2 November 2013
Our map of the world is shaped by a variety of influences during our formative years, ages 0-to-13. Contributors include our family unit, friends, relatives, religion, socioeconomic status, schooling, neighborhood, teachers, coaches, life experiences, and more.
Because of these things, who we are as an adult is fairly well formed by our 14th birthday. What reshapes us after that are the big emotional experiences life thrusts upon us and forces to endure. These significant emotional events can be good or bad, expected or unexpected.
Good significant emotional events include marriage, having children, job promotions, and coming into wealth. Bad ones are things like divorces, job layoffs, financial setbacks, illness and death. Both lists -- good reshapers and bad -- are long.
One of the biggest I've endured occurred 14 years ago today, a tragedy I got through but will never get over. At the time I thought I could power through it and be unaffected like the rest. I would be above its long-term ramifications. Now I know that will never be the case.
On November 2, 1999 I was working for Xerox Corporation and was in Honolulu, Hawaii for a series of executive meetings. At 8 o'clock that morning, the telephone rang just as I was leaving my hotel room at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. I paused in the doorway, debating whether to go grab a cab for an 8:30 meeting or answer the phone. I grabbed it on the fourth ring.
It was a co-worker on orders from the police, telling me not to come in. When I asked why, she said, "Turn on the TV." Then she hung up. There were others to call.
I never watch morning TV but turned it on. A breaking news story was on every channel, the video unforgettable. Live coverage of the bloody aftermath caused by a co-worker, 15-year service technician Byran Uyesugi.
Byran had just shot and killed seven of nine teammates at a different Xerox meeting and missed an eighth who escaped by scrambling down a stairwell. Byran had escaped in a service van and was still on the loose.
Concerned Byran was headed for the executive team next, the police wanted us away from the office. Instead of going to work I aimlessly wandered around the Waikiki antique district. I remember being numb -- like in a trance -- and seeing nothing but my reflection window after window, building after building, block after block.
Then I heard (but could not see) screaming sirens from different directions aiming toward a common location. Having lived in Miami for eight years, I knew that whomever the police sought was pinpointed in the middle. Police only chase when they have to. They much prefer to pin the bad guys down.
The police found Byran, sitting in his van in a park, reading a magazine. He still had his rifle and bullets. He made no effort to escape but it still took five hours for the ensuing standoff to end. He was taken into custody and would never see freedom again.
Byran's rampage created a carnage was, and remains, the most heinous crime in the history of Hawaiian statehood. Ten months later he would plead innocent. He was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.
The social impact of the Xerox shootings was heightened because it happened on Hawaiian soil -- a land where peace, respect, family, and love abound. Culturally such a thing was unfathomable. The same held true inside the company I worked for. Xerox was a large corporation but at the time very much a family culture. How a man could gun down coworkers he'd worked with for 15 years seemed a riddle without a clue.
But there were many clues. Stymied and stonewalled by Xerox personnel and public relations in my personal quest to learn more about the man who'd done such a thing, I spent a significant amount of time trying to piece his motivations together. There had to be a reason -- but what was it? Why would a guy not take a gun on Monday but do so on Tuesday?
The official corporate line I did not buy. Corporate shrugged it off to Byran being a deranged worker; and that the company was in no way culpable. This was an incomplete answer, nor did it explain what happened. What we witnessed was a human tragedy. Behind it was a reason why.
The more I poked around and learned about the man who decided to take a gun to work and keep pulling the trigger, the clearer his reasons became. It took several weeks but I reached a point where I believed I understood exactly why he did it.
The signs were all there. Big ones. The corporate crime, if there was corporate culpability, was not proactively helping Byran before he reached such a helpless point of despair. He fell too far to help himself and there was no safety net below. Too much anger in isolation caused his emotions to boil over.
Byran was 40, lived at home with his father and older brother, in a culture where his opinion would never matter. Day after day he performed thankless work on inanimate objects in quiet isolation. These were broken things incapable of social interaction or expressing gratitude.As new models and products came to market, he struggled to adjust to emerging technology and new manufacturing methods.
Complicating his frustrations was the new org chart of his repair team. Xerox had shifted to what is called a "self-managed work group." The service team was now completely responsible for keeping all the machine running. It was their job to divvy up the work and manage what was spent on parts. In theory, every person on the team would pull his or her precise share of the work.
This is a grad school concept that has little value in the real world. What it did was remove management from the equation by putting all the pressure on the team. Repairmen are task-oriented workers. They are not conceptualists. This approach changed the group dynamic, resulting in stress, blame, infighting, and alienation. Byran worked more slowly than some of the others. Because of it, he felt devalued.
Byran handled the transition to new products poorly, as well as the move to the self-managed work group. When, in the eyes of his peers, he took too long to fix a machine, he felt their wrath -- real or perceived -- and struggled to deal with it. In his world, all these frustrations were building to an inevitable conclusion -- his possible termination.
Stressed at work, he found no escape at home. Byran's work hobbies were like his work -- done alone without social reward or interaction. He raised and sold tropical fish, worked on cars, and refinished furniture -- all in isolation. He also went to the rifle range. Byran owned 25 or so weapons and frequently shot in solitude.
His life seemed void of positive human interaction. Nothing he did at work or home expressed appreciation or gratitude. Alone with his thoughts, Byran had plenty of time -- too much time -- to see ghosts and hear the deafening screams of secret agendas.
Byran drove into work that morning fearing and believing he would be fired. Instead, he opted to fire first.
The more I learned about all this, about how one man's broken life imploded the lives of so many other families, the more obvious it was to me that it was time for me to move on. I knew a lot about human behavior and suddenly hungered to learn more. I felt compelled to help people from ever getting so down on life or themselves that they would contemplate such similar pain.
Eight weeks or so after the shootings I tendered my resignation, walking away at the height of a wonderful career, to take the road less traveled. I decided to learn everything I could about how shape and inspire "better people," and to incorporate life skill lessons into my business coaching and teaching.
It took three years to amass the intellectual property I wanted. Once I had what truly mattered -- things I now knew that Xeroxplainly missed -- I worked on how package and teach it. When a local executive read my work, I got hired to test it with a Fortune 500 company that loved the approach and result and labelled the use of life skills as an enabler to better business a corporate best practice.
I knew then I had done the right thing, for the right reasons. The value of my work was validated, my life's charter redefined.
I have never believed -- then or now -- that I could have stopped Byran from doing what he did. He was too far gone and had fallen off the cliff. But I knew darn well I could help others from reaching a similar point of crumbling despair.
My work for the past 14 years, sadly but importantly triggered by the tragedy of a significant emotional event I will never forget, continues to energize me each morning with a steadfast determination to help others.
Since the Xerox murders our national workforce has finished a long economic run-up, weathered a wicked downturn, and now finds itself trying to readjust to the new normal of an uncertain economy slow to recover.
We remain surrounded by too many hurt people, some disguised as silent, sad, or sullen coworkers. There are too many Byrans out there, as the daily news steadily reminds.
It seems a noble and worthwhile purpose to honor the memories of absent friends like Christopher Batalico, Ford Kanehira, Ronald Kataoka, Ronald Kawamae, Melvin Lee, Peter Mark, and John Sakamoto by recognizing signals of stress in others and reaching out to help without the need for being asked.
If we all commit to doing that -- and have the strength of character to do it -- none of those fine, innocent men will have passed away in vain.