Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Because I Said So

“Do you like my hat? No I do not like your hat. Goodbye. Goodbye.”

Dr. Seuss had a way with words didn’t he?

I have always operated under the philosophy that you should not ask the question if you don’t like the answer you may receive.

There have been many situations in my working career where I have worked with many “yes man” type of people. They go out of their way not to rock the boat or make the boss upset. Whatever they think the boss wants to hear, or whatever will make them look good, they say.

On the other hand, I am notorious for being honest. Is that such a bad thing?

As an example I submit the following story from my Air Force career.

While stationed at Eielson AFB Alaska, we were about to start an exercise (which is basically simulated combat conditions).

Part of how we practice is by packing up and moving our operations from our cozy buildings to temporary facilities, just as if we were moving to any place in the world we might have to deploy. This gives us a good idea what we need to bring with us. Not planning well for an exercise can be embarrassing; not planning well for real combat can be deadly.

During a past exercise we ran into a problem that we did not have enough bomb lift trucks (little specialized forklifts that are used for loading munitions on the aircraft) deployed to the exercise area.

In a real deployment these trucks would have been with us, but during the “pretend” exercise we forgot to move some into the “play area” so we got caught short handed.

While planning for this particular exercise coming up the temperature was going to be about 40 degrees below zero. If you have ever lived in extreme cold temperatures you quickly learn that vehicles left outside at those temperatures tend to not start.

We, the people running the weapons shop, decided to deploy the bomb lift trucks in the same facility where the people who actually maintained them would be located. The facility was heated, and the maintainers of the equipment would be right there if we had any trouble with the equipment. Makes perfect sense doesn’t it?

Along comes some idiot and tells the commander that because of the problem of availability we had last time, they want the bomb lift trucks in some hangars on the other side of the area.

In theory this might be a good idea, but in reality, we knew those hangars were not heated, and that the bomb lift trucks would indeed be closer to us, but they would never start.

It was not a question of they might not start; they would NEVER start! We would then be forced to tow them back to the other facility where the maintainers were to warm the lift trucks up so they would start.

As the weapons expeditor I was eventually clued in to this master plan.

My first reaction was telling my boss that this was a terrible idea (based on the previously mentioned problem). His answer was basically that it didn’t matter because this is what the commander wanted. I asked if someone explained to the commander why this was bad? The same response came from him. The commander wants it this way.

Now when we’re in combat up to our eyeballs, and trying to “turn” aircraft rapidly we need all of our equipment actually running. So I went on up the chain of command asking the same question. Has anyone explained to the commander that this was a bad idea? Same response, it was what the commander wanted.

“Never give up, never surrender”, so says Tim Allen in the movie “Galaxy Quest”. I went to the commander’s office. His secretary told me he was out on the flight line somewhere with his entourage. So out to the ramp I went searching hangars until I found him and his little roving band of “yes men”.

He took one look at me and said, “Rick, I know what you’re going to say. I want those bomb lift trucks in that hangar”.

I said, “Sir, can I explain one thing to you?” I then proceeded to explain to him the trouble we would be facing, and laid out the initial plan to have the lift trucks in the heated hangar with the maintainers.

The commander thought about this for a moment and said, “Why didn’t someone explain all of this to me before?”

I said, “Good question sir!”

Needless-to-say, the exercise was a success. If I had played the “yes man” game with everyone else we would have had a bad situation on our hands that week. Not only would the weapons shop look bad because we could not perform as we should, but the commander would look bad because we messed things up.

I think it’s sad to see people so scared to do their jobs that they just agree with everything their boss says.

In the Air Force I felt it was my duty to explain anything I felt would jeopardize our mission, whatever the mission at that time was. In the civilian workplace, I have the same goal. If we are facing a problem, I bring it to someone’s attention. If they say something like, “We know, but we’re doing it like this anyway”, then so be it.

Remember, there are rules of etiquette in your workplace, and a chain of command you need to follow. You don’t have to be a jerk, or obnoxious, but whatever you do don’t just rollover and say “yes” if there is a concern, especially if it involves safety or security. Step up and act like you want to succeed at what you do.

After another circumstance with a different commander, (which I’m not at liberty to share with you all), I was in a meeting with the commander and a room full of other “yes men”.

The commander asked if something was a good idea, and from previous discussions I knew just about every person in that room thought the idea was idiotic, but they all just sat there. I was just in the meeting filling in for my boss, so I was kind of out of my league. My hand went up, the commander called on me, and I explained to him what everyone else was thinking.

I knew this was a pet project of the commander’s, and was not sure how the response was going to go over. After he thought about it for a moment he smiled and said, “That’s what I like about you Henderson! You’re not afraid to speak out to anyone!”

Let me end this by stating that I have also said some pretty stupid things and have been embarrassed on more then one occasion.

Speaking out on something will place you in the spotlight, but hiding in the shadow of others all the time, like a plant, can stunt your growth.

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