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When Talk Isn’t Cheap

I got to thinking this morning about one of my more entertaining (in hindsight) experiences with the venerable TSA (Transportation Security Administration). In 2005, as I rushed from one geographical location to another, a highly trained (I’m sure) TSA agent did a hand search of my purse and retrieved from it a short tweezer in a tiny leather case. This was a travel tweezer, designed to take up very little space in a handbag and measuring only 2″ in length. With flat tips (I don’t like the pointy ones).

The agent informed me that I would have to surrender the tweezers.

I laughed and said, “you’re joking, right?” The young man was clearly not born with a sense of humor, and my laughter didn’t improve his mood.

“No,” he said. “I’m serious.”

“How can that be? Tweezers aren’t listed on any TSA unauthorized list I’ve ever seen!”

“Ma’am, as a TSA agent I’m authorized to use my judgment to remove any item I believe could compromise the safety of an aircraft. I’m afraid you’ll have to surrender the tweezers.” (I am not exaggerating – the conversation was so crazy it is ingrained on my memory).

This is where I perhaps lost my intelligence, if not my cool. Without raising my voice or acting angry, I said, “Then perhaps we should be discussing your judgment here. It would be a lot easier for me to kill the pilot with one of the pens you left in my purse, than it would be to kill him with a 2″ tweezer with flat tips.”

OK, obviously, we should be talking about my judgment here, and not the humorless young fellow’s. Because as soon as I uttered the words “kill the pilot” I was quietly escorted to a small cubicle at the corner of the security area, to be interviewed by another serious fellow who clearly found it feasible that a chubby, middle-aged woman with more round-trip tickets to her name than the average consumer was planning to murder the pilot with a Sharpie or a 2″ tweezer.

After about 45 minutes of lecture, a serious admonition never to utter the words “kill the pilot” again (I’m serious), and the ultimate loss of my $12 tweezers, I boarded the flight. I’m sure the flight crew had been warned and was terrified.

Some of our communication is insane. Let’s not get into the types of insane conversations we have had the past eight years as a country. Let’s just talk about the insane conversations we have at work and in our inter-job (i.e., traveling businesswoman and TSA agent) communications.

The word insane means to be lacking in logical or practical basis. I started thinking about the TSA incident this morning as I reflected on a business team that recently debated an issue that seemed to be entirely lacking in logic or soundness. But unfortunately, that team is not unusual.

Insane business communications include:

  • Discussions about whether or not to allow two consenting adults to hug one another upon greeting, for fear that a sexual harassment suit will result.
  • Discussions about whether or not to inform customers of a significant flaw in a product they purchased in good faith.
  • Customers desperately trying to explain to customer service reps a problem with a product, only to be handed off repeatedly to a new person, requiring a new explanation, because nobody has the authority to simply solve the problem.
  • Invasive oversight of adult behavior. For instance, one company instituted a global “no-walking policy” after a group of employees decided to use their half-hour lunch for walking instead of eating.
  • Employees hiding a minor employee injury, because the consequences for safety infractions are perceived to be greater than the consequences for employee injury.
  • Employees hiding errors, because the consequences for making mistakes are so great at the personal or department level that the employees do not consider the global customer impact of failure to correct mistakes.

 

The list could (and does) go on and on. Why do we have insane business conversations? Two reasons: insufficient ethics, and policy constraints.

An ethics constraint occurs any time an individual has failed to develop sufficient control over their own feelings, behavior, and actions, or any time a company’s policies or management expectations create conflict between ethical behavior and company requirements. Ethical individuals will stand up to the policy or expectations, but the individual cost can be extremely high.

Policy constraints occur any time a business policy has been drafted for a narrow purpose, but is implemented in such a way that it must be applied to a broad swath of issues. Rigid controls limiting employee empowerment, punitive safety and error policies, and authoritarian control over adult behavior are all examples. Other policy constraints, such as extreme reaction to sexual harassment rules and regulations, exist because of the real fear of litigation and the high costs associated with it. As with any law, there is always risk that unethical individuals will distort them for their own benefit, at the expense of the intention of the law.

Those of us who still possess an appreciation for what is logical and practical, and most importantly, for what is ethical, must redouble our efforts to demonstrate in all aspects of our lives sane communications. This includes asking questions when a policy or practice is not ethical or logical. We may not get the policy to change, but at least we have introduced the question of its sanity to others. 

(c) 2008. Andrea M. Hill

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