‘There’s only one Tessa Panther in the UK,’ she said for the umpteenth time. I couldn’t help thinking that there is also only one “Cruella de Vil”.
‘So,’ I asked quickly, ‘If I sent a letter to Tessa Panther, UK – you’d get it?’
No; it went straight over her head. She was examining me strangely; her eyes opened wider almost filling with resentment. For Tessa, there was nothing strange about this look; this was her in her natural state. Fairly certain, I knew she would deliberately change the subject, something she is good at, compensating for her inability to engage in casual banter. Sometimes it was good just to sit back and observe. Not that she’d grant me the time; Oh God, too late; what was she saying now? I knew I had better tune back in. She seemed to be still looking at me.
‘I don’t believe there is any excuse for anyone to be rude,’ she said, apparently in the middle of some story. ‘When people are pushing the “London Lite” or “The Big Issue” into your face, you should thank them! I hate it when people are so impolite and forget their manners.’
It was obvious that she also seemed to forget that it was only the previous week when she freaked, as someone tried to force the “London Paper” into her hands, while she was holding shopping bags and an umbrella. Maybe she thinks that the distributers of the “London Paper” are exempt from deserving politeness.
‘True true,’ was the only thing I could think to say, while simultaneously pondering whether she was slightly senile. I was getting fierce hungry and was hoping she would shut up soon. She was still talking, her prerogative, and all had to hail and listen. In fairness, it was a bit like a reality TV show, sitting back and watching her in action. Of course once you were not on the receiving end of the uncouthness of her tongue.
‘People need to learn to pay respect,’ she lectured.
‘Oh God,’ I thought, here goes, I was expected to be the other part of her conversation.
‘What makes you think they don’t?’ I asked innocently.
‘It’s obvious,’ she snapped back at me.
I vacantly scanned the room assuming the idiot persona she was accusing me of. I possibly missed some of her spiel, but it was hard, she would bore you to tears at the best of times.
‘Listen to me Joan, this man shoved past me in the coffee shop earlier, saying he had to run for a train and would I mind if he quickly paid for his sandwich,’ she said defiantly.
‘Agh sure, at least he asked, these things happen.’
No: I was wrong.
‘It’s not that Joan; it was the unmannerly way he said it!’ she roared back at me.
‘But sure, if he was in a hurry, maybe he didn’t think too hard about it.’
‘That’s the problem, people don’t think, they just push and shove their way and opinions with no consideration or refinement,’ she said interrupting me.
‘But were you in any hurry?’ I asked.
‘That’s not the point,’ she immediately snapped back.
‘It makes no difference really in the grand scale of things,’ I said reassuringly.
‘We are all equal; he had no right to believe he could talk down to me.’
‘Why? Was he taller?’
‘He was rude, THAT’S my point.’
‘But you’ll never see him again – I wouldn’t worry too much.’
‘He is representative of the many rough people about.’
‘Agh come on now, that’s a generalisation,’ I said and hoped to end her conversation.
Her tempestuous look quickly evolved into a broad smile, albeit a false one. Tony, her boss had just approached. It was fairly easy to tell when she feigned niceness, creases appeared around her eyes like forced propped up shelves. Her laughs also seemed to appear from her nasal area as her mouth was far too busy assuming its position of a smile. Her eyes were the giveaway though; her pupils maintained their pin point size. Tony did not care to notice though.
‘Tessa, who is dealing with the global project legal requirements?’ he asked looking for a quick answer.
‘Tony, it’s all in hand; we have it covered under our project,’ Tessa promptly answered.
‘No, we can’t wait for that; I understand it will impact lots of projects.’
‘That’s not true, I have discussed it, and it’s in control,’ she objected.
‘All the same, who is dealing with it from your team?’ Tony asked again.
‘Billy,’ she reluctantly confessed, and when Tony moved away with this information, she too moved to the opposite side of her desk to stand behind me.
I glimpsed behind me, only to confirm that her piercing eyes were boring a hole through the back of my head. I knew payback time would soon approach for being a witness to that conversation with her boss. She ignored me though, but her mouth was still churning around. She had decided to speak with Geoff, another colleague.
‘That’s ridiculous Geoff, Tony has gone over to Billy to speak with him directly,’ she started.
‘What’s happened?’ Geoff asked.
‘That’s not the point. Tony should be dealing directly with me.’
‘I thought he was just talking with you,’ Geoff said, seemingly confused.
‘You obviously missed the point. My boss should not be talking to any of my team members, all communication must be channelled through me.’
‘Was that not what he was doing?’ Geoff asked, still confused.
‘You didn’t hear, he’s now talking to Billy about project requirements. My team are far too busy to be expected to answer questions from management.’
‘It’ll be good experience for Billy, communicating with management.’
‘NO; it is not! It’s a waste of time. Tony should ask me, and then I can have a one to one with Billy and ask him. Then I can organise a meeting with management and present the information to them,’ she stated, as though this was common place.
It is actually true that she has a high level of intellect, but it is also true that she sometimes lacks common sense, she really has no social skills on winning people over. I was fairly sure that Billy would be delighted to have the opportunity to converse with management, and in fairness, it would have done his morale no harm.
I mused to myself and wondered if she kept an archaic version of the management bible under her pillow; but I was not brave enough to ask if she ever heard of an open door type policy of management. She believed in the rule by fear type policy. If she ever sensed the atmosphere was slightly too jovial, she would soon put a stopper to it, by banging a few doors or slamming a few books down, all to ensure complete attention was brought back to herself.
‘Tessa, while you are here, I have a question,’ Geoff continued.
‘Can it wait? I want to go and stand over my team to hear what Tony is saying to them,’ she answered, slightly distracted.
‘It’s only a quick one,’ Geoff protested.
‘I can’t believe Tony is still there talking with them. What is he saying?’ ignoring Geoff when she ordered Joss, another team member, to go and stand near Tony and listen to the conversation. I can only assume it was out of fear, but he did as ordered, and went like a lame dog to eavesdrop on Tony. And worse, he actually came back and reported the contents of the conversation to her. I possibly swallowed quite a few flies or any air bugs that decided to fly into my gaping mouth.
‘What was it you wanted Geoff?’ she snapped, after digesting the news from her main spy.
‘It’s about the meeting with the suppliers tomorrow,’ he started.
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘Are things progressing with the suppliers? I thought they refused to do any work until they got the order.’
‘No one is talking to you,’ she roared at me.
‘We have signed the purchase order,’ Geoff answered me.
‘That’s great, so what’s the next step?’ I asked in a resolute manner. I ignored Tessa, though I could solemnly hear my blood reach boiling point. After all, this piece of work was critical to the implementation of the project I was managing.
‘Meeting tomorrow,’ Geoff answered, before he was abruptly interrupted by Tessa.
‘We’ll take it from here, no need for any other involvement,’ she declared to Geoff while regarding me with an attempt to display authority.
It seemed like a good time to exit, and in reality; I was so hungry then, that I could have licked the arse off a low flying duck.
Months previously, I would have persevered, and not given way to this unrefined behaviour and culture which she so often exhibited, but those days, I was weary. You got nowhere. She withheld information, and critical stuff at that, and chose only to divulge such information during presentations to management. It was her attempt to uncover the possibility that I may not have been conducting my job with efficiency. Was it a possible insecurity? Had she perceived me as a possible threat? Rest assured, she need not have worried, for I had no intention of doing the disservice to myself of assuming a role that she had put into disrepute.
I was only working with her four months at that point, but I already knew I would possibly only last six. Life was too short for this type of rubbish in a workplace. If I had wanted to put up with rubbish, I would have applied for a job at a local dump.
Ironically, there were a total of ten on her team, and I was the longest serving member, even though I was only a contractor. Staff retention in her area was becoming a huge problem and her boss had noticed. I knew that fact, based on the several questions he had asked of me. Possibly, that was the reason she tried to restrict the team from communicating with him. It was probable that she withheld information to ensure her position as ‘top dog’. Equally, it was plausible, that was she fearful one of her team had more intellectual capacity than she. It was possible, that she was even fearful of her own job.
I couldn’t help pondering that day, if someone had dangled her from a balcony when she was little. People could not possibly be born like this. And ironically, if she had conducted her work with an air of calmness, she would have realised that she could be appreciated for her intellect, and not notoriously noted for her stormy and unrefined behaviour. It was sad, for she really was a smart intelligent woman. Still though, I really would have loved to burst her arse.
December came, and I was nearing six months into my penance. Thankfully, Tessa got sick, and was out of the office for four days. It was great, it was productive, and the office seemed more colourful. But like all good things, they easily come, and they easily go. The bounce was soon taken out of my step.
She was already there when I arrived into the office. I was early.
‘Joan, I want to speak with you,’ she said to me, instantly propping her head up once she saw me approaching.
‘Ok, I’ll pop round to your desk once settled,’ I responded.
‘It’s not a big deal, but I need you to come over here,’ she continued, ignoring the fact that I asked to be granted a few minutes to get my coat off and settle down.
‘What’s up? Do you feel any better?’ I asked, as if I cared.
It must have been at least fifteen minutes while she described all her symptoms of illness to me, and during all this time, I assumed an air of listening. I was barely in the office and she was already annoying me. In fact, she would have given a headache to an aspirin.
My annoyance evolved from the fact that she did not tolerate general conversations in the office; unless it was she that chose to talk, and mostly her non work stories were about herself, and never bothered to invest an interest in anyone else. And it was my opinion that she was, in fact, very boring. She was not capable of good wit or banter in jest.
My annoyance had been nurtured and nourished over many months, from the initial point when she had declared to me that it was not her policy to introduce me to anyone in the office, as it only served as a distraction to work. That was the first time I betrayed her, as I bounced around the office chatting to anyone at random.
I popped over to her desk, and hoped she had moved on from her series of illnesses.
‘Did you give the guys a presentation while I was away? It’s just I see a copy of it in my mail inbox,’ she asked, actually in quite a normal tone.
Relieved; I was fairly confident that I wasn’t in trouble, but then again, I never really could tell.
‘Yeah, I thought it a good time to get them involved, they need to be ready to assist with user testing in the new year,’ I said.
To be honest, my logic of running projects was that all aspects of project progress should have been communicated to the team at a much earlier stage. After all, they were the users and needed to know what would be expected of them during an intense user testing period of almost three months. However, that idea had been dismissed several times previous. I could only assume again, that based on her prehistoric ideals, information was only provided on a need to know basis.
I used to get vivid visions that she’d see demons in little red boiling blankets if information was volunteered. One of her most famous phrases was ‘he/she/you never asked the question.’ Therefore, unless you knew what to ask, and in effect had a premonition of the coveted information, effectively knowing what you didn’t know, she would not tell.
It is fact, that to ask a question is based on an ability to seek the facts. And we ask questions, based on a knowing of what we need to seek out, that we don’t already know. It is therefore difficult to work with someone, who has an inordinate and wrongful desire to withhold information without due regard for others. As such, I too, developed an annoying habit of constantly and repeatedly saying to her, ‘Is there anything else I need to know?’
I also already knew that she would perceive the fact that I gave this presentation in her absence as undermining to her authority, but she did seem quite serene, so I wasn’t too worried. Maybe, I had won some brownie points for listening to her converse about herself for the first part of the morning.
‘I also gave them a thorough demonstration of the new software,’ I braved to tell her. I knew she’d find out sooner or later.
‘It went down well with the lads to be honest, three of them have actually used this software in their previous jobs, so they are already familiar with it in some capacity, which is good news,’ I continued.
She was staring through my face vacantly.
‘What’s ‘IT’?’ she snapped.
Oh dear, I had hoped we would avoid that. I had used the word ‘IT’ and was referring to the software demonstration I had mentioned before. However, I had forgotten that everything needs to be defined in detail when conversing with Tessa, though she herself is defiant and vague in her own answers or explanations. I supposed only to hold true to her affinity to guard information.
Seriously, I tried to smother my grin and feared I may have even smiled, but it was torture. This was one of her most famous phrases ‘what’s it?’, other variations from her included, ‘define it.’ She never said those words; she snapped them out. She used these expressions all the time in meetings with suppliers when she didn’t know how to respond, and in all probability, because she did not understand what was being said. So instead of demonstrating she did not possibly comprehend, she would say these words to allude to the other parties, that they indeed were the ones that were not clear. A very clever manipulation!
‘It?’ I questioned in response, as if I thought she was lacking reason due to her recent illness.’ The software demonstration, of course,’ I continued, smiling nicely.
‘We’ll talk later,’ and she dismissed me. I knew then that she intended to challenge my authority on carrying out such an activity without her permission and in her absence, but had changed her mind for some reason. It wasn’t long before I found out.
‘Ping, ping,’ an email arrived; I hoped it was a personal one, but it was not, it was from Tessa, and was addressed to the entire team. It clearly stated that it was far too early to demonstrate software since several aspects were being customised. She was attempting to dismiss the work I did on my initiative. By God, she barked up the wrong tree with me that day. I knew the software inside out. I decided not to respond; in fact I didn’t have to, as the guys on the team did it for me. The demonstration was useless without having read the presentation which described the areas of customisation and outstanding work. She had indeed jumped the gun. But instead of anyone correcting her, email banter started. It was all in good humour, with witty retaliations from the team, and most importantly, no comments were directed at anyone in particular, it was only implied. It actually generated an upbeat atmosphere amongst the team momentarily, until Geoff send an email directed at me. He made a joke. I responded, knowing that encouraging the banter amongst a group of people would make her blow her top, and on that occasion, my estimations were correct.
Boy, did it make her blow! She responded within seconds in large capitals with a bold font ‘CAN WE PLEASE TALK TO EACH OTHER!?!?!?’ I nearly fainted from laughing at the irony of the context of her message being sent to the entire team by email!
It was true to say that based on that final reaction from me, she did her best to make my last few days in the company a living hell on earth. I was beyond caring at that point.
I was determined to spend my time working in one of the conference rooms between meetings, and on occasions, she sent her main spy, Joss, to access what I was doing or who I was talking to. Unnerved, I knew this; because he told me so, when I bought him lunch one day. She told the team to dismiss the notion of buying a leaving card for me, as I wasn’t the type of person who would entertain a fuss. I knew this also, because Joss again revealed her secret plans, and that time it only cost me a few quid on beer to coax him. But when they did bravely buy the card, she requested that it was returned to her between signatures, and was not to be distributed to anyone outside the team, as it was not good policy to force people to sign cards, which she decided that people generally saw as a nuisance or a distraction. This was all too much, and my stomach muscles were weak from juggling the idea of her wilful exertion to hold my presence at a low profile.
In truth, there were times when I just hung my head in meetings. Once Tessa gloated that she managed to get a manager from another company fired, due to the numerous complaints she had reported. She was really proud of this. No one in the room commented, in fact, a sterile silence fell amongst the entire audience. She must have noticed and realised her misjudgement.
Another one of her tactics was to wrongly talk about some person behind their back, while always being as sweet as sugar to the same persons face. Logically, I knew I was not exempt from this type of back stabbing. Even if an individual was being praised in her presence, she would manipulate the conversation, unless management were present, with examples to display that same person in a darker light. Generally these examples involved an event that triggered offence to her. When management were present, she was more subtle in her terminology to discredit an individual.
It was amazing, and it could only be witnessed, but the only times I saw her genuinely smile, were when she made indirect comments which casually alluded to an event that she knew would lead to a person’s work or intentions being checked or questioned. Inevitably, this meant that she was truly content in the knowledge that she was causing turbulence for someone that she had viewed as having insulted or disrespected her in the past. She did not forget.
On another occasion, she announced in front of the entire team that a confrontation with the development manager had almost left him in tears, another incident she was proud of. We all knew and could only imagine what was equally being said about each and every one of us behind our backs.
Had her conversations been received with earnest intent, it was possible to believe we all worked in the company of discourteous, harsh, unevolved beings with the exception of her. It was incredulous to hear her speak of her colleagues so distastefully. It was more scary that she made such reports to Geoff and me. Since we didn’t challenge her, she must have assumed that we were in some sort of circle of agreement. I already feared colleagues may think I was similar to her, and I wanted no such branding. It was later on, that I indeed learned, I was congratulated by many having survived so many months of her domineering nature. No other team member had survived more than six months. A record had been broken, and duration bets had been circulating the office.
Much later, I realised that of course, I never performed to my best in the role I was hired to do. I concluded that when placed in such an environment, it is not possible to muster the energy to conduct oneself to the best of one’s ability. It simply revolves back to creating a sense of team work, respect for individuals and an atmosphere of motivation. People do not perform without one or more of the above. A team leader can be blessed with intellect and the many abilities to think, but without basic people management skills then they are seriously buggered. I was fifteen years in a professional workplace and I could definitively say that this was the first (and hopefully only) time I would experience such disrespect and dogma to a team, and they were only guilty of trying to do their jobs within her limitations in place.
I lasted six months in total as predicted; however my predecessor had in fact given me four months. He too, had resigned from the same role. The day I handed my badge back, I was so weary and tired, I’d have slept on the back of a rasher.
If faced with the options of working with Tessa again or dying of starvation; I would opt every time to chew my arm off.
‘Did you hand it back?’ Tessa asked, before I stepped through the revolving doors.
‘What’s it?’ I asked.
‘Your badge, of course.’
‘It’s all sorted,’ the receptionist said.
‘Let me check,’ Tessa ordered.
‘Nick, nack, Tessa, WHACK,’ I muttered.
‘What!’ she snapped in my direction.
‘Needa get a few nick nacks from Tesco,’ I said quickly.
‘Are you coming back after lunch?’ she asked.
‘Probably not,’ I let her know.
It was already mid December, but as I parted the building for the last time, the sun beamed from a high blue sky over central London.