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Life Skills 10 September 2023

Don’t let others define you

In 1995, aged 16 and armed with an arsenal of crippling shyness, low self-confidence and social anxiety, I started a part-time job at a supermarket in my hometown of Bexhill.

My role was a shelf-filler, or to use the glorified title from my employment contract, ‘Grocery Replenishment Assistant’. My first job had a grand title – way to go, me!

Man dragging ball of self confidence

Every Saturday, my Line Manager, who I shall call ‘Dave’, would oversee our workload for the day and try his best to motivate us to hit our targets in his own, unique manner.

I struggled to connect with Dave, and years later I’ve come to recognise why. There existed a lack of empathy and a playground-style atmosphere where the weakest would be picked on.

I dreaded going into work – not because of the work itself, but because of everything that surrounded it. When you work hard and receive a cocktail of empty recognition and snide comments in return, it doesn’t make for a pleasant workplace. And one must wonder what message that kind of behaviour gives to a youngster in their first job.

“If you treat your employees like they make a difference, they will.”
Jim Goodnight

A year went by and, with rock-bottom self-esteem, I felt it was time to move on. An application to a local B&Q DIY store proved successful, and I gave Dave my one month’s notice that I would be leaving.

My final day stacking shelves was one that lives long in my memory. I was eating lunch with my work friend in the busy staff canteen, surrounded by colleagues. Dave strode in with a swagger, announcing that it was my last day like some kind of victory speech. And, as one final jibe, he added: “I won’t be going to B&Q anymore – they’ll have nothing on the shelves!”

Laughter reverberated around the room. I just wanted to hide under the nearest table.

We remember things clearly when we have an emotional reaction to them (in my case, huge embarrassment) – a deep connection is formed in our brain. And so it is that I still remember that line, over 28 years later.

When I look back, I feel angry for my younger self, and for anyone else who has been on the receiving end of poor people-managers like Dave. But, here’s the thing, you define who you are – not them. This is a case in point…

I’m now 44 years old. At the age of 22, I left employment and started my own business with a friend. Over the course of 15 years, I grew the business to become one of the world’s major online health information resources. Throughout that time, I managed a lot of amazing, hard-working, creative people and did so with empathy and good leadership (self-taught).

In 2016 I sold my company to Healthline – a titan of the health industry – before starting out on exciting new paths. Throughout the years, I’ve also given a lot back – supporting the town I grew up in and the fantastic charities and causes that exist there. Philanthropy lies at my very core.

A few years ago, I revisited the supermarket where I first worked. There, I spotted Dave working away, filling shelves. Ironically, he’s doing the very role I was doing when I left at 17. I’ve chosen not to approach or say anything to him – or beat him around the head with a B&Q 2×4 – he has his life, and I have mine.

Why have I shared this with you today?

First off, I’ve not written about this to gloat. Dave has a job and is earning a wage. That’s a great thing in itself. He may very well be happy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

This what I choose to take from my story. There are people with the management style of Dave everywhere. As I look back, I would probably guess that he suffered from a lack of self-esteem and experience in managing people. As with playground bullies, people with low self-esteem will often try to push ‘weaker’ people down to shift focus away from their own insecurities and elevate themselves, both in their own eyes and the eyes of others. We’re easy targets, as it were.

One might ask how people like Dave end up as managers. In my opinion, he likely got the role because he had worked there a long time. This quote from the bestselling book 12: The Elements of Great Managing by Rodd Wagner and Jim Harter, Ph.D., sums it up well:

“Too often, the title of manager is doled out as a reward for tenure and connections, for solid performance that demonstrates no particular ability to deal with people.”

Oppressed person

I see and meet a lot of ‘Daves’ in meetings and occasions that I attend. They’re easy to spot, and I have developed an armoury of knowledge in how to disarm and deal with them (without being an arse). But, as I look back on the 17-year-old me, I feel sorry for him and want to hug him, help him to believe in himself, and tell him everything’s going to work out just fine.

As a side-note, I still suffer from shyness and social anxiety – I’ve just learned to recognise them and cope a bit better.

Concluding message

My concluding message is this one. You define who you are, other people do not. What you think of yourself is what matters most. Here’s another, memorable way of looking at it:

“What other people think of you is none of your business!”

When we have low self-confidence, any kind of negative-sounding remark can really hit us hard. Without a core of self-belief, it can be far too easy to over-think remarks and start believing them, especially when we are lacking in life experience, as we are when we are young.

Empathy is required from those of us who manage others, and the desire to help them achieve their goals and aspirations, which in turn helps us achieve ours.

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Alastair Hazell

Alastair Hazell

I am a serial entrepreneur who enjoys writing stories of inspiration. You can follow me on LinkedIn.