There’s a first time for everything…

I’ve made something of a hobby out of ranting and raving about the job, poking fun at the nature of the bureaucracy, and generally saying out loud what I suspect a lot of us have thought at one point or another. The truth is, I’ve had a remarkable career – well beyond what any kid born down the crick in the late 1970s had any right to expect.

With one or two notable exceptions I’ve been blessed with bosses who existed somewhere in the good to exceptional range. Again, with occasional exceptions, I’ve mostly had colleagues who I both liked and respected.

In a few months, I’m coming up on 19 years on the job. Through all of that time, I always felt capable of informally working through any problematic issues that came up. At worst, there would be an awkward conversation and things could be nudged back on track. For the first time in almost two decades of service, I’ve encountered an issue that couldn’t, by its nature, be resolved informally, off the books.

Despite my reputation as a grenade thrower, let me say that I absolutely hate having been put in this position. I hate that I needed to be the one to say something in a universe that values going along to get along. I hate that it puts more trouble on my boss’ plate when it’s already piled high with shit sandwiches. I hate that I have colleagues who could be put into a worse position than they were before I opened my mouth.

Mostly I hate the fact that decisions made by those at echelons higher than reality made any of it necessary in the first place. 

A day of staring blankly…

Today was mostly a day of blank stares, of getting questions loosely related to one another heaved towards me, of trying to clarify, and of creating the illusion of progress. 

It was, for all outward appearances, a very busy day. There was much heat and motion, but if you  found yourself seeking forward progress, you’d have been gravely disappointed… unless you count sending a shit ton of emails as a gainfully productive use of time. Believe me when I say you shouldn’t.

The simple fact is my gears are stripped from shifting focus from one thing to the next from minute to minute today. There’s a pretty good chance that at least some of what I churned through today could have benefited from a bit of thoughtful analysis, but today wasn’t the day for that. I don’t expect many of the next 60 or so days are going to be the kind of days when thoughtful analysis happens. It’s more about input, response, new input, new response, ad infinitum.

If anyone needs me I’ll be over here with the television making background noise, staring off into the middle distance, with my brain kicked into idle.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Breakfast options. I already get up between 4:30 and 5:00 most mornings. Although it’s the most likely real solution to this issue, I don’t want to get up earlier and cook a meal. Still, I’d really like a breakfast option that wasn’t an egg on a English muffin or similar concoction wrapped in paper and passed out a window for people who are up and out before the crack of dawn and don’t laze away the morning before showing up at the office around 9:00.

2. Not asking how high. Jumping on command is all well and good. It’s sometimes a necessary evil, but honest to God, not knowing how high, or which direction, or for how long you’re supposed to do it just leads to and exhausted jumper who’s engaged in a whole lot of activity without much to show for it when the poor bastard finally falls over.

3. Know what you want. I’d hate to even estimate how many times a day someone asks me for something. I’m going to to my level best to deliver exactly what you ask for – unless whatever it was is patently stupid in which case I may ask for clarification or make an alternate recommendation. Still, if you insist, I will cheerfully deliver the product as requested. Here’s the thing, though… If what you ask for and what I deliver turns out to be not what you actually wanted, well, I’m sorry but I’m not feeling any guilt about it.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Non-final decisions. Should I ever find myself deified and empowered to pass judgement from high atop Olympus, the cardinal sin that would earn my condemnation would be indecisiveness. If you’ve got the charter to lead, then by God, lead. Make a decision. Do something. Or just keep deferring any kind of actual decision until the diminishing number of hours available in which to act precludes all but one possible course of action.

2. Partisan politics. When Party A goes to the wall screaming about what Party B is doing, I mostly tune it out. I know my mind and no amount of rending of Congressional garments for the cameras will change that. When Party A spends the day screaming about something that Party B is doing and it’s exactly the kind of procedural jackassery Party A did when they were in the majority, well lord, I don’t know why anyone would ever think we could have a functioning legislative branch. I’m sick to death of politicians and people in general who only find something objectionable when it’s done by someone else, but perfectly fine when they do it.

3. Lack of marketable skills. My particular skill set is pretty closely tailored to work on the inside. There just is’t a lot of call for someone who can slam together a 150 slide powerpoint briefing, plan a party for 55 of your closest friends without breaking federal law, or estimate how much ice or water you might need after a hurricane (and know how to order and ship it). I’ve been on the inside so long now I wouldn’t even know how to apply for a gig outside. Of course there’s too much now tied up in retirement and benefits to really consider a wholesale change – especially when the jobs that sound even remotely interesting would lead directly from professional bliss to personal bankruptcy. I’m feeling just a little bit trapped and that makes me fantastically edgy.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Weather forecasts. I know weather is a complex “system of systems” but damn. If I were as often wrong at prediction and prognosticating results within 24 hours I’d get shitcanned for sure. Yet another example of where I’ve made poor career decisions overall.

2. Restorative days off. I’m a jealous guard of my time off. There is almost nothing I value more highly. I do my best to maximize the value of those days. I hate wasting them… which is why it’s so sad that the restorative effects of time off last no more than two hours into the first day back. It feels like it should take longer than that to slide back into a sea apathy and discontent. The operative word there being “should.”

3. Talk. People talk a lot. They talk and talk. They make promises and speak to high ideals. What almost none of them do, tough, is back that talk up with their actions. Talk is important. It speaks to our aspirations. Behavior, though, that’s what shows people how committed you are to getting there. If you can’t be bothered with the action part of the equation, it’s probably best to just shut the fuck up.

There’s always tomorrow…

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a philosophical compunction with working past my scheduled end-of-tour time. That is I don’t have a compunction about it as long as it meets several criteria, such as the situation being such that the intervening overnight hours would cause serious harm to a project or program, an action or inaction on my part is going to have a negative consequence for some far flung Joe sitting at the pointy end of the spear, or immediate action is required in defense of life or property. In a situation failing to meet one or more of those criteria, 999 time out of 1,000, it’s going to be utterly irrelevant to the universe whether I take action at 4PM or 7AM.

But you see, the thing is when you run a meeting right up to the end of the day, there’s no way to ever know why the little light is flashing on my phone or what catastrophic messages are waiting in my inbox. They’re simply a mystery to be revealed the next day. Over a decade of experience has taught me that the subject of both is going to be the need for a new PowerPoint chart, adding someone to the guest list, or making sure a temporary smoking area gets designated. None of those things rises to the level of my three criteria – Jeff’s Three Justifications for Staying Late; like the three laws of robotics, only currently applicable to your day to day life.

Once I got it through my thick skull that in almost every case imaginable, there’s always tomorrow, I started to sleep a lot better at night. And when that day arrives when I’ve run out of tomorrows, well, then it will be someone else’s hot mess to worry over. In either case, I’m out. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

[Adjective] Professionals…

My little part of Uncle’s vast army of minions has been plagued with morale issues for what feels like as long as I can remember. As usual, there’s no one root cause. There is a conglomeration of issues that beset and bespoil any engendered feelings of goodwill. Maybe that’s just the natural state of things in an enormous bureaucracy – the unhappy rabble fester in a simmering cauldron of discontent while the gods on Olympus conduct studies, launch pilot programs, dither, and tune their fiddles. They may well be trying to do something corrective, but either they’re too far removed to really understand the fine points, bad choices are being foisted upon them from still higher up the mountain, or they’re simply living embodiments of the Peter Principle. Not altogether rarely, you’ll find a combination of all three – an Unholy Trinity of Bureaucracy if you will.

The latest trend-of-the-moment is making everyone refers to themselves as “Trusted Professionals.” I’m sure someone came up with it as a means of improving the esprit de corps, of conveying the privilege of being part of something greater than any one individual, but seriously the phrase just begs for mockery. Crusted Professionals. Rusted Professionals. Busted Professionals. Take your pick. Insert the adjective of your choice and you, my friend, are now well on your way to being as jaded and cynical as the rest of us.

As a writer, I firmly believe that words are important. Words can change the course of history. Words only do that, though, when they’re back up by deeds. When they’re not, words are just words – more flotsam and jetsam on the mighty sea of brainstorms that fizzled before they ever really got started. If you want someone to be a trusted professional, then start trusting them to be professionals. Set the standard and then hold them accountable for results. The rest will follow.

Or just make them repeat an otherwise meaningless catch phrase at the end of meetings and hope it catches on. At least that way it will be fodder for the interwebs.

What I don’t do…

In my wild and reckless youth I had something of a lead foot. Sometimes I still do. That foot has given me ample opportunity to interact with local, state, and federal police officers in various parts of the country. In all of those parts I had the decided advantage of knowing that I was being pulled over by the police and that the person walking up next to my vehicle to ask for my license and registration was a cop. The cop by contrast didn’t have a clue who I was or how I was going to behave under the circumstances.

Because I never wanted to do anything that might surprise the person standing a few feet away from me with a gun on their hip, I follow the same basic procedure every time I get pulled over:

1) Pull over as soon as it’s safe and practical. Put the car in park. Roll down the window. Turn off the engine.

2) Place both hands back on the steering wheel. Don’t reach for anything. Not my wallet. Not my registration. Not whatever it was I dropped on the floor when the blue lights surprised me.

3. Wait for the officer to tell me what to do. That one is hard for some people. They’re impatient like that.

4. Narrate what I’m about to do (i.e. I’m going to reach behind me with my left hand to get my wallet from my back pocket).

5. When I’m finished with all that, my hands go right back to the steering wheel and I wait for further instruction. The goal is no surprises.

Seventy-five percent of the time, I drive away with a warning. Even when I get more than a warning, that’s not the time to get loud and hostile. The cop caught me doing something stupid. Not his fault. See, when I do something stupid it’s my fault because that was a decision I made. Being responsible for your own actions isn’t something that only applies when the outcome breaks in your favor. You’re responsible for your own actions, both good and ill. Own them all.

Although I won’t give consent to search my vehicle for any reason, what I never do when faced with the long arm of the law, is resist. If he wants to pull me out of the car, that’s fine. If he wants to sit me on the curb, that’s fine. If he wants to lock me up, that’s fine too. Even if I’m in the right and I know it, that’s not the time to try making my point. In that moment, on the side of the road, even if he’s picking the fight, I know I’m going to lose if it gets beyond the conversation stage. That means it’s my job not to let it go beyond that point, even if it means temporarily swallowing a little bit of pride. I try very hard to avoid putting myself into that kind of no-win situation.

When all is said and done, if I don’t feel I’ve been given my due, I have a whole host of administrative and legal options available with which to seek redress for my grievances. I am more than happy to avail myself of those options as needed and as dictated by the circumstances. Escalating the situation to the point where there’s even a temptation for the officer to draw down on you is just plain stupid when there’s a whole universe of alternatives.

Some people might say that’s not very compassionate. Personally, I find compassion a little hard to come by when so many damages are self-inflicted for want of a little common sense and personal responsibility.

Not a sermon, just a thought.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

I usually give WAJTW over to three short, unrelated snippets of stupid that I’ve encountered during the week. From time to time, though, a single issue is of such magnitude that I feel it’s worthy of undivided attention. This week is one of those occasions.

For the last two months, we’ve been hearing around the office all manner of things about a “climate survey” conducted earlier this summer. Most of the time these surveys come and go without much notice. I don’t know exactly what the responses were in this most recent round of questioning, but I can only surmise that the results were beyond bad. It’s the first time in almost 13 years that I’ve ever seen an organization actually do something in response to their survey.

I should draw a line of distinction here between doing “something” and doing the right thing. So far, my little slice of the organization has been talked through the survey results on five separate occasions. We’ve now had two sessions with different groups allegedly to discuss what our perceptions of the problems are. Today marked (I think) the 8th time that we dedicated at least an hour or more of the work day to this topic. You’d think by now there would be more than a passing awareness at echelons higher than reality of what the issues are, who’s responsible, and the effects it’s having across the workforce.

What I’ve seen so far is that we’re spending a hell of a lot of time talking about things. What I haven’t seen is anyone actually doing something with the mountain of information they’ve already been given. I’ve been around long enough to know that the game plan probably involves talking about it for so long that people forget there’s actually a problem… Which in all likelihood makes much of the last two months a very large effort to check off the “we hear your concerns and are doing something about it” box.

On that score the powers that be are right. They’ve done just enough to demonstrate initiative, but not nearly enough to make a damned bit of difference… and thus does the great green machine go rolling along.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. “Things are bad all over.” For the record, that might be the most dumbass reason anyone has ever given for avoiding taking action. If something sucks, change it. If something’s broken, fix it. If your only contribution is that it’s bad everywhere and are willing to sit around in your dissatisfaction being thankful it’s not worse where you happen to be at the time, well sweet baby Jesus, I’m not sure I even want to know you.

2. Rehash. Once you’ve decided on doing something, just go ahead and go do it. Don’t spend the next three weeks going back over the same tired ground, wringing your hands. There are plenty of new and interesting mistakes we can make without reliving all the old ones indefinitely into the future… so please, for the sake of whatever small sliver of sanity I can muster, can we just move on to new business?

3. Running behind. I’ve been running behind all week. I start the day on Monday 20 minutes late and it’s gotten progressively worse from there. By thursday night the whole damned carefully constructed schedule of events is in serious danger of collapsing on itself. It happens a couple of times a year… my best guess is it’s a function of a lack of sleep finally catching up with me. Sometime in the next few days, but certainly inside the next week, I’m going to have a small meltdown, the system will reset, and things will get back to what passes for normal around here. Getting to that point is an exercise in exhaustion, but at least I’ve been through it enough times now to know more or less what’s coming. Now if I can just keep the thing from stepping all over my weekend, that will probably be my biggest single accomplishment for the month of August.