head after he left without a word of greeting to me.

“He does not.” Jill scolded. “He’s just a bit different.”

“Jill,” I said, “I don’t know what I did exactly, but that man does not like me. So I’m uncomfortable around him and not learning from him – though I understand he knows a tremendous amount – but it’s not a productive relationship. Which is sad since we really should work together. I understand why Boss keeps pushing for that to happen, but I hate it.”

Jill frowned and nodded. “You should tell him.” She finally advised. “Nobody is allowed to treat you that way, and I know him well. I don’t think it’s intentional. If you had a conversation, I think your relationship would improve.”

“Given that every conversation I’ve had with him has been painful, I’m going to say no. It’s a good suggestion – thank you – but I can’t do it.”

Jill must have taken care of it for me. For after I returned from my Christmas vacation, Henry has been expending tremendous effort to be nice to me. He considers my questions carefully and offers respectful and thorough responses. He invited me to run the equipment yesterday and corrected my mistakes gently, offering that he’d often made many of them himself. He shared the data and asked for my opinion on an experiment he designed.

“We’ll write a paper.” He said, and I looked at him in surprise. Though there has been a steady improvement in our working relationship, I was still shocked to realize we’re now collaborators. I voluntarily asked for his input on my major project. I don’t dread seeing him in the hallway, though I automatically brace myself before knocking on his door. I’m wondering if that will continue to be necessary though. I can actually see the effort it takes him sometimes, but I appreciate it. I reciprocate by being focused and polite and eager to learn. It’s delightful.

I think the overall point is that I’m hitting my stride at work. People I avoided are becoming approachable. Therapy is helping me considerably with monitoring my own motives and responses. I’m finally able to be productive – I have multiple projects that are all moving slowly but surely forward. I’m going to do some work with grad students. I know who to target when looking for IRB approval. The weight of unpublished graduate research is finally gone and the relief remains amazingly huge. It’s good.

And when someone who admittedly tends to dwell on the negative, the fact that I can call work good seems a major triumph.


Lucy said...

Yay! That is a major triumph; I'm so happy for you :)

The Contessa said...

I'm really impressed. I don't usually have the patience to go after a person whose behaviour is less than stellar. Especially when they are brilliant.

Even though someone may possibly have run interference for you, you still persevered in dealing with this collegue with a most delightful conclusion!

I am trying to take some life lessons out of this one for this trip I have to be on this week.

You are simply amazing.

Locks said...

Congratulations. A fascinating story---and also useful for those of us hoping to reach the same contentment at work you have reached. Congrats, and I wish you the best in continuing the process.

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