Last time, in A broken workplace culture: Episode 1 I talked about my experiences working at a unigwon in Seoul. This time, I’d like to share some thoughts and experience related to how things changed a bit. In my previous post I mentioned that I was not the hero of the transformation. I was more of 2nd or 3rd follower. The hero the story, as I see it, was Patrick (again not his real name). You might remember Patrick from such stories as being intentionally given the worst book to teach a particular course.
As shocking as the “wrong book incident” might be I don’t want to suggest it was the reason for Patrick’s efforts . It certainly might have been a factor but I think it is just too neat and easy to say that he behaved in this way just because he was mistreated that one time. I think Patrick was more generally unhappy with workplace culture and believed he could help foster some positive changes.
I still haven’t told you what Patrick did. One of the first things I remember from this job was Patrick coming over and introducing himself after the first teachers’ meeting. He said that he had been there for a year and was very willing to help and and that his door was always open (note: we didn’t have doors). He also said that he frequently taught listening classes and was most comfortable sharing resources and ideas for that but that he was also ready to help with any classes and was very ready to help or just chat about how things are going in general. He said all this before I really had a chance to grasp how negative the work atmosphere was so I am not sure if I really followed the implications of what he was saying. Now, looking back, I can imagine the hidden meaning was something like, “This place can be tough, so please let me know if you need any help or just need to talk.” I appreciated his offer even if I didn’t take him up on sharing resources too much at that stage. It was nice to know there were unofficial channels of support for when times got tough. I am quite certain that Patrick gave a similar introductory talk to all the new teachers. I was among 5 new teachers that term and you might recall that tradition dictated one would be let go at the end of the term (and one of us was.)
In the early stages I was still getting adjusted to place and figuring out how things went while trying to avoid too much attention or scrutiny in order to keep my job. Patrick opened my eyes to a few things. One evening on beers with me and 2-3 other teachers, he laid out his vision. It was remarkably simple. If we start helping each other and are noticeably seen as doing so then the other teachers will follow suit. He was full of optimism and conviction. He was certain that if a few of us started sharing and talking about productively about teaching it would spread. Sure, perhaps some of the “old guard” will not be into it but they will follow eventually follow the crowd when they are in the minority and everyone else is sharing and working together. He was of the opinion there were in fact very few bad apples but felt the workplace culture had been damaged by individuals that had already left and incidents that had long since passed. The negative effects remained but the people were gone. He was sure a few committed individuals could dramatically change what was a toxic workplace environment. He was passionate and persuasive and I was a believer and a follower immediately. I did my best to help people and when I was no longer in the “fresh meat” stage I tried to make things as easy as possible for the new teachers and I think Patrick’s influence on such behavior was clear. I also feel his efforts paid off in similar ways with other teachers and encouraged a general trend of collaboration and collegiality.
Thinking back, I am struck with Patrick’s leadership style. He never forced anyone to do anything. He provided support and encouragement and a great model to follow. He didn’t really rally the troops or anything like that. He just was the change he wanted to see and let people know that it was ok to be helpful and sincere. I think he sort of flipped the script and made teaching well and caring about teaching cool. I think his efforts were a rousing success. On a personal level I sort of hated to go the office when I first got there but came to enjoy it later.
When I think about this time and Patrick’s influence I can’t ignore the backlash and I don’t wan to paint a picture that things changed immediately or smoothly. I remember we had a meeting and (while not remembering the specifics at all) there was a need for a few volunteers to cover a lesson or change their schedule or take on a bit more responsibility. Nobody volunteered at first and then Patrick was the first to do so mentioning how he was a team player. There were cynical chuckles at the moment and cynical mentions of the phrase “team player” in the weeks that followed. I distinctly remember thinking at the time how it takes someone with some courage an some willingness to be a target. I think Patrick wore the bulls-eye well. He was charming and confident and talented and it didn’t seem to matter much to him if the haters were hating. No stranger to cynicism myself, it struck me as sad that people were judging someone on the basis of his sincerity and desire to help make things better. But it happened and Patrick persevered.
Patrick was trying to make a bad situation better and I think he was largely successful. I am happy I got to see it and participate in it. I am hopeful that by sharing this story I might give readers some hope and ideas for changes in their workplaces if they find themselves in similar situations. Thanks very much for reading and best of luck if you happen to find yourself in a negative situation.
Notes, updates, apologies, clarifications, links and additional info
I used the term “2nd follower” above. This TED talk on “How to start a movement” talks about the importance of followers.
I mentioned it elsewhere but it might be worth noting/considering here how the staff I described was overwhelmingly male (maybe 17/20 or so) and people were mostly in their late 20s and early 30’s. You can draw your own conclusions on these statistics but I felt it was worth mentioning. I once described the office as a place where one could drown in a sea of testosterone to a female colleague. Her nods let me know I might be onto something.
Patrick is my brother’s middle name. My brother’s first name is the same as the Patrick in the story. You know, just in case you know my brother’s name and really want to know Patrick’s real name.
I might have been a little overly negative in my previous post. I don’t think I shared anything that was untrue but I might have emphasized the negatives too much. From my experience it was a not a pleasant place to work and it got much better.
I also think I could have been more clear about who I was referring to when I talked about the “management.” I wasn’t actually talking about our immediate manager, the director of the program. I was talking about the higher ups. Those familiar with the situation will know that I surely had my issues with the director but I want to be clear that I was in no way laying the blame on him/her. I don’t wish to say that he/she was perfect in every way but I do think it was an extremely challenging situation and my criticism of the screwed up atmosphere was not meant to be directed solely or even mostly at the former director.
I suggested in my previous post that it would be a nice blog challenge (!) for others to share experiences of change related to workplace culture and atmosphere. I still believe that to be the case.