Attitude makeover

By Juliet Slattery

Read more Summer Short Stories here.

They’re all entitled to three sessions. It’s a popular workplace scheme in Wellington. Companies like Harbour Health obviously take their staff wellbeing to heart. An “Above the Line” organisation, as we say.

Caroline came to her first session, very disturbed. She showed some trust issues from the start. She said something about confidentiality and that her employers were paying so…

I was a little shocked, I must say. I am a warm and welcoming person. I know how to put people at ease. Really this gave me the first clue to her personality. Her difficulties.

“Your boss and you, you feel that there is some tension there, do you?” I asked.

Caroline snorted, “Tension! You could call it that. She makes my life Hell.” You see what I mean? A bit too much drama.

“The boss, I call her Bitch Face… where to start? I dread going in in the morning.”

She paused, to collect herself.

“This is in confidence, isn’t it?”

I wondered what was the best way to get a message across to this poor woman, to reassure her that she had my full support? I was in her corner.

“I’m just a tiny bit worried that you could be, unknowingly of course,” I laughed “making the situation worse. And we really don’t want that, do we? You’re unhappy, your boss is unhappy. What might you do to make things a little easier? To regain her respect?” I am good at taking a tactful approach, at helping people to see how they can help themselves.

Caroline seemed to be struggling for breath. Her face was a dark, unattractive red. I hope she doesn’t dress for work as she has presented herself today, in casual trousers, flat shoes and a polo shirt. I made a note to approach this in a later session. Image is everything.

She sighed. “I do really think, I’ve tried everything. I’m out of ideas.”

“What have you tried, dear?” I asked

She took a deep breath and launched into an explanation which I think she must have rehearsed before our meeting.

“Every morning, as I pass her office, I call out “Good Morning” and I smile. She turns her head, half away and raises her nose, like this,” Caroline demonstrated, “she never answers. I make sure that everything she asks for is done. Documents are completed in time for meetings. I meet her once a week to check through my KPIs and explain how I am exceeding them. I follow it up with an email, so she can show the CEO. I really try.”

“Well, Caroline, that sounds fantastic!” I like to build people up, praise when it’s due. “But, if I may say so, what I’m worrying about, is not so much your achievements, as you attitude.”

Caroline looked confused. “My attitude?”

“What you call your boss, it’s not exactly respectful is it?”

She sighed again, “Oh, I only call her that in private, to relieve the tension, I think.”

“But, you see, you aren’t trying to feel respect. It’s important to feel that respect for people higher up in the organisation. Your boss reached that position through her own talents and efforts, that needs to be respected. Doesn’t it? Think about that name – I’m guessing you don’t like dogs very much, true?”

Caroline nodded.

“Well, What sort of things do you like? How about a pet name that makes you smile inside. A step towards a closer, more collegial, relationship?”

Caroline thought for a while. She looked a bit crumpled, maybe anaemic even. I made a note to talk to her about yoga and meditation and a little beauty routine. So important for the older woman.

“I like Chinese food,” she said at last. “So. What shall I call her? Dim Sum? Noodle?”

I wondered if Caroline was really working with me on this.

“Let’s think about some positive things you’ve noticed about you boss, then. We’ll try that approach, shall we? What makes her a fun person to work with?”

Caroline collapsed back even further. She seemed smaller, somehow.

“The boss goes out each lunchtime, for maybe two hours, into town. She likes buying shoes. Last week she sent us pictures of the shoes she was choosing and we, my colleague Andrea and me, were supposed to advise her on colour and style. It meant she could keep an eye on where we were. She paid $1,300 for a pair of  Jimmy Choo Glitter Heels, blue and silver. She brought us back a chocolate fish each.”

“There!” I clapped my hands for emphasis. “How lovely! Now, what about a nick-name that makes you feel those sort of warm fuzzies that you feel when someone goes shopping for shoes and brings you a chocolate fish?”

Caroline, had a weird glassy-eyed expression. I could see the effort that trying to think more positively had cost her, but I know that all thinking can be retrained, with just a little effort. I’m here to help that process.

“What about Imelda?” she said, at last.

For some reason, I was very tired after that session. At home, I wrote up my notes as I always do, after removing my make-up and getting into a comfortable robe that I bought in Thailand, which I think brings out the blue in my eyes nicely. Unusually, I had a glass of wine; that is a dangerous habit to get into on a weekday, but I needed more than my mindfulness tape to re-energise. I could see that Caroline had serious issues. I wondered if she would benefit from more in-depth psychiatric help.

Before our next session I did two things: I lit some relaxation candles (Scents of Wellbeing, mandarin, cinnamon and tonka bean) and I had a quick call with Bronwyn in HR at Harbour Health. We’ve always been on good terms, she puts a lot of clients my way.

“I’m going to structure things a little differently today,” I said, when Caroline arrived. It was a bracing, Wellington summer day, and Caroline had been inspired to wear a pair of crumpled khaki shorts. Not ironed since last year apparently. Her hair was a bit greasy, the roots were greying and she had scraped it back, unattractively, into a sort of hippy-style headband.

“Today I’m going to ask you to tell me all the positives of working for Harbour Health, because, quite frankly, I believe you may be showing a little bit of a negativity at work.” Bronwyn is best friends with Caroline’s boss Christina, and she had told me that Caroline’s negative attitude is affecting staff morale.

Caroline’s voice, coming from the depths of her chair, seemed a little quieter than last week.  Women over forty should know not to slouch, it’s so ageing.

“I used to love my job,” she said. “My main role is to help the allied health staff with any issues they are having in their work. I sort out all kinds of things for them, reporting, technology. They depend on me. Then, er the boss, said that I was away from my desk too much. She wanted me to account for my time in seven minute blocks. Then she asked me to keep conversations to a specific time limit – she said I was creating dependence by helping too much and it was disempowering.”

“So,” I said, picking up on the positives. “You love your job, you love talking to people. And your boss, said that you were talking to people, maybe a teensy bit too much? Is that it?”

Caroline just looked at me blankly.  I could see how depressing she might be to work with.

“A little constructive criticism is often helpful. We’ve just got to learn how to grow from it, haven’t we?”

She stared back in silence. “Now, Caroline, do you think you are taking that sort of criticism too much to heart?”

I spent the rest of the session outlining to Caroline some health-supporting strategies to try at home, so that she could come to work with a cheery smile and make the place a vibrant, happy office. I sent her links to my meditation programme, it’s only $50.00 to sign up for the first four sessions, twenty minutes each. I’m certainly hooked. I recommended a good organic shampoo for damaged hair too. She seemed grateful.

On the grapevine (Wellington is such a boutique city isn’t it?) I’d had some further information before Caroline’s final session. The restructuring wasn’t good for Caroline, but I could see that, in the end everyone needed to move on.

Surprisingly, Caroline kicked off the conversation this time. I took that as a real sign of progress. She was beginning to take responsiblity for herself.

“I thought I’d tell you about Christmas,” she said. I told her to go on and gave an encouraging smile.

“I wanted to go and see my auntie in Westport, she’d been very ill and I’d promised to be with her at Christmas. I needed to catch the last ferry on the 22nd. I talked to B…Christina about it nearly a month before. She said, she’d get back to me. She didn’t. Then, she announced a Christmas get-together and “team-builder” for the evening of the 22nd December. I reminded her about my auntie, that I’d asked to be able to leave early to catch the ferry.”

“And what did she say?” I asked. Actually, Bronwyn had already filled me in. She said that Caroline simply shows no team spirit.

“She said no. She said I couldn’t go and she was shocked that I couldn’t put our team-builder ahead of my own selfish holiday wishes. She said it showed a deplorable lack of loyalty.”

“And how did you feel?” I prompted. I could see the blotchy red rising in Caroline’s cheeks again.

“I was angry,” she said. “It looked deliberate. I wondered if she hoped I would give notice.”

“There you see! You do rather jump to the worst possible conclusion don’t you? Think for a minute. It’s a health organisation, and one with a very good reputation, Christina has a nursing background, she’s a Caring Person. She would never have done a thing like that. Now would she?” I patted Caroline’s arm.

“I went to it. The team-building. I was afraid I’d lose my job. I’m fifty-five years old, I’ve been in this job twelve years, I know how hard it would be to find another. And with the reference I would get from Bitch Face.”

“And I expect some good came out of that, didn’t it?” I wanted Caroline to tell me the highlights, rather than concentrate on the missed opportunity to see her auntie. In fact, to be frank, I’m not sure that the auntie even existed, Bronwyn certainly had her doubts.

“Oh, the highlights. Yes, well we had food and wine. Bronwyn gave a speech and the CEO did too. You know the usual; thanks for the year’s work, what fun it is to work with us all, what great things we have achieved. Bitch Face, Christina, I mean, she brought in her corgi. It’s called Charles. I think she has it instead of children. It has a  skin condition, part of it’s back is bald and scaly, but she had made it some angel-wings out of pink netting and a silk vest thing, so you couldn’t really see much of that. Charles was the Christmas fairy and he had a gift for each of us, but we had to sing him a song or tell him a joke to get the present.”

“What fun!” I said, hoping to reinforce the positive memory. “What did you sing?”

“I don’t really sing. Not well. I couldn’t think of a joke either. Sometimes, you just can’t. I don’t know why?” Caroline seemed to be puzzling over this past failure, I could see it had affected her badly.

“So then what happened?”

“It all happened really quickly. Charles bit me. On the finger, look.” She showed a small white scar. “Bitch Face screamed and said I’d attacked him, and it all sort of went to shit. I went home. My auntie died the next week.”

“Anyway, this kind of doesn’t matter now, does it?” She went on.  I knew that Caroline had had notice of the restructuring yesterday, and in some ways, I was quite surprised she had taken the opportunity to meet me for a last time. Although I often have clients who become a little dependent on me, I am such a supportive person, it’s something I have to keep in mind, as I regularly reflect on my practise.

“Yes, I heard, your position is going to be restructured. So you’ll be leaving the organisation. I think, it’s best all round, don’t you?”

“How did you…?” She stopped. “Oh who cares?” She shrugged, and for the first time straightened up, and took a deep breath.

“I’m going for the biggest possible redundancy payout, that’s one thing. And I suppose I need to start looking for something else. Any ideas?”

This was a bit tricky. I knew that Caroline might think she was entitled to a redundancy package, but really, her own attitude had been her downfall, and I felt, we all felt, that she had done quite enough damage to her little band of dedicated colleagues. This needed careful counselling and she was lucky to have me involved, with my post-graduate diploma and my long background in health service management.

“This is such a wonderful opportunity for you. You don’t need to start with an energy-draining battle. Think about it, every cent you take from that company is one less cent they have to put towards the health of Wellington people. Could you really live with that?”

“But, at my age, what are my chances of another job, and with a bad reference from Bitch Face?” she asked.

“Every chance! Every chance in the world. Look at me!” I said “I started my own business at forty-five and I’m still going strong! It just takes thinking outside the square. A positive attitude!”

When Caroline left, I gave her a Scented Wellbeing candle for her bedroom and I really felt she was on the path to a new and exciting future. I thought we’d all come out of that somewhat difficult situation with a sunny place to go to.

I had absolutely no idea she would do a thing like that.

But, it proves it doesn’t it? She had problems, deep-seated problems. I’m so glad I kept thorough notes, because I will need them for the court case. I’ve offered poor orphaned Charles a home too. I love Corgis. Such happy little dogs.

Juliet Slattery

Juliet was originally English and lives in New Zealand. Now that age and Covid have made her completely unemployable, she has found more time to write.  When considered employable, Juliet worked in health and teaching. She lives close to the sea and bush with a bunch of people who are in some way related to her. When not writing she swims, runs and kayaks and tries to learn te reo Māori.


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