Thursday, December 5, 2013

Personnel Appliances

Call it a strange relationship, but I really liked my washing machine.  A few months ago, however, it started making some strange noises.  I called my landlord, who called the repairman, who listened to the noise, then put in an order to replace my washing machine.  I was thrilled, a NEW appliance for me with no money out of my pocket, “Woo-hoo!”

The new unit arrived the next day, and I immediately noticed that it didn’t have all the bells and whistles as my last one.  There was no automatic bleach or fabric softener dispenser, and the door lock made adding it at the right time a game at which I discovered I was not very good.  Then there was the annoying habit of the new machine turning my shirts inside-out.  When I tried to out-smart it by throwing my shirts IN already inside-out, the damn thing seldom corrected them.  Then there was the time it washed a paperback notebook that was my pants pocket; bits of paper lint everywhere, and a spiral wire in the bottom of the tub… mocking me!  OK, that one may have been my fault, but I had become so good at blaming my stupid new washing machine, it only seemed right to blame this mess on it as well. 

Once I calmed down and tried to rationalize the whole ordeal, my mood changed.  I realized that I am fortunate enough to have a full-size washing machine 30 feet from anywhere in my apartment.  I also appreciated that if it stopped working, it was someone else’s problem to fix or replace it.  In fact, it does, indeed get my clothing clean.  Whether it was black sprinkler pipe water that shot from a drum drip, rusty grease from a fire pump valve that was being stubborn, or dribbled Dunkin Donuts hot chocolate that I got on my white shirt (within 3 seconds of it being handed to me I might add), the machine always got it clean. 

It made me think about how we sometimes treat people; specifically within organizations such as the fire service.  Yes, I know, I am the Master of Metaphors, and the Professor of Personification, but allow me to explain…

I can think of several leaders, myself included, which were treated just like my old washing machine.  Years and years of faithful, quality service and performance only to be discarded to the dump as soon as they began to make a little noise or lose a little performance seems mighty harsh.  I realize that our society, and more specifically, our manufacturing of modern goods had shifted from a “fix-it” to a “”replace it” mentality.  Technological advances are so rapid that it is often more practical to upgrade the old model with the new one, rather than repair the existing model, but why do we do it with people?  People are upgradable, can be repaired, and re-programmed, and re-trained.  Also, the last time I checked, we don’t have a warehouse full of an extended supply of experienced, well-qualified contributors waiting to be plugged into an organization. 

And how about that “new” washing machine?  New does not always mean better.  As I stated, it does indeed wash the clothing, so it does as advertised.  Should the machine be blamed just because it does not look, sound, or perform like the last model that was in the laundry room?  Was I subconsciously expecting it to perform functions that it was not designed to do just because the old one did those things?  I don’t put eggs and cheese in the refrigerator and expect it to make an omelet.  Nor do I expect my stove to wash the dishes after it cooks my food.  Do we unconsciously make these assumptions with people?

One of my favorite sayings about marriage is, “Women marry men, expecting them to change; Men marry women expecting they never will”.  The divorce rate is testimony that such expectations are seldom met.  Changing one’s status or title does not change the person.  Also, two people with the same status or title are seldom the same.  Look at your current leadership.  I am correct, am I not?

When we look at fire service relationships, we see that we make the same mistakes there as well.  We all know at least one “certificate collector” who on paper should be stellar, but in practicality, is a cement head.   We have probably worked with the guy that scoffs at certification, but would be our first choice to be depended on in a crisis.  A great firefighter may be a great leader, but that is not always the case.  Conversely, some leaders may be super motivators and coordinators, but lack expertise in the ground level tasks.  It is in this judgment that we collectively fail. 

When we promote in the fire service, we do dis-service to the individual if we ask, or expect, them to perform duties for which they are incapable or unable to perform.  We set them up for failure by expecting them to change, particularly if they showed no signs of that ability in the past.  If someone tells you they are a good speller because they learned spelling in “collage”, trust their actions, not their words. 

I don’t expect my new washing machine to be like the last one.  I also don’t expect it to dry and fold my laundry.  I expect it to get my clothing clean.  If it decides that the best way to accomplish that task is to turn a few shirts inside-out, who am I to judge?  I simply need to plan a few extra seconds to turn the shirts right-side-out while I appreciate that I didn’t need to haul my basket of clothes to a rock by the river. 

As Colonel Nathan R. Jessup said in one of the most powerful movie lines ever,
“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it?  You?  … Deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall; you need me on that wall. …  I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said                                                           thank you, and went on your way …”                                                     
                Paraphrased from “A Few Good Men, 1992”

I only wish we could see people the same way.  We should appreciate all the contributions of people without banishing them for their shortcomings.  If our expectations are not met, perhaps it is our expectations to blame, not our “appliances”.