Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Culture of Constructive Confrontation

The Culture of Constructive Confrontation
Comments for a panel on "Managing Chaos in the Workplace"
Embedded Systems Conference, San Francisco, Calif., March 10, 2005

I’d like to share with you my experiences living inside the maelstrom of the high-tech workplace.

About 15 years ago I was hired as public relations manager at one of the largest and best-known firms in Silicon Valley. On the first morning, I joined all the other new hires to attend an employee orientation session meant to introduce us to the corporate culture.

At that meeting, we were told the culture there is based on ‘constructive confrontation,’ which they described as encouraging the clash of good ideas so the best idea would come forth.

At last, I thought, corporate America has finally adopted the Socratic Method. This is great! In the clash of good ideas, the best ideas will be heard. This is wonderful!

When the orientation session was over at noon, I headed to the company cafeteria for lunch. As I went down the line I picked up a salad and the guy behind the counter yelled at me, “WHAT KIND OF DRESSING DO YOU WANT!!”

Uh... French?

WHY DON’T YOU WANT BLEU CHEESE?

Uhh… okay, bleu cheese is fine…

After lunch I went to settle in to my new cubicle and met my supervisor for the first time. She told me she had read my writing samples and had some ‘issues.’ “YOU WRITE USING SENTENCES!’

Uh, yes,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

WE DON’T USE SENTENCES HERE!

Ahh… well that will be a hard habit to break. What should I use?

BULLET POINTS. WE ONLY COMMUNICATE IN BULLET POINTS HERE!

Later that first afternoon, I went to the bathroom and a manager passed me.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING!

Uhhhh…the bathroom?

WHERE’S YOUR READING MATERIAL!

My reading material…?

YOU CAN’T GO TO THE BATHROOM WITHOUT READING MATERIAL. IT’S A WASTE OF COMPANY TIME. LEARN TO MULTI-TASK!

On my way home that night, I realized that what I’d entered was way beyond the Twilight Zone. Constructive confrontation, as practiced there, was not about the clash of good ideas producing the best idea. It was about the clash of personalities producing the biggest jerk.

A phrase kept going thru my mind, ‘Square peg… round hole. I can’t go back there.’

Then reality set in: There’s a recession; jobs are scarce; I have three young kids at home.

I also remembered how they told us that morning that nobody was fully hired til they’d served a nine month probation period. And I realized I’d never been in a group where I’d had to test my manhood before. I was never in the Marines or the Green Berets or the Jesuits, or any of those groups that have a ‘take no prisoner’ attitude.

So I determined that I would tough it out for nine months to see if I was man enough to make the cut. Besides, I thought, it would be a good excuse to use those great movie phrases I’d only said to myself in front of the bathroom mirror.

The next day, I swaggered to my cubicle greeting people with, “YOU TALKIN’ TO ME!” “YOU GOTTA PROBLEM WIT’ THAT! YOU WANNA PIECE OF ME! HASTA LA VISTA, BABY…

In fact, once I gave myself leave to act like this, there was no stopping me. At the end of a 12-13 hour workday, I still hadn’t had enough constructive confrontation so I decided I’d learn to drive in a constructively confrontational manner… HEY, WATCH OUT THERE… GET OUTTA MY WAY, YOU JERK…!”

In fact, I got so good at this, I’d practice on weekend so as to keep in fighting trim. I’d go into a dry cleaner and harangue the proprietor til she was in tears. And I didn’t even have any dry cleaning there.

I’d go to snooty restaurants in San Francisco and reduce those haughty waiters to yelping pups. “GARCON… MY SHICKEN IS COLD AND MAH WINE IS HOT. TRANSPOSE THESE THERMAL VARIABLES, NOW!’

I got so good, I’d practice on my own kids. To toughen them up for the world they’d inherit. I said to my daughter, WHERE IS YOUR HOMEWORK! I WANT TO SEE YOUR HOMEWORK!’

“But daddy,” she said, her tiny cheeks quivering, “I’m only four and don’t go to school yet.”

NO EXCUSES! AND I’M GONNA PUT A DICTIONARY IN THE BATHROOM SO YOU LEARN TO MULTI-TASK!

The only person I couldn’t practice on was my wife. As I recall, her exact words were, “You want constructive confrontation? I’ll show you constructive confrontation.”

Well, by now the nine months were nearly up. And tho I hated what I was becoming and couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror as I practiced my put-downs, still a part of me was hoping I’d made the cuts.

And sure enough, on the nine-month anniversary of my signing on, senior management came up and congratulated me. WELCOME, TOM. YOU HAVE THE MAKINGS OF A WORLD CLASSS HORSES-ASS. WE WANT TO WELCOME YOU TO THE COMPANY FULL TIME.

At which point I said, ‘You don’t know the half of it. I QUIT’

WHAT (stunned silence)? AHHH, YOU’RE JUST JERKING US AROUND, RIGHT! THAT’S JUST WHAT WE WANT TO SEE. WHAT DO YOU WANT! RENEGOTIATE YOUR SALARY? RUNNING WATER IN YOUR CUBICLE?

No, I said, I mean it. I’m leaving. In fact, why are you staying? Underneath all your bluff and bluster there’s still some ember of the decent guys you once were. Get out before it goes out.

They looked at me like the village idiot, and I went on my way. The recession was over and jobs were opening up.

What did I learn from this? Keep your exit strategy and your resume up to date. You’re not a slave; you can always walk.

Oh, and KEEP A SENSE OF HUMOR…!

For more, visit www.reconnecting.com and www.reconnecting-calm.blogspot.com


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