I started working in my little corner of this big, faceless bureaucracy almost seven years ago. In that time, I’ve had nine different direct line bosses. With a bit of rounding that means I can expect to see a new boss approving my leave requests and fussing over my use of passive voice every nine and one third months on average. Breaking in a new boss is something of a process. Personally, I strongly oppose asking anyone to do that consistently every nine months.
Because life in the bureaucracy resembles farce almost as much as it does tragedy, it’s not all bad news. The new boss that I found out about having this morning has been my new boss on three other separate occasions during these last seven years. At least he’s a known quantity to me and me to him. It smooths the rough edges of the transition a bit.
Still, when the powers that be are making a big pitch for “earning back the trust of the employees,” a surprise reorganization first thing on Monday morning doesn’t exactly instill confidence. With Communications with a Capital C right there in the name on the sign, you might think that would be a skill we’d try to practice from time to time.
I feel like I should start off by saying there are a number of relatively decent things about my current employment situation. I’m paid reasonably well, I’ve got a fighting shot at retiring instead of dropping dead in my traces, and I don’t have to sling 50 pound bags of anything from one end of a warehouse to another. It’s important to acknowledge that, I suppose, before I start ranting and raving about whatever utter asshattery takes over any given day.
As a sat at the office for a second day with no working telephone and people getting increasingly irate that I was “avoiding them,” though, the perks felt largely insufficient. Look, I loathe talking on the telephone, but in an environment where “communication” is right there in the name of the organization, basic telephone service a pretty damned significant tool. The only thing worse than having one on your desk is not having one. It’s just one of those petty, but constant sources of irritation that makes the day to day minutia of getting anything done exponentially more difficult.
I don’t have the energy to get started tonight on the dull hum of two massive televisions spewing news in every direction or the dozen shouted conversations from one end of the room to the other or the score of other distractors that are apparently going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future. But, the wise leaders tell us, this change will make us better. While I won’t entirely rule that out of the realm of the possible, thus far it hasn’t proven to be anything more than an enormous pain in the ass.
Today is apparently time for another friendly tip from your kindly Uncle Jeff. This week we’ll take a look at how not to build trust in your audience when presenting information. Staying away from a few key missteps will go a long way towards creating the illusion of a connection between you and your audience.
First, do your best to avoid generic phrasing such as listing “increased synergy” or “maximizing capabilities” when talking about your goals. This makes you sound like someone who maybe hasn’t really given their actual goals very much thought. Try building your presentation based on actual information, ideas, and measurable goals.
Second, if in the first 30 minutes of your discussion you have found six different ways to tell the audience that everyone is in this together and extolling them to “think of it as an opportunity,” everyone in the room will automatically be suspicious of you and your scheme. That kind of power of positive thought jackassery might sounds good to an intern, but to the more jaded and cynical members of your audience, it sounds like another sales pitch for Ye Olde Oil of Snake.
So in conclusion, let me just remind you that it’s generally not necessary to work so hard to sell good ideas. Everyone knows that change can’t be stopped. It can, however, be managed. Whether it’s managed well or badly depends almost entirely on how you choose to present it, but once your audience thinks you’re up to something you might as well forget ever getting them on your side in any meaningful way.
In my 13+ years of service I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been reorganized. Half a dozen is the “for sure” number and if I were guessing there are probably two or three more occasions that I’ve mentally blocked out. Technically, reorganizations don’t have to be a bad thing. Theoretically they should be employed to achieve some long term goal like improving the efficiency of operations or to refocus an office on areas that historically are part of their core mission set. Good ideas, those. Unfortunately, what a reorg usually means, though, is that someone, somewhere has no other idea what to do so changing the lines on the wire diagram is the logical place to start. If things aren’t broken already, you can always count on a reorg to bend them till they are cracked and bleeding… It’s got to be the oldest make work project in government.
So it seems we’ll be at the old games again. New desk, new boss, new mission, new projects, but the same old faces and ever aging technology. But then the pay’s the same and it’s the same eight hour day that it’s always been. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter if it matters… as long as the checks don’t bounce on every alternate Thursday.
1. Sticks and stones. I might be part of the last generation that grew up learning that sticks and stones would break our bones, but names would never hurt us. We’re also perhaps the last generation that will get to use the work “thug” to refer to a violent criminal. It’s not a surprise. When we live in a world where everyone wants to get through life without their sensibilities or little feelings being hurt, there’s not much hope. Personally, I refuse to be afraid of or intimidated by mere words… not even the one’s Carlin couldn’t say on television. I can’t help but think we’d all be better off if we’d collectively grow a thicker skin and spend a little last time being “offended” by every little thing that doesn’t fit in nicely with our own worldview.
2. Reorganization. I’ve been with my employer now for a little more than 12 years. In that time I’ve lived through six major reorganizations. Those are just the ones that impacted me directly. I’ve probably seen at least twice or three times that number happen. Of course there’s nothing wrong with changing things up to make yourself more efficient and effective. That’s good business. It’s just that when you do it on average every other year there’s no way in hell you’re making those decisions based on consistently assembled data… and when the next guy finds something he doesn’t like, we’ll just go ahead and shuffle the chairs again and see how everything shakes out. I’d never claim to have the right answers, but I do know that throwing darts and hoping for the best is rarely a management best practice.
3. Accusations. If your default answer to a different viewpoint on why things got batshit crazy in Baltimore is “you’re a racist,” it may be time to realize that other viewpoints may be legitimate – even if you don’t happen to personally agree with it. If that’s the only argument you can bring to the table, we’re well past the point of having a reasonable discussion. When that’s your answer to an honest, probing question, it’s safe to consider our conversation at an end. You don’t have anything to tell me that I need to hear.
If you stick around any sufficiently large organization long enough, that which was shall be again. A reorganization here, a shuffle there, a bit of consolidation, another reorganization and it’s as if all the powers of the universe conspire to carry you back to the way things were before the wheel first spun. It’s one of the great universal truths of the bureaucracy.
Some people get up in arms over such circularly repeating patters. Others will tell you how much of an improvement the “new” system is over the “old” one. They’ll cheerfully tell you that it’s better than sliced bread and twice as nutritious. Some people will buy the company line about gaining efficiencies and economies of scale. Those who approach life with a slightly more cynical eye will shrug, maybe chuckle, and keep on doing what they’ve always done.
In that spirit, I can only offer the words of one of the 20th century’s great poets:
I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution;
Take a bow for the new revolution;
Smile and grin at the change all around;
Pick up my guitar and play;
Just like yesterday.
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray;
We don’t get fooled again.
That Pete Townshend, man… He would have been a masterful bureaucrat.