Monday, November 28, 2005

Avoiding Confrontation

I think it’s fair to say, that like so many others of you out there, I am a guy who tends to avoid confrontation. One whose personality dictates that he or she most often “goes along to get along”. In my case, I have spent most of my adult life avoiding confrontation, and tension between myself and others, even to the point of dishonesty, where I might be a little too kind to someone, to not make them feel bad. So be sure you don’t have a giant chunk of spinach on your front tooth when you come around, ‘cause I might not tell you it’s there.

I like to think that, at this point, I have adopted a more honest way of being, when it comes to confrontation, but it has been hard won, over my life. When I had my business, for over 20 years, and had 13 employees minimum at any given time, I tended to allow the worst of behavior and performance, before I would reluctantly reprimand someone. Or I would just do the person’s job myself, to avoid a confrontation. Dumb, huh? But over the years, I got better at dealing with the less savory parts of management.

There are those, of course, who fall at the other end of the continuum, like Brad Chesterton, Jr., (a name surely lifted from that preppy snob in “Animal House”), whose website “blogg’d” features Brad’s need to belittle, disguised as “critique”, or, as he, himself describes the site, “ destructive criticism at it’s finest”. Brad, Jr. was born with ample tools for confrontation. He courts it. He likes to make trouble. Me, I fall naturally at the other end of the continuum, equally as out of step as Brad, and have had to seek some balance, over time, not by going out of my way to be mean, as Brad Jr. does, but at least, trying to be more honest.

In 1978, I was still a neophyte business owner, 30 years old. My management style was more one of creating connection and friendship between myself and my employees, than one of being a taskmaster, and I mostly felt comfortable running a business. I got pretty good performance out of everyone, most of whom liked their gentle and upbeat boss.

One day around this time of year, late November, my cake decorating apprentice, Theresa, a young small town girl I favoured for her committment and desire to learn, asked me if I would cooperate with her in doing a Christmas present project. She asked if she could buy a 10 pound bar of high quality chocolate from the business, and other ingredients, at cost, so that she could make her own “Almond Roca” candy at home, and give it out to her friends and family as Christmas gifts. As a first term apprentice, Theresa wasn’t making a ton of money, and I gladly agreed to assist. Theresa took the ingredients for her project home and made her candy.

Several weeks later, right before Christmas, Theresa brought a couple of small packages of her Almond Roca in, cellophaned and tied with raffia, at 6 AM, to give to other employees, and to me. As she removed her coat she announced to my baker Stan and me, “you know, after I made the candy, I unfortunately stored it in my coat closet, and I think it has a bit of a taste of the closet, let me know what you think”.

A few minutes later, as I walked to the oven to pull the Danish, I removed the cellophane from my candy and snacked a bite. As I bit down, my nose next to the package, WHAM, it hit me, the full on and way nasty smell and taste of Moth Balls. Oh man, I thought, this poor young woman has blown this whole project. This candy stinks, and she has tried so hard to make something to give out at Christmas, on her limited budget, oh the poor thing. Theresa was watching for me to open my candy, and yelled up to me, “Well, what do you think Ric?” Still in shock, I immediately yelled back, above the din of the radio and oven bearings, “It’s great, T. I can taste that closet thing you were talking about, but I don’t think it’s that noticeable.”
Later that day, after Theresa had gone home, I asked Stan if he had tried his candy yet. “Nope, why?, he replied, as he began to unwrap his little bit of joy. And then, as he bit down, the look on his face said it all. Stan was and is a very nice person, and he immediately said, in his overly concerned way, “OHH NOOOOOOO, Ric, do you think we should tell her?”

Suffice it to say, that nary a word was said. Theresa went ahead and gave out her moth bally candy for Christmas, and likely, no one else said anything either. But I felt really sorry for Theresa, and it still haunts me, and if I had to do it again, having matured, and with less of a need to be likable, I would definitely say something, tactfully, but honestly, let her know her candy was awful.

I don’t know when it happens, when people who go to great lengths to avoid confrontation suddenly grow up, and decide to be more honest. For me, I think it came with age, or maybe it had something to do with the time I almost died of a heart attack. After that, somehow, one loses the sense that saving people’s feelings trumps honesty. I hope that I have come to a place in my life where any criticism I might make is more honest, fair, and balanced. But that Brad Chesterton, Jr. guy, he’s just a mean fuck.

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Pacific Beach, Washington, United States