For most of my career as an IRS employee, I was a union steward. I represented employees in both the formal grievance process and in informal disputes with management. I learned many things during that time, including: get everything in writing and always bring a copy of the contract (no matter how trivial the matter at hand). To my initial surprise, I resolved a great many disputes just by showing a manager the applicable contract section. I wondered why front-line managers seemed so woefully under-informed about the contents of that highly available document.
Then I did a few stints as acting manager and attended some official management trainings. And I stopped wondering. In addition to using the workflow-management software and tips for resolving employee underperformance, I learned that a thorough understanding of our contract was not a priority of the people managing the managers. Managers (and prospective managers) were simply not trained on that very important content. So as they went about the day to day tasks of managing people under that contract, they often got it wrong.
Fortunately, we (union stewards) were around to regulate. Unfortunately, we couldn't be everywhere all the time. One way I thought I could make a positive difference was by joining the ranks of management myself. Since I knew the contract back to front, I could lead by example and speak-up in management meetings to prevent bad decisions from being made in the first place. I was a high-performing employee with strong leadership skills, so management looked like it was on my horizon anyway.
So I stepped onto the career escalator, headed toward the first floor of management. Along the way I became aware of other causes for what I had previously attributed to an innocent ignorance or garden variety incompetence. I peeked behind the curtain and saw the guy pulling levers and pushing buttons. And I saw everyone else sitting quietly around and saying nothing. So I got off that merry-go-round and pulled my union hat on a little more snugly.
Sometime later I got a chance to talk with a retiring manager who had been a union steward for years before becoming a manager. He told me he regretted his cross-over into management because he had been asked so frequently to compromise his principles. He persevered because he knew he was protecting his team from something much worse the longer he stayed in his post. But the pressure weighed on him. It was like wading up-stream against a powerful current. One misstep and he was likely to be swept-away.
The recent primary election deadline got me thinking about the process of getting to a position of power and influence. With politics in particular it seems like many people start out with good intentions and some people-first principles, but somewhere along the way those inciting inspirations get lost. The process of getting from civic-minded human to well-funded, winning politician is so grueling, it reshapes a candidate's connection with their own humanity. And it's such a well-established path, there is almost no way to make it into office without running that soul-sucking gauntlet.
It reminds me of something a US Army vet once said to me: "I don't care who you are when you go into the army; when you come out, you're a killer." There is a very involved process to get ordinary humans to a place where they can kill another human if they need to. That process remakes the people who go through it into new versions of themselves. Unfortunately, there's not as lengthy or rigorous or institutionalized un-militarization process. When soldiers, marines, and sailors come back from active duty to retire as veterans there is no program they go through to be indoctrinated back into the role of ordinary citizen. There certainly should be.
It's no wonder suicide rates among veterans are well above the national average in just about every demographic. It's no wonder most politicians in a position to actually effect change aren't seizing the opportunity to make an actual difference. It's no wonder many of the managers I dealt with as an employee and a union rep were more focused on avoiding blame for a problem than fixing what needed to be fixed.
Process changes you. It's unavoidable and it's part of being human because we are the culmination of all our experiences and observations. Right now we're letting our well-established processes change people into agents of the system. No matter how you start out, by the time you make it to the control room you have become committed to maintaining that system. That's why it's almost impossible to change any massive societal system from inside as part of that system.
We could change our systems to fit people instead of requiring people to fit themselves into the cogs of our long-standing institutional machinery. It's happening in some ways in some places, like all the efforts to decolonize career advancement and higher education. To bring that same sweet juice to everywhere will require quite a lot of work by quite a lot of people. It seems worth it to me. We all have to put the work in one way or the other: to either maintain the current mechanism or to create a new one. So why not make something better?
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.