Leadership and lying

This week at Acme I totally neglected the program to reduce shipping errors. I didn’t have any time for it. I was busy doing nothing.

Through no fault of my own, I got conscripted into a project to do nothing. The goal of the project was to see what kind of information transactions occurred during the entire process of a customer placing an order and receiving the goods and the accounts being balanced–within one particular sales/production model that Acme uses. There was no particular driving concern or goal. It was just data-gathering.

In my experience and training (which is limited), an exercise with no goal accomplishes nothing. Theoretically, this exericise identified some ways we can improve our process. Realistically, we were already aware of the opportunities to get better. So actually, the whole point of us in our plant participating in this exercise was so that we could be seen by the very top level of the company as participants.

Our site was an especially pointless location for a pointless exercise, because we perform no direct customer service functions. We do not take orders or bill customers or do anything other than react to the orders that have been placed on our site by the customer service center, or respond to complaints about orders that have been referred to us by the customer service center. I was not the only one to note that we seemed to have the wrong people and the wrong place to accomplish the stated goals, such as they were.

However, one of precepts of the Intra-Company Code of Conduct kicked in. The Code appears below:

  1. I have never seen a problem that we are not in the middle of solving or are about to solve.
  2. This was a productive meeting and all participants made an important contribution.
  3. I believe and fully trust that all resources I need to overcome the identified obstacles will be made available to me.
  4. Everyone is doing a good job and we are on the verge of revolutionary success.

Needless to say, the two-day project was a smashing success.

With Labor Day off, and a half-day wrap-up on Friday, only Tuesday was available for me to do anything. Most of Tuesday was spent doing yet another inventory count at the express request of Accounting, so they could at last reconcile the differences between what we think we have and what we actually have. I happened to talk to the responsible party in Accounting during the week, and now that we have done our third count of the inventory without actually making adjustments, he is planning to just wait another month for the plant-wide inventory. Never mind that he knew full well about the plant wide inventory before expressly asking us to conduct this one. (A thought of actual physical violence went through the back of my mind.)

But let me get back to the theme of the post, and the last precept of the Code of Intra-Company Conduct. I have observed two supervisors–both of whom I respect in at least some degree (these are the skunks of Acme)–who address their employees by telling them that they are doing a fantastic job, they are working hard, and that on the whole they are more successful than anyone in their role ever has been before. This when I know both of them to say, semi-privately, that there are too many people who are doing things quite wrong, and are lazy, and are performing worse in at least one crucial way than we have been recently.

Are they lying? I began by thinking they certainly were. But I turn it around in my mind. If my supervisor, or my supervisor’s supervisor, got up in front of us and said that we were goofing off when we should be working, we were doing important parts of our job wrong, and he was getting pretty severly irritated, I would not respond with affection and increased effort. Even if I were goofing off some of the time and knew it and would admit it, still his blatant disregard for the amount of work I did get done in spite of all the obstacles would make me mad, resentful, and obstinate.

Maybe I am the real liar. When I got a break from the project to accomplish nothing, I ran back to my office and told everybody what a stupid waste of time it was. When the break was over, I ran back to the meeting room and particpated with gusto and smiled and shook hands and agreed that we had attained some important new knowledge as a result of this analysis.

I suppose the idea the managers have is not so much to just misrepresent things in the best light possible, but to say something that will encourage the employees to do better, rather than justifying them in doing worse. Often in these manager pep talks a few things will be noted as somehow, stupefyingly getting worse, despite our valiant efforts; and even perhaps just one point on which we flat out must improve. Maybe this is about all the rebuke the human physce can withstand, and still be cooperative. Granted the positive-negative ratio is typically reversed in military training, recruits can’t unionize or strike or leave for a better job. It makes a difference.

But I wonder how often I have been “spun” by my direct superior, who perhaps thinks I am a pain, or a little dense, or chasing my tail, but tells me that I am doing marvelous things and, while still not perfect, am on track to be sainted before my own demise.

One of the problems I have with leadership, or whatever limited responsibility has come my way, is that I can clearly and passionately see the merit in everyone’s objections to whatever it is I want to do. In the moment, I can usually more empathize with my opponent’s position than my own.

This is a serious disability. But as I observe the successful people around me, it seems that practically the only way they are different than me is their ability to maintain their own idea of what is going while appearing to go along with whatever is being said around them. Obviously they are not mavericks doing whatever they please. Their own charted course must include pleasing their boss. But they are not very upset by, or empathetic with, any objections to their chosen course. They can listen, nod, and say, “You’re right, I completely agree,” and then slip in one very subtle caveat that sounds utterly harmless, like, “we’ll do what you said, just like our customer wants,” and that little caveat actually means “You’re ignoring the obvious fact that we are going to do things my way.”

Is this sleight-of-hand leadership?

I think it is always a part of social leadership. I think, too, that those who try to “lead” with nothing more than this slight-of-hand accomplish little or nothing. I think one of Acme’s problem is that the managers generally aren’t identifying those few, critical obstructions to their goals and eliminating them with overwhelming force. Some people need to be fired. Some people need to be called into the office for a frank explanation of where things stand.

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