Sunday, August 3, 2014
Showdown at the Corporate Corral
This week I had one of those moments at work where I realized I was fighting battles on several fronts and I felt like everyone was attacking me. I hasten to stress that it only felt this way: after taking a few moments to step back and contemplate, I realized that everyone was just trying to get things done in what they thought would be the best, most productive way. Not that any of us could agree on what the best, most productive way was, of course. But, the point is, we weren’t in it to try to tear the other person down. Coming to that realization enabled me to calm down and leap back into the fray with a little more gentility than my initial reaction. Being able to step back and reassess is a valuable skill, by the way, although one that only came with experience in my case. But that’s not the main topic I want to explore today.
The primary thing that this incident set me to pondering is why we bother to fight these battles at all. Hey, we’re getting paid either way, right? Why not just shut up and do whatever people want, even if you know it’s doomed to failure? Well, the most altruistic viewpoint on this is that that’s a pretty apathetic stance to take: if you do that, aren’t you really saying you don’t care about the company you work for? If you cared, you’d want the company to succeed by doing things properly, and not to waste time having to recover from failures. By taking a stand and fighting for what you believe is right, you’re saying that you love your company and want to save it time (and therefore money) by increasing efficiency and aiming for victory. Cue patriotic music here.
Now, I’m not saying there’s not an element of that in most of us who find ourselves embroiled in an argument over the “right” way to do something at work. In my line of work, I think a lot of people really do care about whether their company succeeds or not, and, when they stop bothering to insert themselves into every discussion, it generally means they’ve checked out and they’re just daydreaming about job interviews. But, let’s face it: enlightened self-interest only gets you so far. At our cores, we’re generally motivated by things which have a more personal bent—we work to bring ourselves pleasure, and avoid ourselves pain.
My friend and former boss Benny believes that there’s simply a joy in being passionate about something. That there’s an intellectual thrill in concentrated debate, and that this is how you grow and expand your knowledge. If you can manage to defend your position with intensity but without dogma, you can either convert others to your point of view, or you can become converted yourself, and that’s a win-win proposition. Either way someone leaves the conversation more enlightened than when they went in, and that’s a laudable goal.
I think it’s more complex than that, because I think people are more complex. I’m not saying Benny’s wrong, of course ... just that he’s only right for Benny. Everyone is going to have slightly different motivations for why they’re holding on to their viewpoints like a starving dog with a bone, and I think it’s worthwhile for each person to figure out why for themselves. When we understand our own drives and ambitions, we can manage them better, and recognize when they’re about to lead us astray. Which they do sometimes.
Now, let me take a brief detour here to point out that self-analysis is inherently flawed. That topic could fill its own blog post, but for now suffice it to say that I firmly believe that when someone starts a sentence with “I’m the sort of person who ...” it’s time to put your skeptical glasses on. So take what I’m saying here with a grain of salt; I try to do the same myself.
To understand why I can’t seem to help getting embroiled in these work debates, I need to tell you a story, and before I can tell you a story, I need to tell you about my dad.
My father is an interesting man with whom I have a complicated relationship, but we don’t need to go into too many details. For the purposes of this particular story, what you need to know is that he’s a self-made man. He went to work in a paper mill as a scalesman, a job that requires no education whatsoever, and worked his way up to being an industrial engineer, a job that typically requires a college degree. In fact, he often said he was one of only three people in the history of his company to be given the IE title without a degree. All that I knew about corporate culture in America before I got my own first job as a programmer, I learned from my father.
People share war stories and frustrations with their families, so it should come as no surprise that I knew some of the more egregious sins of middle management before I’d ever experienced them myself. Here’s one so pervasive it’s almost cliché: the manager asks the employee to do something which the employee knows damn well can’t possibly work. This situation arises because middle managers don’t actually know anything about how the business works, but they always think they do. (To be fair, there are exceptions to this rule. Just very rare exceptions.) The employees know, because they’re the ones who have to do all the work. But somehow the managers never seem to want to listen to them. (I have theories on why this is too, but that will have to wait for another blog post.) This is the sort of thing Scott Adams and Mike Judge are thankful for, but the rest of us just despise. From listening to my dad, it seemed like this sort of thing happened all the time. And, I have to say: my experience in the corporate world doesn’t contradict that impression.
So, how did my father handle these situations? Very simple. First, he pointed out why the project was not going to work. He talked to as many people as possible about it. If the manager persisted, he would put his objections in writing (memo, email, whatever). If the manager told him to do it anyway (in writing), he just went ahead and did it. Then, when the project inevitably failed, my father got to say “I told you so” ... with supporting documentation, even.
Now you have enough background to hear the story of the first time this ever happened to me. I hadn’t been working at my first corporate job for even a year yet. I tried to talk my boss out of the disastrous plan, then I put it all in writing (trying not to be a dick about it), then I went ahead and did it. When it failed, I went to him with email in hand and said “I told you so.” I don’t remember the exact words, but basically my boss looked at me and said, “Yeah, you were right. Now go fix it.”
And this is when I discovered that the “satisfaction” of saying “I told you so” is vastly overrated. Perhaps for my dad it’s enough to sustain him. But, for me, it pales in comparison to the teeth-grinding frustration of having to do the work twice when you knew goddamn well it wasn’t going to work the first time. In the years since then, I’ve developed an almost pathological aversion to doing things I know are going to fail. Which brings us full circle to those heated arguments at work.
Look, I try to pick my battles. If I feel like you have more knowledge or (more importantly) more experience than I do on a given topic, I try not to put up too much of a fight even if I’m pretty sure you’re wrong. And of course one has to be congnizant that, if you go up against someone who’s already volunteered to do some quantity of work and you actually do manage to convince everyone that they’re going to do it the wrong way, it’s almost certain you’re going to be volunteered to do it “right.” Which is not always desireable, either from the time aspect or the responsibility aspect. But, if we’re talking about something I have experience with, and we’re talking about going down a road that I’ve been down before, and if I know damn well that when my team or my company did it this way last time (or the last two times, or the last three times) it was an abysmal failure ... well, then, I’m going to be practically psychotic in my opposition to that plan. It’s partially because I want to save the company money and time, sure, and it’s partially because I want what’s best and most efficient and most productive for the team and for the business, no doubt, but, if I’m being honest, it’s probably mostly because I just hate to make the same mistake twice, and I positively despise making it thrice. I don’t even like to watch people doing work I know is doomed to failure. Makes me feel dirty. Like watching a car accident unfold when you know you could do something about it but are afraid to get involved. I feel like a bad person for letting it happen.
Although ... it seems to me like the fact that my motives may not be pure does not preclude them being a benefit to others. I hope that people will take my passion—as annoying and frustrating as it may be sometimes—for the advantage it can be, and use it to its fullest. Don’t look my gift anger in the mouth. Just because my intentions are somewhat selfish doesn’t mean they can’t save you some heartache down the line. And that’s worth a little ranting ... isn’t it?