Thursday, December 10, 2009

About Workload - Third Proverb

This ancient piece of wisdom sounds very familiar and oh so contemporary:

"The fundamental delusion of the client is that you are there to serve him."

It's as common as red tape on an office file: The notion that clients get that you are somehow there to serve them. How do they get that strange idea into their heads?

In fairness, some bureaucrats working for a government are called public servants. Thus, it might be understandable if members of the public might assume that these public servants are engaged in serving the public.

Such naivete is, if nothing else, charming. It bespeaks an innocence untested by the battles most of us have waged and lost against bureaucracies big and small. Anyone over the age of thirty must surely know that a public servant, or any bureaucrat for that matter, is not there to serve him.

In fact, the bureaucrat's job is to throw as many roadblocks in your way to ensure that only those exhibiting true diligence are entitled to whatever token is on offer. After all, we don't want just any joker holding a driver's license or a passport. If it was too easy to get these government gifts, it's possible anyone could get them and end up driving a car over a cliff or an airplane into a building.

The true goal of the dedicated bureaucrat is to help his supervisor avoid any troubles which in turn helps him make life easier for his manager who likewise wants to keep her boss out of hot water. If serving the public jives with this uber-aim then you might be lucky and actually get some service.

But don't count on it. What's good for the public is seldom good for the bureaucrat or his boss. So just remember that when you enter the fray with the intent of obtaining some service, good or document, don't look at the bureaucrat as your friend. He is your foe and he expects nothing but the best from you in what will surely be your ongoing battle to get what you supposedly deserve.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

About Workload - Second Proverb

The chapter on workload continues with the following proverb:

"Do not fear the backlog for it is in reality a working inventory."

This proverb cleverly demonstrates that how one views a situation is entirely a matter of perspective. It is, no doubt, easy to view a mounting pile of files as a stressor waiting to make your life miserable. "The Zen of Bureaucracy", however, helps the harried bureaucrat to realize that a backlog is nothing more than an illusion born of negative thinking.

Once you see a backlog for what it really is, namely a working inventory, your stress will be reduced and your satisfaction increased. For what is a backlog really but a measure of your workplace importance and a guarantee of your job security?

Don't think of the work awaiting you as a never-ending burden (although it may well be that) but consider it as a security blanket. So long as the work piles up, you will remain employed (remember, you work in a bureaucracy) and you will continue to be paid.

This adage is representative of a linguistic approach adopted throughout many bureaucracies. Do not underestimate the power of words. A "working inventory" is far easier to manage than a "backlog" just as "downsizing" and "administrative streamlining" are far more palatable than "terminating" or "firing", not that most bureaucrats will ever have to worry about these nasty consequences.

A strong, vibrant bureaucracy relies on euphemisms as part of its lifeblood. We all know that large organizations can be deadening, soul-crushing places to work. But you don't have to directly face that fact so long as you keep a smile on our face and a ready supply of dysphemisms to banish even the most disagreeable workplace features.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

About Workload - First Proverb

Chapter two of "The Zen of Bureaucracy" is entitled "About Workload." It appears to comprise maxims designed to assist the bureaucrat in tackling whatever task may confront him. For example, the first proverb in this chapter is:

"Remember that you can always pass the irate client on to those above you."

This is a rule that is more honored in the breach. For it is easy to forget that the chain of responsibility does not end with you. Especially when you are being verbally assaulted by an irate client.

Human nature dictates that you will try to ward off an unpleasant caller or customer as quickly as possible. Whatever tried and true tactics can be employed will be used including naysaying, stonewalling and out-and-out ignoring.

Oftentimes these tactics will work and your tormentor will desist. But sometimes you will encounter people who are annoyingly persistent, people who think they have rights and somehow think they deserve an actual answer.

What to do in those situtations? Simply remember that there is someone higher up in the bureaucracy who is paid far more than you and is ultimately responsible for dealing with annoying customers and clients: your boss.

The trouble is that you can't just pass every irritating clown up the ladder. You have to ensure that the clown in question has morphed into a swearing, hot-headed, violence-threatening troublemaker. Then you are fully justified in refusing to deal with the person any further and can pass him on to your boss.

But, you might say, not every irksome client is an out-and-out nut job. How can I pass someone on to my superior when he is simply justifiably angry about poor or non-existent service?

You can't unless, of course, you have learned how to escalate a client's anger and rude behavior without exhibiting any such behavior yourself. By simply and calmly refusing to deal with his problem and by repeatedly reminding him that there is nothing you can do for him, chances are you will transform him into a raving lunatic.

Once he starts screaming or launches an f-bomb or two, you are fully justified in calmly informing him that you do not have to tolerate such behavior. You then give him your boss's number, hang up and get back to the game of computer solitaire or minesweeper that he so rudely interrupted.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On Memoranda - Sixth Proverb

On further investigation, I was able to discover another memo-related saying in "The Zen of Bureaucracy." In one short sentence, this aphorism sums up the benefit that comes to those who write memos:

"History is written by those who put it in writing."

Yes, you might be saying, putting something in writing can be dangerous. True enough. But not putting something in writing is usually even more dangerous.

Consider an exchange between you and your boss where he has questioned your abilities, undermined your authority and threatened your continued tenure. Do you scurry back to your cubicle with your bureaucratic tail between your legs in order to lick your wounds?

No, you scurry back to your cubicle to commit the entire episode to writing. Not the nasty parts, mind you, but just your particular version of events. That way your boss will later have a tough time making any of his charges stick.

One, two or five years from now, no one will remember the encounter with your boss. But, if you choose, those in positions of power will be provided with a copy of your creative memo.

Chances are your boss has long since been promoted beyond his level of incompetence. But on the off chance that he's still there, your memo should stop him cold.

As George Santayana once said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I would only add that those who re-write the past won't likely have to relive it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On Memoranda - Fifth Proverb

As I continue reading "The Zen of Bureaucracy", I am surprised at the wealth of pithy aphorisms I've uncovered. Here is the latest, another axiom directed at the bureaucratic memo writer:

"The unanswered memo is like a coiled snake ready to strike its recipient."

Truer words have never been spoken or reduced to parchment. What the ancient writer of the book knew was what most of us instinctively know even today: Don't leave a memo unanswered.

'Why?' the neophyte functionary might ask. Well, in my view, the answer should be self-evident but for those who think otherwise, here's a brief explanation.

If you don't reply to a memo, then it stands as the historical record. Whatever is written in that memo becomes gospel. For example, if it blames the last failed initiative on you, then you are the architect of that failure and you will be known as a failure for all time.

As you have already seen, some clever writers know to bury the important stuff in the middle of a lengthy memo. You must always be on guard for such sneaky tactics and be prepared to do what it takes to counter them, no matter how tedious the chore may be.

That means actually reading the memo and, by reading the memo, I mean taking the time to understand each and every line. Painful as that may be, it is essential to ensure that you don't let any damaging accusation or conclusion get past you.

Remember; if you had to suffer reading a lengthy memo, you have the opportunity to fight fire with fire or, to be more accuarate in this case, to fight obfuscation with obfuscation. It may be hard to slog your way through a long, boring memo but you can motivate yourself by thinking about how you will better your opponent with and even longer, more boring, potentially more dangerous memo in reply.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On Memoranda - Fourth Proverb

Today I discovered the following aphorism in the ancient book "The Zen of Bureaucracy":

"It is better to write a thousand pages than to speak truthfully to those in charge."

Although this saying may suffer from a touch of hyperbole, at its essence, it is as true today as it was 4,000 years ago when first penned. Much as you might be tempted to speak the truth to those above you and as much as you might hate to write a lengthy useless memo, always choose the latter.

Speaking the truth can do no one any good. If your supervisor already knew the truth, she didn't need to hear it and there was probably a good reason she was hiding it. If she didn't already know the truth, you'll just embarrass her and ensure your rapid departure from your current workplace.

If you are young and still feel compelled to write the truth, then bury it somewhere in the middle of your thousand-page memo. No one will ever read it and your conscience will remain clear. Eventually, of course, you will surrender your conscience and avoid such unnecessary work.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Memoranda - Third Proverb

The third proverb found under this heading is as old as time:

"Do not look behind you unless you have covered yourself in memoranda."

That's right; the third proverb is the ancient precursor to the modern adage "Always cover your ass." Except the old Oriental version is not gluteal-specific but instead urges the wise bureaucrat to cover his entire being in memoranda.

I'm not sure why that is. It may be that it is understood that you should cover your derriere. Or it may be that the ancient author did not want to offend by colloquially referring to someone's rear end. Or it may be that, in those pre-labor union days, it was wise to literally cover your entire self in paper in order to hide from your superiors. When an error could end in the loss of a hand, an eye or your head, this was probably a smart thing to do.

Whatever the reason, it's comforting and perhaps a little disappointing to see that nothing much has changed in the world of bureacracies over the last three or four millennia. Except that today an error won't literally lose you your head or your butt. In fact, if you play your cards right, an error may actually advance your career as future proverbs will reveal.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On Memoranda - Second Proverb

It's Friday the 13th and what better time to help ward off potential bureaucratic pitfalls. In that spirit, here's the second maxim that I found in the Zen of Bureaucracy:

"A memo of a dozen pages begins with one unintelligible phrase."

What exactly does this proverb mean? I suspect it meant the same to the ancient Chinese author of the text as it does to today's dedicated bureaucrat. Essentially, this saying is a Zen corollary to the first entry, namely that it will do you little good to write a clear, concise memo to your supervisor. All that will do is give him reason to actually monitor and evaluate your performance.

It's much better to bury your actual report in the middle of a long, boring, tedious memo filled with jargon, gibberish and bureaucratese. That way, if you have to report some bad news or make an actual committment to a plan of action, you can place it half way into the memo where no one is likely going to read it. And if they do, after slogging through six or seven pages of turgid prolix prose, they're not likely going to remember it anyway.

The key to this exercise is to open with the longest, densest, most yawn-inducing sentence you can in order to immediately render the reader semi-comatose. Something like: "The long term viability of human resources reduction parameters in the context of ongoing organizational planning necessitates the employment of mitigating factors often beyond the control of management in the day-to-day implementation of budgetary metrics." Once his eyes have glazed over, there's little chance that anything you write after that will be read, much less retained in his long-term memory.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Zen of Bureaucracy begins

Most of us are familiar with one or more Zen proverbs, those enigmatic aphorisms that impart some kernel of wisdom about life. I recently discovered an ancient apocryphal Oriental text entitled "The Zen of Bureaucracy" which I believe will add to that storehouse of helpful knowledge. As I carefully examine this ersatz work over the coming months, I will share with you the proverbs that I uncover. Here is the first:

"The answer lies not in clarity but rather in obfuscation."

As I perused the ancient text, I discovered the aphorisms were ordered by category. The first grouping was headed "On Memoranda" which, if nothing else, establishes that memos have been the number one bureaucratic communication medium of choice for thousands of years.

I think the meaning of this first adage is clear in urging the writer to be anything but. Anyone who toils in a large bureaucracy, be it public or private, knows the truth of this saying. Seldom will you benefit yourself or your career by being straightforward and plainspoken, especially when you're putting it in writing. Unless you are a CEO or the head of an organization, it is best to waffle and conceal your true opinions as much as possible.