Wednesday, August 31, 2016

There's No "I" in Team


Image from Flickr

My role in most of my work life was service and support to others - my superiors, my customers or both.  I did primarily administrative support work, in a number of industries over 40+ years.  When I was much younger, I worked in retail sales and in restaurants as a server.  I was also a travel agent.  Especially as I got older, I would occasionally take on a leadership role (unofficially!) on a project or in an area of specialized knowledge.

Although I am a perennial student, I do not have a college degree.  Goals and focus were not my strong suit in my younger days, and I found it too challenging to make up for lost time by attending night school in addition to full time jobs as adult.  So despite being a relatively smart person, my promotional opportunities were quite limited by lack of a "paper background".  Looking back, I realize I also lacked skill at office politics. My "only child" and increasingly opinionated personality is not ideal for team building.  I was never one to just do what I was told as a low ranking subordinate. "We don't pay you to think!" was the message I received in most jobs I held.


Image from Flickr

At almost 67, I've worked as a freelance personal assistant since 2007.  I created this venture with the vision of raising the standard of care in the senior companion (aka caregiving) profession.  Despite my work history in primarily "pink collar" jobs, I have always tried to add value to my job, and perform to a high standard.  "A job worth doing is worth doing well", as my mother used to say.  Instead of large and small offices, I'm now working one-on-one with clients who need help with activities of daily living and/or paperwork organizing.

One of the most difficult clients I served was in late 2011.  She was a referral client, in her early 80's, widowed for twelve years.  She needed organizing so she could file her taxes.  She had a dated and very somber home in a nice area.  It was like a mausoleum of old Scotty dog figurines, dusty storage boxes, her late husband's old military uniforms, that one often finds with the elderly who would prefer that things did not change.  Although I was not warned by our mutual friend, she was a hoarder.  The home was not as bad as the TLC TV series on hoarding, Buried Alive but there were many piles and boxes of paperwork on the floor along the walls, in every closet and in the garage.

I worked very hard for her for about four months, and I made tremendous progress organizing her den, bedrooms, closets and garage.  Getting her to discard anything was extremely challenging and she was very snappish with me, which was not helpful to the project, nor to my desire to live a peaceful life.  She clearly had an anxiety disorder which is said to be one cause of hoarding - OCD - obsessive compulsive disorder.  The workings of her mind did not match up with mine - to me it was a cleaning and organizing project, to her, each envelope, magazine, charitable solicitation, voter's guide or greeting card saved represented her life.  I finally had to give her notice and I moved on.  A few months later I phoned her, and a caregiver answered and said she was resting.  I left a message and got a call back from her doctor's medical assistant, who had volunteered to stay with her since she had been hospitalized not long after I had stopped working for her and was then on hospice.  She died shortly thereafter.  She had no family, and few friends due to her hoarding disorders.  It was a sad outcome, since all my months of back breaking work, and attempts to reason with her ended up just making it easier for her fiduciaries - Union Bank - to clean out the place and prepare the house for sale.  I always wondered if they discovered an antique diamond broach I knew she had hidden, or if someone just put it in their pocket. 

I still find as much resistance with my freelance clients as I experienced in both small and large offices I worked in previously.   Getting from Point A to Point B with just one person can be as challenging as being a member of a often dysfunctional team in a "real job".  Despite superficial agreement on what I've been hired to accomplish, beneath the surface, there is often little agreement on objectives, strategies, processes and timeline.  We all see things "our way" and want to be heard more than we want to listen.  Ego?  Control?  Yes.

I've learned many times as a freelancer, that being hired to accomplish a certain objective does not mean I will actually get it accomplished!  Often, the client will sabotage the project either by procrastination or lack of availability, or stubbornly clinging to "their way" of (not) doing the project.  Often I get "attitude" to boot as if the undone mess they find themselves in is my fault! It's a "don't shoot the messenger" moment, that I am just getting too old to tolerate.  These mind games and mini-power struggles never appealed to me when I was younger, and they sure don't now.

Image from Flickr

I frequently find myself frustrated with my clients, although as a freelancer, I care for them probably more than I cared for many of my colleagues in my past "real jobs".  Caring does not make it easier for me to set and achieve goals with them, in fact it makes it harder.  My clients become dependent on me, since they lack the skills to manage and organize their lives on their own, due to aging or physical and mental health challenges.  I am compassionate with their circumstances but I tire of trying to be a "life coach" and find myself "talking to the hand".  It is a growth opportunity for me to try and refute some of these excuses I hear from my clients, without coming on too strong and being offensive. 

There is a fine line between pushing the client too hard trying to accomplish what they've hired me for, and letting them run amok, including squandering our scheduled time together, thru cancellations, chit chat, mood swings or adding new and impulsive projects on top of the many old things undone.  I try to patiently explain that it isn't OK to wait to feel like doing some of these projects, since no one ever really feels like going thru closets and downsizing or doing financial paperwork.  Somehow a small amount of self discipline could work.  In my humble opinion.  But I am only the consultant, the customer is always right, right?  My mantra, "it's their life". We are on the same journey, sort of, but it is far from easy to chart a course. 

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