Thursday, June 16, 2011

Words I Won't Be Eating

"Words that fall like rain/Lie on the ground like snow." -- The Toasters, "Don't Say Forever"

The reality is starting to sort of loom over me that yes, come Monday, I will have to return to work. Err, rather, come Monday I will begin the process of returning to work. Sandstorms, flight delays, scheduling bottlenecks, and who-knows-what-else may throw that off in who-knows-what-direction. And it's not lost on me that by the time I make it to Atlanta on Monday afternoon, it'll already be Tuesday morning *over there.*

Anyway, one of the cool things that I'm looking forward to -- something I've written about here on the site and shared with friends and family here in Lowell -- is that I'll be stepping back into a less-prominent position. To fully explain it would require a good chunk of time, but let's just say my old boss left in a sudden fashion, and for a few months there I was doing my old job plus his. With his relief now there, I go back down to *just* my position...this ought to leave a wee bit more time for personal pursuits like running, weightlifting, keeping up on foreign news, and, yes, the Lowell blogosphere.

For the couple months or so before the new boss came into the picture, he and I stayed in fairly frequent contact over e-mail. I peppered him with schedules, briefings, photos, operational vignettes, etc. not so much in a coherent format, but just in a way that would enable him to build some semblance of the *big picture* from all the little ones I was sending his way. Considering he commanded a Company of soldiers during the Big Northward Trek from Kuwait to Balad, Iraq in March 2003, he had plenty of personal memory and material to draw from when piecing everything together.

One of the very few things, perhaps the only thing, however, that I did NOT provide him with was the candid assessment he asked me to send with regards to all our soldiers, to include strengths and weaknesses, and some delineation of the "A" Squad from the rest.
Uncharacteristically, I stalled, hemmed, and hawed on this one. Even though he asked more than once, I never went all-out on this request, despite having done so for every other piece of data that he had me put together. Simply put, here's why: I've seen that type of stuff go bad too many times before.

Even if we can assume the best intentions all-around, there are still WAY too many chances for a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip...what if he printed that e-mail and left it atop his desk? What if he quoted from it over the phone and a curious set of ears was nearby? What if it biased his incoming attitudes towards people in an all-too-obvious way? Any of those moments, in which the wrong things could've come out devoid of all context or intended tone, would've spoiled 8 months of coming intense working relationships in close quarters.

I stayed pretty vague on the subject of personnel, and he hardly even brought it up during the couple days of overlap we had after he arrived, and before I went on R & R. As a result, when I head back to Atlanta, and then Kuwait, and then Kabul, I'll be dreading the fact that I'll be away from my wife and daughter, and missing home, but I won't be dreading the prospect that some frank, candid statement of mine got twisted and bent into some unintended shape...because it was never made to begin with.

I like to muse a lot about how "If Life Had a Rulebook..." and sometimes imagine putting one together where I could explain lines like, "When someone is going out of their way to do you a favor, you forfeit all rights to criticize how they're doing it."

If I ever did put one together, though, right near the top would be something like, "Be careful in the extreme say with what you say about others. Whereas your opinions are subject to change, the words you write or speak for attribution are not!"

The real problem isn't whether I'd have the cojones to stand by something I had said. I know that I would (as the expression goes, I don't say everything I think, but I do think everything that I say). The bigger problem is that some gripe I might've had on, say, April 18th might've been totally overcome by events by, say, June 18th. If I called someone an underachiever then, well, maybe they were just slow to adjust to a new environment. Maybe they weren't clear enough on the guidance they had gotten. Maybe that would've been my own leadership issue that needed addressing.

The military evaluation system is extremely flawed (just Google the name 'Nidal Malik Hasan' on that) but one thing it really gets right is that it's considered a below-the-belt cheap shot to put anything less-than-stellar in an Officer Evaluation Report (OER) unless it has already been addressed via formal, written counseling. In other words, you can't suddenly whack me with a report card that says I'm spelling at below-grade-level and my breath stinks to boot unless you've already sent a few progress reports home saying as much. That may not seem totally 'fair' to the reviewer, and may strike some as a bit too touchy-feely, but it's the same standard I would want used on me if the shoe were on the other foot.

It may also not seem fair that you can make nine great statements about someone and his work, but just one 'constructive' one, and the nine somehow get out-remembered and out-emphasized. But that's an issue and a question for another day. For today, at least, I just know how glad I am to have stayed tight-lipped and to have passed on the chance to vent in the wrong direction, via the wrong channels, and in the wrong forum, on the less-than 5 per cent worth of material I would've had ready from a group and an experience that was more than 95 per cent outstanding, and memorable for all the right reasons.

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