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Archive for the ‘bureaucracy’ Category

When I was a university instructor, the semester was over by Christmas Eve.When I was a consultant, I could usually contrive to take the day off. Consequently, I’ve rarely had to work on Christmas Eve. But looking back, I think that the last Christmas Eve I did work was a major reason why I made the move into freelance journalism.

At the time, I was working in Yaletown, at a small software company that had limped along for twenty years without ever finding much of a market for its product. Realizing that the company’s time was running out, its board had hired a new CEO for one last shot at profitability. The CEO was full of management theories, and was fond of saying that he wanted passionate employees. At the same time, his core approach to leadership must have been modeled on Josef Stalin’s, because he had the habit of periodic purges.

In six months, the CEO had three purges. Between the difficulties of losing key information with key employees and the waiting for the next purge, morale was deeper than the Mariana Trench, and falling.

Having just come off two successful positions in which I had been in the inner circle of decision makers, I found the CEO’s antics hard to tolerate. My frequent thought that I could do a better job was not conceit – I had done so, and little credit to me. Frankly, anyone with sense could have done a better job than the CEO, too.

Surprisingly, the CEO sprung for a Christmas party. Looking back, I wonder if he calculated that, the office being in Yaletown, an ex-warehouse district where every block had half a dozen restaurants, most people would have put in a full day before the party began. More likely, he had simply read in one of his management books that a Christmas party was a way to win over the staff.

Whatever his motivations, the party was not exactly a success. The food was better than average, but the talk was about the rumors of a new purge, which made the occasion as festive as a school tour of a slaughter-house. Spirits rose a little with the gift exchange, but it seemed a dismal occasion compared to the one in which I had participated a couple of years earlier in Indianapolis. A few games of pool and foosball later, everyone had gone except the CEO and a couple of other company officers.

Still, the party had encouraged everyone to think that the CEO might unbend enough to let people go home early on Christmas Eve. But he had said nothing on December 23, so everyone arrived the next day uncertain what was expected.

The CEO showed up early in the morning, then went out. As usually happens in an office on Christmas Eve, most people made a pretense of trying to work, and the more conscientious actually put in an hour or two . But by 11AM, people were drifting between offices, leaning in door frames and chatting. Occasionally, they shifted positions so as not to be too obvious.

By 12:30, people were concluding that the CEO wasn’t coming back. In fact, he had left without a seasonal greeting to anyone – and no mention of whether people were expected to work the entire day.

Before long, people started to sneak out. By 2PM, the last of us decided that there was no point being martyrs, and exited together. I don’t think the CEO ever did learn what had happened.

Being a contractor, I noted that I owed two hours, and made up the time in the next week. But I kept thinking of the CEO’s abandonment of his responsibilities.

Perhaps he felt that he could not officially condone people going home early, and his disappearance allowed him to offer the holiday without officially knowing what people were doing. But, considering his purges, I doubted he had such a humanitarian gestures in him. I think he left early to please himself, and never considered the employees at all – and that his behavior was only an extreme form of what I had seen elsewhere in business.

Frankly, I was fed up.

I am not one for New Years’ Resolutions, but, that year, I promised myself that I would not celebrate another Christmas at that company. By next summer, I had moved on. But the company officers at my new consulting gig proved just as unempathic, so, with Christmas approaching again, I took the jump into journalism.

I have never worked in an office since. But this year, as I’ve spent a leisurely Christmas Eve going to the bank to pay for our latest work of art, then coming home to exercise and wrap the last few presents, I feel overwhelming relieved not to be in an office at Christmas. So far as I’m concerned, people like this CEO rank next to malls crowded with shoppers – both are things I’m grateful to be able to can avoid.

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Today, I was interviewing someone who stated that any company or free software needed a leader who was passionate about the work.

The idea was that, being a leader, they could quickly make the decisions necessary for the smooth running of the company, and that, being passionate about the work, they would make desirable decisions – or, at the very least, spare their subordinates the problem of making no decision at all, which the interviewee saw as often worse than making a wrong decision.

Given what I know of the interviewee, I wasn’t surprised to hear this belief expressed. All the same, I was amused that, shortly before the interview, I had read a new release announcing that a former employer, who also believed in being a passionate leader (perhaps he reads the same books on management as the interviewee) had just sold 95% of his company after five years of trying to make it consistently profitable. And if that is not a sign of bad leadership, what is?

As the interviewee expounded his theory, I couldn’t help thinking that you can passionately make the wrong decision at least as often as the right one. If anything, if you push logic aside in favor of inspiration, you’re probably more inclined to make wrong decisions.

Also, although I kept silent – interviews not being about me, I strongly believe – I couldn’t help thinking that, nine times out of ten, when people talk about leadership, they are viewing themselves as the leaders in question. What other people might think of the arrangement they are expounding hardly enters into their consideration. The assumption always seems to be that non-leaders will automatically follow.

I suppose that some people might exist who want a leader to make decisions for them. Or, at least, if they do exist, such people might explain neo-conservatism. But, I’ve never met them. The most apathetic and most obedient alike always seem jaded or cynical about their situation, if you can get them talking in a place where they feel safe.

For the most part, I suspect that people are not looking for a leader so much as a sense that their input into a decision matters. Nothing can be more irritating to someone with specialized knowledge than to find that their experience has been ignored in the decision-making.

I remember one long, hot summer when I was working on a design and writing project with a company. Whenever we held meetings, the CEO would arrive forty minutes late. He would then spend the next twenty minutes vetoing all the decisions the rest of us had made before his arrival – so far as I can see, simply because he felt like asserting his authority. Those of us who were consultants soon got into the habit of being late ourselves, and of not talking about anything to do with the project until the CEO arrived.

Needless to say, we were fuming, partly about the waste of time, but partly because our suggestions, which we believed were in the best interest of the company, were being ignored.

Very likely, we were sometimes wrong n our decisions, but, given our experience, we were almost certainly right more often than the CEO, who had no relevant expertise in the project – only a passion to have things his own way.

Such experiences explain why, whenever someone talks about visionary leadership, I start getting very apprehensive (at least when I have to endure it; when I don’t, I just shake my head). Somehow, business in the twenty-first century has got hold of the idea that leadership is some sort of natural trait or at least something that is an end in itself.

The idea reminds me of people who believe that a writer simply needs to know how to write, and has no need for expertise on their subject – in both cases, the odds of poor performance increase to near certainty, probably because so much time is spent disguising ignorance and inability.

Personally, I think leadership is simpler than that. These days, I tend to avoid situations where leadership arise, having decided that I have no particular wish to lead, and that I most definitely do not want to led.

However, in the past, leadership roles continually came my way – probably due the wrong-headed belief that if you are skilled in one area, you are somehow fit to lead. When I could not avoid such roles, however, I quickly learned that they were not about me, or making me feel good.

To me, leadership decisions were simply a matter of problem solving: I gathered what information I could in the time allotted, consulting people when I needed to, made a decision, then moved on to the next matter needing my attention. But, then, I’ve never thought that any leadership that wasn’t hands-on was worth a damn, anyway.

To this day, I have no idea how effective a leader I was. Nor am I likely to find out now. But it seems to me that there is far less to the role than those who aspire to it like to pretend.

Passion? Vision? So far as I am concerned, passion is for martyrs, and visions are for saints. I’ve always been aware that I wasn’t so exalted, and that I had a job to do.

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When you are trying to get something done in a large organization, frustration easily sets in. Before you know it, you can start fantasizing about shouting and name-calling and finding a throat that your fingers fit around – while in reality you slink off, feeling helpless and foolish. However, as I was reminded this past week trying to get action from the local health system on behalf of my hospitalized spouse, the secret is to use more indirect methods.

The first thing to remember is to never show that you are losing your temper. Show anger, and you’re giving the bureaucracy a reason not to listen to you at all. If you have to, retire to the washroom to snarl or cry, or go for some strenuous exercise after your efforts are done. But while you are talking to the members of the organization, keep calm. Smile. Say “Thank you,” even if the person you’re talking to has done nothing but obstruct you.

At the same time, never give up. In the typical bureaucracy, most people want nothing more than to go about their work quietly, and with a minimum of fuss. If you keep showing up, then after a while, they will be more likely to help you so that you go away and stop disturbing the quiet of their days. Calm, polite insistence should be your goal.

In addition, remember that you have to play by the bureaucracy’s unwritten rules – even if you are trying to get its official ones changed or rescinded (or maybe I should say especially when you are trying to get the official ones changed or rescinded). That means you need to have a simple, clear statement of what you want done, usually expressed in terms of a concrete action or two.

Even more importantly, the need to obey the unwritten rules means that your main strategy is to get allies in the system. Who can make your request a reality? Or – often more to the point – who can exert pressure on decision-makers to act in the way you want? Find out, and get those people on your side, advocating your cause within the organization. They know the structure far better than you have any hope of doing, often on an unconscious level of which they probably aren’t aware. Moreover, the more of your allies that surround the decision-maker, the harder the decision-maker will find resisting your request.

Finally, never forget your objectives. With these methods, you have a strong chance of realizing them. But if you’re expecting the decision-makers or the people who have been obstructing you to apologize or show any remorse for their lack of helplessness or failure to live up to the alleged ideals of their organization, you’re fantasizing. Settle for getting what you want, and keep polite even as you get it. While the primitive part of you might like to rub in the fact of your victory, resist the temptation, just in case the decision-maker balks at the last moment. Your purpose is not emotional satisfaction – it’s realizing your goals.

Getting a bureaucratic organization to get something done when you’re an outsider is like starting an avalanche. Anyone can set a boulder or two tumbling down the hill, and the result can even be spectacular. But finding the right pebbles to shift so that a large part of the landscape permanently moves (and doesn’t take you with it) is much harder. It requires patience, indirection, and an understanding of the landscape. But, in the end, the results can be farther-reaching than any expression of frustration or anger.

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