Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Culture of Contempt

Some recent FaceBook postings brought up an old notion that's been something of a hot button issue for me.  In this case, it was a comment by an IT guy about how stupid the people were who s/he was supposed to be helping.  I understand perfectly how frustrating it might be to see computer-challenged people doing what are really dumb things - like not trying a reboot before calling for the IT folks, or forgetting to plug something in, or not backing up important files.  I can see that might motivate such disregard.  However, IT folks are a type of administrative support for the workers in the organization.  They don't actually do the productive work of their organization - their job is to help the productive people who do the actual work for which the organization exists in the first place.

Is there anyone who hasn't been frustrated with some snarky bureaucrat who rejects your applications because you're not filling out the paperwork correctly, or who stonewalls you in your efforts to do something because there's some sort of a rule against it?  What they do is give you all the reasons why you can't do something, rather than offering to work with you to find a way you can accomplish your intentions.  This shows an obvious contempt for the people who come to them for help.  From small businesses to giant corporations and massive government agencies, the presence of the bored, sarcastic, sneering admin type is a near universal.  Not everyone in such positions is that way, of course, but a widespread culture of contempt exists in the workplace (and elsewhere), at least in my experience, and I know many others have experienced it.

When I was in the Naval Reserve, my monthly drill weekend job was to work in the training office.  Our office existed to help all the sailors in the unit set up their training plans - mostly arranging for their annual (usually in the summer) period of "active duty for training" and obtaining the materials for the correspondence courses they needed for rank advancement.  I had no prior experience or training for this job (it was all OJT), so I found myself emulating the contempt for their customers of the other guys in the training office, rejecting their paperwork because they hadn't filled it out correctly and so on.  When our division officer (a very good officer and a friend) got wind of what we were doing, he called us all in and proceeded to read us the riot act about our attitudes.  I was filled with shame over what I'd been doing.  How many times had I been on the other side and encountered that contempt from some officious prick of a bureaucrat?  Needless to say, I (and the other guys in the training office) changed my ways and tried to be as helpful as possible.  The other sailors didn't know our job very well, of course, so it became our job to help them be successful in their goals, no matter how silly their efforts might seem to us.

One more anecdote in a related vein:  when I was a grad student, I wrote a computer program that, because I was such an incompetent coder, took about 12 hours to run on the machine we had at the time.  [Later, I was able to change the code to make it at least 10 times faster, but that's another story.]  The students who were the computer operators asked me to stand by while the job was running for a while in the evening, so if something happened early and the job crashed, I might be able to fix my mistakes and get the job done that night.  So I had a lot of time to sit and chat with the student operators.  One night they told me about one of the senior scientists in the lab was always unsatisfied with what the operators did, complaining to their supervisor about them all the time, often for things that weren't actually their fault.  So, naturally, the students found many creative ways to sabotage his jobs!  Tit for tat, baby!  Considering I could see for myself that the students were doing everything they could to make my project successful, I was horrified to hear about some self-centered scientist who treated them so badly.  I made it a point to mention how much I appreciated their efforts when I talked with their supervisor, in fact.  It makes no sense to create unnecessary trouble for people you depend on to get your projects done.  If for no other reason than self-interest (to say nothing about being a decent human being), you should always treat your "subordinates" with respect because your success depends on their help.  So the contempt culture can work both ways.

Very few of us work in a vacuum.  Virtually all of us depend on others to get our work done (right down to the maintenance staff), or we serve others who need our help.  There's no good reason to treat others with undeserved disrespect.  Every person in an organization has a job to do that is important to that organization.  Otherwise that job wouldn't exist.  Why treat co-workers with routine contempt?  There's no valid reason to feel a sense of superiority associated with you and your work, as you look down at whatever anyone else does.  This sort of disregard for the work of others is unfortunately pretty widespread.  Personally, I find that if I treat everyone as an important part of the work we all are trying to do, it pays dividends for me in many ways.  Furthermore, it simply feels good and seems to be the right way to behave.  You only get respect if you give it!

1 comment:

Chris White said...

Amen!! ...and a reminder of something I need to keep working on myself.

Thanks Dr. Doswell.