Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Blunt Instrument Temptation

“Hiring Freeze!”  “Across-the-Board Cuts!”  “Zero Tolerance!”

I’ve heard all of those phrases, and variations on each, over the last week or so.  They strike me as different flavors of the same thing.  

They sound bold and decisive.  They offer the thrilling rush of command to the speaker.  And they’re all, without exception, bound to backfire.  That’s because they all fail to ask the basic question, “then what?”  They assume that the single bold stroke will have only one effect, and that nothing else will change.

That’s not how the world works.

Take hiring freezes.  Hiring occurs because work needs to be done.  Deciding not to hire anymore doesn’t mean that work goes away.  A hiring freeze doesn’t entail an attrition freeze; employees are still free to leave whenever they want.  If you can’t stop people from leaving, but you can’t replace them, you have to either dump more work on the folks who remain, or outsource.  In the Federal context, that typically means outsourcing work to much more expensive contractors. The work doesn’t magically walk away with the employees.  Most of us in public higher education know the drill all too well.

Across the board cuts don’t distinguish between growing areas and shrinking ones, or between areas with lots of slack with areas already running on fumes.  If anything, they tend to reward the areas that padded their budgets when they had the option.  If you engage in across-the-board cuts, you teach your people that budgetary hoarding is rewarded.  If you have use-it-or-lose-it system, that means people making damn sure to spend down their budgets by the end of the fiscal year, whether they actually need a closetful of toner cartridges or not.  It’s a rational response to an irrational system.

Zero tolerance policies don’t distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving.  They offer the appearance of consistency, but the consistency in question is arbitrary.  

The blunt instrument temptation is based on a distrust of, or disbelief in, the possibility of judgment.  It substitutes the single bold stroke for the thoughtful decision, and -- not incidentally -- tend to concentrate power in the hands of a single decision-maker.  It mistakes petulance for decisiveness, and tends to reduce everyone else to objects.

Which isn’t to say that most of us don’t fall prey to it every once in a while, if only theoretically.  The lizard brain is fond of the sweeping declaration.  Who hasn’t thought “screw ‘em!  Screw ‘em all!” after a frustrating meeting?  But part of adulting involves catching that impulse in the all-important editing phase between “thinking” and “speaking.”  My passing, baroque fantasies of revenge when someone cuts me off and then slows down long before a glacially-paced right turn may be viscerally satisfying, but it’s probably for the best that I don’t carry them out.  There’s a reason that we don’t let people judge their own cases.

Sometimes the blunt instrument temptation is a symptom of exasperation.  Every parent has been there.  When the kid has fourteen arguments why she shouldn’t have to go to bed, at some point, you fall back on “Because I Said So!”  That’s a blunt instrument.  It may or may not work in the moment, but it doesn’t lead anywhere good over time.  If the goal is to help your kids become independent, functional adults who can make good decisions, then it’s probably best to use the blunt instrument as rarely as possible.  

My plea for leaders everywhere -- and occasional reminder to myself -- is to take a deep breath when you feel yourself about to fall prey to the blunt instrument temptation.  When you indulge it, the chain of events doesn’t stop with your action.  It just begins.