My favorite time of year. Employee reviews. My company, Konoha Corp, approaches the higher levels of management first and then goes downward. This is my round. I’ve been stuck in this stale room for 45 minutes.
“Sasuke, sometimes you can come off as…”
Kakashi trailed off. That only annoyed me.
“As challenging. Demanding.”
Of course I know how I come off. And it works.
“I get results, don’t I?”
It annoys me that he has the nerve to confront me about this. Every single product release under my management has gone off without complications. In terms of revenue and increasing market share, I’ve outperformed every single one of my contemporaries by a landslide. I’ve held this role for three years as of June and have moved mountains.
“Your results are stellar. Sasuke, you are a very brilliant scientist and a shrewd businessman. But you’re breeding a workplace culture that is afraid to fail. They’re afraid to show creativity.”
“Afraid to fail.”
That phrase just sticks between my ears and goads me, because right now I’m so clearly remembering Itachi yelling at me over huge stacks of messy papers when I showed him my plans for the AI components of one of our new virtual executive assistants December of last year.
“This has all been done before. It’s good work, but it’s by the books. Why are you so afraid to fail? You’ll never make a difference that way!”
He died three months ago. Whenever I remember him, I get upset. If I’m around people, that automatically manifests as me being pissed off.
“Can we afford to fail with our brand’s reputation and the market share at stake? Why are you complaining?”
I know I’m being difficult and missing the point. I continue regardless.
“Sasuke, people respect you, but they also fear you.”
“Yes. That’s a management style.”
Kakashi sighs, clearly frustrated. I couldn’t care less, because I’m frustrated too.
Steve Jobs pulled it off. So can I.
“You need to show them a softer, more caring side. These are brilliant people.”
Most of them are bright. I have my doubts about a few, one person in particular on my mind. But I didn’t hire him, so I consider myself absolved. Itachi must’ve been smoking crack.
“They need a supportive environment to innovate. We’re a consumer technology company, Sasuke. We need to be on the edge, or we’re obsolete by definition.”
At this point, I could go on about all of the successful product launches and ballooning profits. There’s just one inconvenient aspect of the situation: he’s right. And I know damned well that people are afraid to think outside of the box because they’re afraid of what I might do if they fail.
He’s asking me to do something I don’t know how to do, but I won’t admit to it. I’m silent, which he takes as a cue.
“It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic or unnatural. Just try to be more understanding if an employee makes a mistake. If they were using their best judgment and were being diligent, then it’s enough that they tried.”
What if they have their head in the clouds and spend all day wondering, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” What if they squander their potential by sitting on their ass and playing class clown with coworkers? Like a certain vapid blue-eyed employee I have. Eye color generally means nothing to me, but it’s difficult not to remember such a brilliant blue.
“I agree with you that as long as something was done responsibly and with due diligence, the employee shouldn’t be reproached. What I object to is anything less than diligence.”
Kakashi looks down at my desk, and he looks back up at me with his eyes half lidded. He looks tired.
“Look. Not everyone is going to have your work ethic, Sasuke. And sometimes people do get distracted. As their manager, you use the ruler first, not the sledgehammer.”
“You have to show you care.”
Right. The only issue is that I don’t.
I frown. Inhale. Exhale. I remind myself of what Itachi said, which is almost entirely the reason why I speak my next sentence.
“Okay, I’ll try a softer hand.”
Kakashi smiles, because he knows how big of an accomplishment it was to get me to say that. I will let him believe it’s his victory. I don’t give a damn.
“But I’m warning you in advance that we may experience some hiccups.”
I issue that disclaimer because this means relinquishing some of my control in the interest of fostering innovation. I don’t know what will happen. My team might fail. I don’t want that to be interpreted as a failure on my part.
“We’ll consider them learning experiences.”
- - -
He code named it CMI. Caring Manager Initiative. Apparently, even this requires an acronym. It’s like a bad joke.
This is, without a doubt, my least favorite project that I have ever been on. Ever.
I will have to update Kakashi on my progress next quarter. He’d outlined three action items for me to fulfill by the next quarter:
1. Conducting Employee Reviews
2. Showing Interest in Employee Activities
3. Acknowledging Employee Achievements
I will record everything and act diligently and rationally at every step. If there is a failure, it will not be because I failed.
Phase I - Caring
Conducting Employee Reviews
I can’t even express how much I hate conducting employee reviews.
I go over every detail of the person’s value to the company. I fixate on their accomplishments for about 70% of the review. They plead their case. They almost always want more money, and I can only acquiesce about half of the time. I listen to their hackneyed excuses with a seemingly empathetic nod, which Itachi once told me was actually pretty convincing.
With practiced ease, like a surgeon, I speak about “opportunities to improve,” because no one wants to be criticized. And this go around, it seems like I have to put the kiddie gloves on. God forbid I hurt anyone’s feelings.
So it’s with mixed relief and dread that I view Naruto’s name on my calendar as my next appointment.
Naruto comes into my office with a big grin.
“Alright, Bossman. Let’s get this show on the road!”
I have told him to stop calling me Bossman so many times that I’ve lost count.
Now he has to obey me. He does so without complaint, not realizing that this was a power play on my part. With employees like Naruto, establishing boundaries is key.
As annoyed as I am with him, I know that for once today, I can be honest. I never hold back with Naruto. He takes everything I could ever dish out…and throws it back in my face.
I can’t believe I haven’t fired him yet.
“Okay, Naruto. You know that your designs have, in theory, been…interesting.”
Naruto puffs up like a toad at the compliment and stares at me like he’d just triumphed over me. It makes me regret saying it.
“But when it comes to creating the prototypes and testing them, everything falls to shit. You don’t see your ideas through. That’s fatal. If a product doesn’t work, it’s useless.”
“So you’re calling my work useless?” Naruto bristles.
It is true that he hasn’t gotten a single product off the ground. He’s a dreamer.
“I’m saying that the devil’s in the detail.”
At this point, if it were anyone else, I’d be reassuring them of how valuable they are to the company and how integral they are to the team. I’d smile and talk to them about promotions and ask them to fill out company templates with their goals for the next year. But that would sound forced, because that’s not how Naruto and I talk.
Naruto puffs out his cheeks and pouts, and I feel like I’m talking to a teenager. People have probably told him he needs to be more detail-orientated, because God knows it’s true.
“There’s that, and the fact that you keep checking your cell phone during working hours and socializing with coworkers too often.”
Naruto smiles and gives an impish laugh.
“This is not funny.”
“So… I guess I’m not getting a raise, huh?” he asks sheepishly, still trying to lighten the situation.
“Now that was funny.”
“Oh, you are such a prick,” Naruto answers, amused by my attitude. He should be used to it at this point.
“Is that really what you want to say to your boss?”
“I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
I dislike the fact that I have to bring this issue to his attention for him to resolve it. It demonstrates a lack of proactivity. In fact, in all aspects of the guy’s life… He’s so laid back and easygoing. Everything is always fine and well with him, and who cares what reality actually is. Such disregard for life’s priorities. I don’t get him, nor do I want to.
“You’ve been warned,” I answer. “I’m documenting it. Fix it, and we’ll have no problems.”
Naruto sighs, and again I feel like a parent. Naruto looks down and bites his lip, and I start thinking that maybe he’s more frustrated with himself than he is with me.
We continue the conversation. He didn’t call me Bossman again the entire meeting.
Stage II - Caring
Showing Interest in Employee Activities
Konoha Corp has a club for public speaking, held every Wednesday at lunch time. As both a scientist and a businessman, I realize that scientists are not known for mixing well with the business world. Itachi always told me never to let one of my scientists talk to one of my investors.
Our employees come here for that extra polish. The moderator, Shizune, explained that today’s workshop would all be impromptu, two-minute speeches. She put everyone’s names in a bowl, and she’d draw each speaker out until the bowl emptied. Each person would have their own topic. Meanwhile, she’d videotape them on their phone.
Public speaking is one of my strengths, not that I particularly enjoy talking. I practiced for years and fancy myself an actor now.
And of course, Naruto is here. Of all the faces in the room, his was the one I expected to see the most. He thrives off of being the center of attention. Shizune now pulls a slip out of the bowl, and everyone is sweating around me. Naruto’s name is the first she pulls.
I can’t imagine how pleased he must be by this as he walks toward the lectern.
“And the topic is…”
A pause. Naruto is standing behind the lectern now.
“Your favorite food.”
No one’s looking at me, so I roll my eyes.
Clearly, he’s doing this to show off. He’s a bubbling extrovert. He’s going to crack a few jokes. People will laugh, because he’s damn good at making people laugh. I have no interest whatsoever in watching him puff up and prattle on for whatever acknowledgement his secretly insecure soul craves.
But then he starts speaking. My mind goes blank. I’m taken off guard. Shocked.
Shocked by how horrible he is at this.
He looks down at his feet, then paces a few steps.
He’s choking. I did not see this coming.
His body is very obviously shaking. I doubt anyone could miss it.
“Um… Give me a minute. I’m…” he stammers. “I’m off to some start, huh?”
The room gives a forced and sympathetic laugh that makes me want to cringe.
He’s a wreck.
But he’s trying. I have to say that for him. He’s earnest, and raw, and vulnerable, and… In a nutshell, everything that I’m not.
His face is bright red. I don’t know why, but my chest feels tight. This is painful to watch, yet I can’t take my eyes off of him. I find myself wishing that I could plant words on his tongue, which is ironic given that he generally never shuts the hell up.
“So, ramen…” he starts, gesturing with his arms. “It’s… It’s a hot food and… So, you know…”
Everyone is looking at him. I can’t explain it, but if anyone so much as snickers at his awkwardness, I would fire them on the spot.
If I were that shitty at public speaking, you couldn’t pay me to go up there and fumble, turn five different shades of red, and shake like a leaf. But he did, because he wants to improve. He took initiative. Still, it’s certainly not like I’m impressed by his pathetic attempt at a speech.
Well… Maybe just a little bit impressed.
Braver than I gave him credit for.
I again remember Itachi telling me, “You’re afraid to fail.” It burns, and I swallow tight. It’s bad enough that he was right. Even worse that he’s dead, and now I’m thinking about it. I was not prepared to feel today. I clear my mind.
“You um… I like ramen because it’s easy to make and…”
“The time is up,” Shizune informed him with a smile.
He smiles, but his shoulders slump. I can’t blame him.
“And Mr. Uchiha, it’s so wonderful to have you join us today!”
Naruto looks at me, and his eyes widen to the size of golf balls. He is a stubborn thorn in my side, and I want to deck him every time he calls me “Bossman” in that same nauseatingly upbeat tone. Usually I’d jump at the chance to one up him, but this is very different. I hold eye contact with him for just an instant before addressing Shizune again.
“Yes, thank you, everyone. Nice work.”
Without a word, Naruto runs right out of the room, abandoning any attempt at composure and leaving his phone behind with Shizune. This isn’t like him. Was he going to… Unravel? Cry or something? Just because he now realizes I was watching?
I’ve been thinking about it for a while, trying to figure it out. This banter dialogue we’ve had going… He seems like he fixates on me. He’s…
Shit. I really hope this isn’t what I think it is.
All of this churns through my head as my face betrays nothing. I think that the power to pull an impeccable stone cold poker face in light of any situation runs in my family. Or maybe it’s learned. Whatever the case, it’s a valuable gift.
Meanwhile, people start murmuring and chatting about Naruto’s rushed exit.
“Shut up,” I say to everyone, firmly and just a little more loudly than I would in normal conversation.
In a heartbeat, the room goes so quiet you could hear a piece of paper hit the ground.
The meeting continues with my go ahead. I begrudgingly sit there and pretend to be interested. I pretend like I don’t want to leave that meeting right now and find Naruto. If I found him, what would I do? I don’t know. So why bother?
I see the meeting through to its dazzling completion and have accomplished my mission as Caring Manager for the day, though I admit that telling everyone to shut up was counterproductive. I should have known better, but it was worth it.
Acknowledging Employee Achievements
I didn’t see Naruto again that day until the late hours of the evening. It’s ten, at which time the office is generally a ghost town. I could hear someone typing from the opposite side of the floor. We both had our respective deadlines to meet for the next morning, though me pulling all-nighters was nothing out of the norm.
I’m trying to eat my turkey sandwich and mark up my prototypes at the same time. I hear footsteps outside of my office and look to see Naruto trying to sneak past my door. He’s all too conspicuous in his attempts to avoid eye contact with me.
“Good job,” I say loudly enough for him to hear.
I thought he deserved it.
“Very funny, jackass.”
He knows what I’m referring to, naturally. He’s stopped outside of my office now.
“I’m not joking,” I answer.
He looks up at me, and there’s indecision in his eyes. He’s trying to read me, which he’s always been horrible at.
“Is that…an actual compliment?”
Naruto grins. It looks like gloating.
“It was pity.”
I have no idea why I just said that; it was a knee jerk reaction. I feel like I kicked a puppy in the face.
“No… It wasn’t pity.”
I’m frustrated with myself, because I can’t seem to pull this off without ruining it somehow.
“Look… If you haven’t noticed, sincerely complimenting people is not my strong suit. I thought I’d take your example and try something I suck at today.”
That was downright painful.
“You’ve got guts, Uzumaki.”
Naruto lights up like the sun and smiles at me, and if I’m going to follow that analogy, I feel like the rays have warmed me.
“Well…” Naruto pauses and then looks into my eyes again. “Good job, Bossman.”
He continues to smile at me, and the atmosphere grows stale. There’s an adage: always leave them wanting more.
“Have a good one. See you tomorrow.”
I give him a nod, and he issues that dramatic, almost frantic wave that he’s known for with a beaming grin. As he leaves my office and approaches the exit, I hear him hum under his breath. Why am I sad to hear him go?
I sigh and resist the temptation to insult him. CMI will be difficult; there’s no denying that. And of all of CMI’s challenges, Naruto will likely be the greatest. At the very least, today Naruto gave me a crash course on how to fail. As sick as it makes me to admit this, I should be learning from him.