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The author writes about the really hard time her boss gave her at one of her early jobs, and wonders about the continuum between failure and sabotage – where does one end and the other begin?
It was August 2013, and I was sitting in the downtown Toronto office of the major international retailer I worked for. I felt nauseous, the feeling of illness mingled with anxiety permeated throughout my entire being.
I had to complete a ‘goals’ presentation: outlining my strategy for an upcoming season. It was the first time I was doing anything like this, which would have been enough reason to be nervous, but on top of that: my boss Filippa hated me, and thought I was poor at my job.
My title was ‘merchandiser’ – which was a catch all phrase that included allocation of product to stores, ensuring execution of each new collection and helping drive sales through promotions, markdowns and other activities.
I was unusual in that I had been hired externally – I had not been promoted up from a store team. This made me an outsider, and the object of much suspicion by long term veterans of the company.
Filippa had seemed really nice right off the bat, strong and decisive, but the oddities started to seep through the cracks: we heard whispers that she asked all the other teams around the office about us as a team and individually and had expressed displeasure that I often traveled on store visits with one of my female teammates, Laura. I suspected she didn’t like us talking to each other either, so we kept our distance for a time just to be safe.
About a month in she started getting frustrated at me in our Monday morning and Friday meetings where we would review the business and say what actions we were taking. She gave me feedback that I was looking at the wrong things, and that my actions weren’t concrete enough.
But it seemed more than that – I noticed if I said something and a colleague of mine said the exact same thing a few weeks later, she would accept it from them, but would tell me off for not having an impactful enough action.
She beat my spirit down bit by bit and lectured me so regularly in front of my team, that when someone else happened to get similar verbal tongue lashing, she referred to it as “a la Mira.” It was like I was on trial every single day.
I’m not sure why she disliked me so much, but I will tell you that it was an open secret. It might have been because I once posted something on the store communication portal, and when our country manager started demanding why it was up there, I had stammered that she had asked me.
That was cowardly and I’m not proud of it. I wish I could take it back but I cannot.
To make matters worse: the ugly truth was, I had a long way to go when I started the job. In fact, to this day, I’m not sure I really understood what was expected of me. I did try, it’s not like I just gave up. I studied my style books, collections and SKU’s, tried everything to get better idea of what should be where and what happened when. But at the back of my mind, her words echoed, and in the end whatever I did always fell short for her.
After being told every day that I was terrible at my role, I started to embody that reality. I lost the motivation to get better.
The worst part was that she could not tell me how to improve, because she had never actually done my job. It was a peculiarity of this particular retailer that our managers actually came from a different stream.
She wanted me to get help from my team, who felt that since they had got no training either, I was lucky with whatever I got.
My team sympathized me one-on-one, but in front of her, nobody said a word. To be frank, I’m not sure I would have in their place, either. The country manager loved her, everyone thought she was a force, and so I began to feel more and more isolated, and fear for my job.
I have never been the black sheep or underperformer of a team and that was a hard pill to swallow.
In June, we traveled together, and I got a sense of who she was: someone who gets angry if she doesn’t get the answer she wants, whether it’s the hotel clerk that can’t find her rewards account or it was the taxi driver that had a $1 surcharge he failed to tell her about. She’s the one type that sends her salad back because “it doesn’t have enough pecans.”
But the point was that on that trip: I realized that our dislike was mutual. I did not react well to her either: I blanked out when she asked me questions. I did try to smoothen things over that worked for a few weeks till she traveled home for some work; when she returned, we appeared to be back square one.
I began to wear down. I was putting as many hours as I could in but felt like a nervous wreck all the time. I was emotionally and physically exhausted and could not look forward to anything. I didn’t exercise, I didn’t eat right, I didn’t look after my body.
When the ‘goals’ presentation rolled around, I knew it would go badly, but was unprepared for how bad. My teammate, one of the stars of the team, reviewed my presentation and said it was fine, but it was not. I got torn apart on every single page of the presentation, including on things that I’d worked with her on – which she pretended I’d never discussed with her. I felt like a lamb being led to slaughter.
I’m not writing this to skewer Filippa. Though I’d prefer never to see or speak to her again, it’s not about villainizing her. We are all biased towards our colleagues, whether senior or junior, whether positive or negative. We write people off quickly, or we over-idolize them.
To this day, I try and pick apart the strands that are so intricately strung together in my mind: how much did she goad me towards failure, and how much was I just not good enough? Could I have done something differently?
I had formed my judgement of her, just like she had formed one of me – and neither of them was terribly pretty. Perhaps it was my judgement of her that held me back.
The truth is, Filippa did not make me fail, I made me fail. She pushed me in that direction, and at least from what it seemed: did her bit to sabotage my progress, but somewhere along the way, I decided I couldn’t work past a certain point for her. I couldn’t get that steel-minded focus to do what needed to be done, to fight until I understood what it was that they wanted from me.
It was this failure that led me to move back to India so in a way I suppose I should be grateful. But I’m not, all I wish is that it had happened differently – with less negativity and more objectivity.
Was my failure necessary to tell me that I was in the wrong field? That I had already quit once, and it was time to leave it for real? Was it that I was a poor fit for that world? These are questions which I struggle to answer.
But what I do know is that the shame of it still lingers, somehow, in the back of my mind. I wish I could erase it, but so far it has not happened. With each passing year it dilutes more, but sometimes when I look back at those 11 months I wonder: could it have turned out differently? Did I make a mistake by taking the easy way out? I’ll never be sure.
Image source: a still from the movie The Devil Wears Prada
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Mira Saraf was born in Canada, grew up in New Delhi, and went to a
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