When Workplaces are Wussified

:::WARNING: The very funny and insightful essay and link I am about to present to you contains a variation of the “S” word and several renderings of the “F” word. If you cannot handle the “F” word in any context, please do not follow this link. Go write me a letter about how scandalized you are that any Catholic site would dare to suggest that you read something that contains the “F” word, and then, rather than tempting yourself away from charity, tear it up and pray for me, instead. You are formally warned.

If you read further, you might be tempted to press the link and see “S” and “F” words, so stop reading, right now. END WARNING:::

“We need to talk about your goals; it’s part of the performance review…”

“Bullshit” Is One Word, “Performance Review” Two
by Larry McCoy

I had just arrived in the newsroom for my shift as a copy editor when a manager came over to my desk and declared, “We need to discuss your goals.” I was 66 years old – past retirement age, damn near old enough to be his father – and he wants to discuss my “goals.”

“Go away,” I told him. Preparing to take over the main desk was always an extremely hectic part of the day. I was “reading in,” as journalists call it, looking at all the stories that had been edited that day by the main desk. It was impossible to read every story from start to finish, so you skimmed some, skipped some and made sure you thoroughly read the big ones you knew would be changing once you took over the desk.

Floyd, the name we’ll give the manager, wasn’t attuned to the idea of a right time and place to do things. Like a squirrel digging for nuts, Floyd kept at it. “We have to discuss your goals sometime. It’s part of your Performance Review.”

“Well, we’re not doing it now. Go away!”

Floyd was both dense and tone deaf. He wouldn’t go away. If only Floyd were as dogged in fleshing out a good story. The Performance Review had to be done, he said. I wasn’t going to budge either. It was a crock – something dreamed up by the morons in Human Resources who had nothing to do and, worst of all, absolutely no experience in newsrooms. They all ought to be fired, I said, several times in several ways. This back and forth continued, with the volume of each exchange rising, until the magic words came out.

“Go f–k yourself,” I said.

Read Larry McCoy’s whole piece, and ponder that picture above, and the one below. How did we get from there — brazen enough to walk the sky — to the cowering, over-serious and grim reality of today’s gray-cubicles-gray-minds-MBA-saturated-workplace bureaucracies?

Note the scaffolding

A man I know began working 20 years ago at a large corporation that he deemed it a pleasure to work for. The CEO and founder was (gasp!) a commoner, an ordinary engineer who had an idea and ran with it. Perhaps because he had worked for a living, and had not simply stepped out of a “good” school with an MBA, he knew how to treat the people who worked for him; compensation was generous; enthusiasm and imagination brought perks, and morale was high. People worked late because they were excited; they wanted to keep working.

Then the CEO sold his enormously successful company to a corporate giant. Out went the upper management that had been honed “from the ranks,” as it were. In came the suits; the suave and studied men and women — from schools of business, rather than engineering — who could talk about what wine went with what entree, or their walking holiday in Burma, but had no understanding of the dreamers (and engineers are dreamers, before they are anything) whose knowledge and imaginations they needed to ensnare and encourage, and whose intelligence and dignity deserved respect.

Not just respect, but inclusion.

Morale quickly went down. Working for suits who knew all the “theory” of business, and how to read numbers, but had not the least understanding of what made a “human resource” so resourceful, the engineers and developers and testers and marketers and admins began to rush out the door as soon as the clock struck five. The fun was gone, the energy sapped; enthusiasm was no longer on the radar.

People who work late, these days, do it because corporate downsizing means they are doing the work of 1.5 people; they must work 16 hour days, just to stay on schedule, if they want to keep their jobs. There are no longer burning the midnight oil by choice.

These suited MBA’s can’t seem to get it. Huddled in their enclaves, they have difficulty understanding that a hard-working engineer with excellent problem-solving skills, a positive outlook and a knack for team-building needs more than an official performance review that ends with a condescendingly vague note about his being “a valuable member” of the collective whole. He needs recognition of himself; the individual he is, the singularity of his abilities. He needs to know that he may dare to dream of more, that there is, for him, a chance to move into the upper echelons of the company, even if he really would prefer a Diet Pepsi with his Salmon TarTar, rather than a $150 bottle of wine.

The same elitism that has overwhelmed government and left it out-of-touch with the people they were meant to serve has infected the workplace, and it is demoralizing the work-force. The man I know has considered moving to a new job, several times, but friends of his who have moved report that it is the same everywhere: there is a class divide, and the urbane upper-management sorts seem not to understand that managing people means more than making sure you have an appropriate women-to-men ratio. It means valuing not just an employee’s skill, but the whole, human person. It means understanding that sometimes passion trumps policy, and should be encouraged; that every raised voice should not require a negative notation to the personnel file; every case of “hurt feelings” should not require three-days of “sensitivity training,” until your fed-up employees choose to divest themselves of anything smacking of personality, color, emotion or enthusiasm, simply to avoid the grim “facilitated interface,” full of meaningless corrective language, that will send him back to his cubicle feeling frustrated, confused, emasculated (even if “he” is a female) and ultimately defeated.

How can anything great be born of such sterility? How can anything hopeful and alive be harnessed in a stream full of dead things, going with the flow?

The men who built the Empire State Building stood on bare planks to work in the sky; paradoxically, they were grounded in reality, not theory. They did not have to concern themselves with tones and timbres; nor did the educated architects who dreamed up skyscrapers. One suspects that if either the man on the beam or the one with the blueprints had been approached by a tanning-booth-bronzed-and-manicured corporate bureaucrat, and asked to enumerate their “goals” as part of their “performance review” they both would have hooted at him in derision. “My goal,” the first would say, “is to not fall. It’s to stay alive so I can pick up my pay, have a beer with the wife, raise the kids and get into heaven a half-hour before the devil knows I’m dead.”

“My goal,” the architect would say dismissively, “is to make your jaw drop, and the drop it some more; I want to build a mystery!”

Very likely the bureaucrat — too timid to walk the sky, and too unimaginative to even conceive scraping it — would have found their answers vague, and given both of them low marks in team-building, professional comportment and attention to guidelines. He would recommend training meant to get them comfortable with thinking and living inside the approved boxes, “and at no point should such recklessly lighthearted men be considered for promotion,” he would write.

More’s the pity.

Deacon Greg Kandra, who once worked for Larry McCoy, remembers a newsman.

UPDATE:
The NY Times wonders, Is it time to review workplace performance reviews?

UPDATE II:
From a very different setting and perspective, Fr. James Martin finds himself all out of patience with another sort of grimness that lacks imagination, understanding and courage, because they don’t think you can build a mystery. Don’t miss it.

UPDATE III:

Architects and Medicators

Discovered in archives; reposted from October of 2010

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Glenda Cook

    fabulous article! Everyone should read it- might wake up one of those suits!

  • Annmarie

    This is so true, and so sad.I pray for my children,that we can come full circle in this country and return to the time of their grandparents. True patriots.. hardworking, loyal, and God fearing.Not sheep being led to the mediocre slaughter house.May God have mercy on us all!(especially the suits, for they know not what they do)

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  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Oh that was great. I just sent it around the office and to my boss as well. Told him I can’t wait until I turn 66 so I can tell you sh*t like this…lol

  • MQS

    Hahaha! Love it. And, as a mom who is overly into hand-washing, I also find it relevant and am grateful for the message. Sometimes I have to let them play with bugs and get dirty finger nails, don’t I? Or let them fight it out and figure it out, while I turn the other way. Sometimes. Thanks Anchoress, another gem.

  • MQS

    Hahaha! Love it. And, as a mom who is overly into hand-washing, I also find it relevant and am grateful for the message. Sometimes I have to let them play with bugs and get dirty finger nails, don’t I? Or let them fight it out and figure it out, while I turn the other way. Sometimes. Thanks Anchoress, another gem.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Hey, I just realized you can edit with this new comment system. Might be a good change after all.

  • Charles Culbreth

    I’m sixty two, and generally regarded as a FPITA (it’ll come to you) but I must admit our 66 year old curmudgeon has more Ed Asner/Lou Grant in him than I think he actually needs. From a Catholic/Christian POV, I ought to have a homiletic pacemaker that reminds me that personalizing a response that’s nuclear from the get go is a clear indicator of a well-anchored reservoir of anger. And the followup encounter with the dumb suit only proves that likelihood for the copy editor. Anger.
    Anger. Is. Always. From. The. Enemy.
    I’m talking to myself, thank the Lord.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Thunderstixx Steven Thompson

    I work with a lot of young men and women at a local Wal Mart. I am impress3ed with what I see from them. I am a Veteran and consequently I have had the pleasure to meet a lot of the young people that have put their lives on the line for the freedoms we take for granted. I am impressed with all of them. They seem to have a lot on the ball and most are not afraid of hard work or taking charge of a situation when the need arises. Some are useless, my ex’s sons, both of them, but generally most are good kids. Most also know bull shit when they see it and won’t put up with it. Those suits will find themselves out of a job when the economy returns to a normal state. I wouldn’t worry too much, I feel that the world is in good hands if we can get through this current crisis of leadership.

  • Jonathan

    If you’re manly and hate your job, you start your own company.

    Self-defecating infants remain in place and write this type of article.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Celia-Hayes/1415091659 Celia Hayes

    Awww, hell I’ve just finished collecting up a bunch of blog-posts about my time in the military – some of them about the antics at an AFRTS station in the late 1970s when it was not so politically-correct … but somehow a lot more fun. It was great, when we all operated on the assumption that we were all adults and could stand exposure to ribald humor. God, I miss those days .. you kids! Get the hell off my lawn!

  • David

    Larry McCoy is no different than the “suits” — the all-important jerk who reeks of contempt for the people around him who can’t even approach his own greatness. His talent needs to be seasoned by humility, unable to even consider the fact that the person he so despises is actually a human being just trying to earn a living.

    So I’m not sure how Larry’s the hero here., and how he opens the door to a rant against MBA-weilding suits.

    Yes, I have an MBA, and yes you struck a nerve. Maybe it’s because I just had a particularly hectic day trying to keep up with everything I need to do to help make my team successful. Maybe it’s because I had that one-on-one session with the employee who’s having personal issues with a co-worker, helping him figure out how *he* can solve the problem. Maybe it’s because I met with an employee who had expressed a fairness issue that I first dismissed but stopped, corrected myself, apologized and said that like any human being she had a right to be treated respectfully. And then proceeded to work out a plan to resolve her issue. Maybe it’s because I spent an hour with one part of my team working together to find a creative way to get to the bottom of an operational issue that’s been festering the past two months. Maybe it’s because I will sit down and silently pray for my team members, by name, one at a time.

    I’m not a martyr, or a hero. I’m just doing my damnedest to help my team get our work done in a way that makes them happy. I think I’m starting to get pretty good at it, but I’ve got a history of bloody noses to help me remember that this is really, really hard.

    Perhaps I’m an exception. But I went to a school that consistently ranks in the top 3, and while I certainly encountered someone you’d call a “suit”, the large majority of people I went to school with are decent people who are really smart and who really get that the key to good management is leadership — authentic, honest leadership. I’d rather work with them any day over Larry McCoy.

  • Bertibus

    Larry didn’t accuse management “suits” of not being serious, but of utterly missing the human dimension of employees, over and above that defined in the company manual. Your post unintentionally proves his point in spades.

  • David

    Not sure how I unintentionally proved his point, unless you think I’m missing Larry’s so-called humanity.

    I guess I’m having a hard time seeing it, considering how he’s treating the HR guy. *That’s* the real human dimension here, and Larry’s the one who’s missing it.

    How do you think Larry makes him feel? As Elizabeth puts it, is Larry “valuing not just an employee’s skill, but the whole human person”?

    Why does Larry have to be a condescending jerk? Why can’t he say something along the lines of, “Hey, look I know we have to meet. This is a really bad time for me to talk about it. Come by tomorrow at 2 and we can figure it out then.”

    Let me put it another way: would *you* want to work with Larry?

  • MeanLizzie

    David, thanks for commenting. I am sorry to have “struck a nerve” as you say, and made you uncomfortable or defensive — that was certainly not my intention, and on re-read, I think I could have been a bit less general and a bit more charitable, particularly on the line about “actually having worked” rather than stepping out of a good school into management. So, yes, I should try to do better. I have no particular animus toward MBA’s btw — I’m married to one who also happens to be a Professional Engineer and a pretty smart cookie. But a lot of what I’ve written here is in response to what I see happening to people who are in their mid-fifties and looking at an economy that offers them precious little-to-nothing if they happen to lose their jobs in yet another strategic layoff within corporations for which they have worked, and overworked, for a couple of decades. With regards to there situations, and what they perceive to be an impersonal and often-dehumanizing work “process” that reduces them to units capable of x and y rather than people capable of inventing wholly new letters, I think this piece holds up pretty well. Our friends — people we’ve known since college — speak routinely of their fears of layoffs; of the ironic inability of Human Resource folk to keep in mind the humanity of their employees; the diminishment of creativity because of narrowed boundaries, and yes, the performance reviews that can weigh so heavily on ones career — at every stage of it — and too often reduces an employee to standardized boxes and phrases. In McCoy’s case, a newsroom is by no means a normal office environment and newsroom managers are a different breed of folk; they’re not standard issue-grey-cubicle and yeah, they’re cranky and passionate. But even outside of newsrooms, its not always easy for a 66 year old who knows his business inside and out to have to sit down with a 20-30 something and discuss where his work should be better and what his “goals” are, and then see him classified into a 1, 2, 3 with a minuscule raise, if any at the end of the meeting. His goals are to do his job responsibly and make it to retirement, and for that generation, especially, I think there is just something condescending and picayune about the whole process. I think this is where there is a disconnect, and perhaps an age and class-distinction, as well. News managers (or engineers) who can write rings around others or build rings around them, tend to resent it when people who don’t have a clue how to do the things they do try to sit down and assess them. It is — as I alluded to later in the piece — like watching a government full of theorists who have never run so much as a hot dog stand get together and tell small businesses how they ought to do it. You sound like a great guy and a manager who works hard and cares about his staff. I manage people myself and I know how difficult that can be, and how wearying it is, and how sometimes one must even take a deep breath and smile and say, “tell me what you need” when you really want to close the office door and curl into a fetal position. But I’ll stand by a good deal of what I have written here, about the way over-bureaucraticizing can make an employee feel like he is less, and not more, in the eyes of his employers. – Best, Elizabeth Scalia

  • LouAnnWatson

    experience is the best teacher and the
    ‘suits’ are usually lacking

  • Elliot1234

    Sounds like those engineers are a bunch of weenies. “Oh, please tell me you really, really like me…” Why on earth does that hard working engineer need coddling from a suit he despises?

  • MeanLizzie

    I don’t think anyone said they needed “coddling” or to be liked. More like, to be seen.

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  • Francis Porretto

    McCoy’s piece could have been about innumerable persons I know…including me.

    One of the central ironies of the situation is that older, well seasoned workers in many fields are 1) content to keep doing what we do, with no fantasies about advancing into “management;” 2) the most dedicated and productive employees of our companies; and 3) about to retire in huge numbers, leaving America’s corporate titans to be operated by persons far less capable. But those far-less-capable types routinely deride us as cranky, overpaid dinosaurs, and imagine that they (and the stockholders) will be glad when we take ourselves out of the workforce.

    When I reflect upon the changes soon to come, I fear for myself, my children, and my country — pretty much in that order.

  • mikemorley

    Recently, one of my clients reached a settlement of a long-simmering commercial dispute with a larger company which is a vendor of technology used in my client’s product. One of the terms of the settlement would have given the other side access to an emerging market being developed by my client–for essentially zero investment. They were giving up $25k or so in what they were demanding, but still getting $25k more than they were entitled to as a matter of legalities.

    The person we negotiated with took the settlement to his supervisor–and the Ivy Leaguer suits with the expensive MBAs were adamant: the full $50k or nothing!!!! In response, my client ignored them, developed a replacement product in house, and is off selling the product and making money with it. The other side is not sharing in that revenue, but the same suits that rejected the settlement want us to call them and talk about settlement again. We are politely ignoring them. If they sue us, they’ll spend far more than $25k or even $50k in litigation costs, and still won’t get anything.

  • http://profiles.google.com/thinksink Jeff H

    If people valued WORK (read: results) more than EDUCATION (read: avoidance strategies wrapped in a piece of sheepskin), this sort of crap would go the way of GM’s value: straight down the tubes.

  • TomJB

    Well, we know which person you would be in the first encounter. One which does not know the difference between hating one’s job and hating those things that prevent one from doing a job they love. Don’t you have a “team-building” ropes course or something to plan?

  • David

    Elizabeth, thanks for your kind reply!

    I do agree that the modern workplace can be a soul-sucking grey experience, particularly the review/rating system (I got a bad taste of that this year, as I had moved to a different role and my prior manager threw me under the bus in my review). I think the rating/review system comes to us courtesy of the legal department. In our hyper-litigious environment, there’s a big incentive to be able to point to a system that may be soul-sucking but minimizes big lawsuits.

    But, like any bureaucracy, it’s up to the manager to make it work. And it’s a matter of leadership more than intelligence and pedigree. By “leadership” I’m referring not so much to the General Patton model of heroic courage (though a good set of qualities in the right measure), but rather one who has the emotional intelligence to understand the human dimension that you rightfully highlight. Great leaders know how to give their team a vision, map it to each employee’s skills and personal ambitions, and figure out how to work the bureaucracy to everyone’s benefit. (This includes how do you manage the employee who just wants to do the minimally accepted standard of work.)

    It’s easy for a manager to let himself be carried along by the bureaucracy. After all, he’s human too, and subject to the same dehumanizing bureaucratic forces. He’s fighting his own demons and doubts. But when he gets it right — wow!

    Like your husband, my MBA is paired with an engineering degree. Most of my career was build around engaging my inner geek, the that satisfaction that comes from making technology dance in a way that solves a problem or makes something better. But in my later career as a manager, I’ve found an even deeper satisfaction in guiding, coaching, goading, poking, etc. an employee to overcome their fears (primary of which is thinking they can’t be authentically who they are), raise their sights, and do something they didn’t think they could do (or at first didn’t even want to do).

    The bureaucracy isn’t going to change. So our only hope is to hold accountable managers at all levels to bring that much-needed human dimension back into the workplace — despite the bureaucracy.

  • Jonathan

    The cool thing about being creative and adaptable is that I don’t have to be either (obnoxious) person in that encounter. And the cool thing about being a non-adolescent man in a capitalist society is that I can choose (or create) whatever job I want, and have no excuse for having chosen poorly.

    There is nothing less manly than whining.

  • http://www.facebook.com/royce.dunbar Royce Dunbar

    David. Did you notice the updated coversheet requirement on the TPS Reports?

  • http://www.facebook.com/royce.dunbar Royce Dunbar

    Seriously, shouldn’t Larry’s manager have had a clue as to what kind of
    man he was? Perhaps some notion about timing or the ability to treat
    different people differently. Some clue as to the difference in their
    ages and what bearing that would make on their conversation. How crazy it sounds for a 30 year old manager to ask a 60+ year old man about his goals.

    Management is hard. Management of high talented individuals is harder. Larry’s manager was indeed a credentialed suit.

  • richard40

    The problem is education no longer means what it used to, acquisition of knowledge. Now it means acquisition of a degree, a credential, with little attention to how much useful knowledge was acquired, or how much work was done, in acquiring that credential.

  • richard40

    OK David, lets put some of your brilliant MBA knowledge to work. Do you think perhaps genious MBA suit Floyd could have handled the situation better. Like saying, OK if you are really busy we dont have to do the performance review now, as long as you committ to a definite time in the next 3 days when you will be ready to do it. So give me a convenient time, and we’ll agree to it, and then I’ll leave you to your work. That way Floyd gets his review in a timely fashion, and Larry, having given his word on a definite time, is now honor bound to do it, even if he would rather not. And if Larry refuses at the appointed time, we know he is the one in the wrong.

  • David

    I missed that memo. I was too busy demolishing the malfunctioning printer.

  • David

    Hi Richard, I think the right thing to do is for you and Larry to sit down over a beer and share all of your successes that came from treating people with contempt and insults.

  • bgbear_rogerh

    I am nearly 52 and I really hate it when they ask me about my goals like I was a kid fresh out of school. I am here, this was my goal!

  • richard40

    From what I read of the article, Larry did not start with any insults until his patience had been completely exhausted by the idiot in a suit. Something tells me that you might be getting a lot of these insults as well.

  • David

    Hi Richard, it’s really just this one guy. He’s never even met me but he assumes the worst about me. I’m really stuck about what to do. Even worse, I can’t find an answer in any of my b-school textbooks. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

  • Mysticbeetle

    Performance reviews are performed and given a numerical “grade” by supervisors. Why the heck do we need HR “professionals”/clerks that are knocking down more money than the people doing the work/producing the profits that pay astronomical salaries?

  • Mysticbeetle

    Two of the main problems with all this bureaucratic performance review crap is:

    1. There isn’t any “team” unless your people play some sort of sports after work.
    2. Performance reviews are made null and void by “crony and Affirmative Action” promotions.
    Sounds to me like you spent your day “PC babysitting” and not being a productive. When I was a manager, what you spent the day doing would’ve taken about 6 minutes and freed the rest of the day to identify, plan, sell and implement cost saving or additional profit strategies for my UNIT. Also, based on the recite of your day; put on your performance review that your position is redundant, resign and go to work in the Oil Field, where real men “WORK”.

  • Mysticbeetle

    You proved his point by: Reciting your activities which did noting to further the goal of all business: Make a Profit, and not understanding that PC bs has placed as big a burden on reaching that goal as the EPA with their utopian regulations divested from real world facts.
    Also, people go to work to make a living, that’s it. The “whole human person” “ain’t there” at the business.

  • Mysticbeetle

    “The bureaucracy isn’t going to change” if you honestly believe that, you should go home.

  • Mysticbeetle

    Don’t be so quick to dismiss handwashing. I worked in the “sewers” for 20 years, got immersed in waste and had dirty everything, washed my hands about 20 or 30 times a day (changed clothes/showered often) and never had a sick day. Wash their hands, watch and be entertained as they get dirty again, repeat.

  • Mysticbeetle

    Agree. Great article. Disagree, suits will never wake up. It’s ingrained and not amiable to change.

  • Mysticbeetle

    You’re right, except IMHO there should be more attention paid to and a reduction of the number of lawyers that are being placed in the forefront of all industries, even on combat command teams. The problem with this is when presented/confronted with an issue, the lawyers have been trained to see issues as “requiring” a Law to be solved, written by “man”, usually with an agenda to favor some person or entity and the issue used to be solved by a simple yes or no or is it right or wrong. Best comtempoary example of this is when Bill O’riely has the fox lawyers on and he is able to say this is right or wrong and the lawyers use “legalities” to show he is wrong, by law, but right by uncommon sense.

  • Mysticbeetle

    I didn’t see the “reeks of contempt”. I saw a man trying to do his job and a man with no sense of “work = corporate goal of profit”; interfering with his “goal” of working to earn a paycheck

  • Rachel B

    I don’t understand the title of this piece. It seems to me that you are actually angry about a change in the workforce, where the younger generation has been told that they need a degree to get any kind of good paying job. It could also be that you are angry about evaluation systems that rely on numbers and data that are increasingly irrelevant to the task that the workers actually need to do. Maybe you are angry that the economy has made it so that people are stretched thinner, doing more work and for less pay.

    How is this “wussification”? Or do you just mean that you miss a time where women could be sexually harassed in the workforce? When you talk about “political correctness”, that seems like you think that it should be totally ok to swear, tell racist/homophobic/sexist jokes in the workplace. I, crazy as it sounds, LIKE working in places where these sorts of things don’t happen. It’s not about “hurt feelings”, it’s about feeling harassed and having others actions disrupt your ability to do your job.


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