The bad influence

My father always related a story to me about his basic training.  The story went like this: at an inspection of person and quarters his sergeant bristled at him for putative dust on his hat.  The problem was that the sergeant was a short guy and my father tended to tower over anybody else in the room.  There was literally no way this guy could have seen the top of my father’s hat to pronounce it dusty.

Most people at this point would protest and get slapped down by the verbal prowess of the senior shouting officer sergeant.  Others who’d had this happen to them before would grind their teeth quietly and acquiesce, cleaning their hat pointlessly after inspection to parade before the sergeant later for a follow-up inspection.

My father, who was a wiser man than I (albeit less educated) at that age did neither.  As a result he recognized this for what it was and gamed it.  “I’ll show you, you bastard!” was the thought in his head.  And for the entire day he didn’t touch his hat beyond wearing it and removing it at need.  Then, at the appointed time, he showed up for his follow-up inspection.  The sergeant looked at the proffered hat and pronounced himself satisfied with my father’s cleaning skills.  My father got away with not doing pointless busywork and also came away with inward chortling at how he’d proven himself smarter than the sergeant.  (Being that wiser man than I, he didn’t do the chortling in front of the sergeant to rub his nose in it.  He suppressed his urge to show that he was smarter and thus demonstrated the fact conclusively.)

When people outside of the military hear stories like that they smugly pontificate about how wasteful the military is; how much time and energy is wasted in these little power games.  Because, make no mistake, this is purely a power game.  The sergeant was doing the “dusty hat” thing not because he cared about the hat (or even knew if it was dusty or not).  He was doing it because he could and because he wanted to emphasize to the recruit that he could.  It was purest hierarchy-enforcement, and that’s why my father’s response to it was so subversive: he recognized the game and refused to play it.

Interlude about business life

This story was very influential on me (albeit it took me a lot longer to develop the wisdom to not rub my targets’ noses in it; that little requirement was never communicated in the story except indirectly).  When I joined the workforce I saw the same hierarchical power games being played around me.  The funniest was when people who sneered at the “wasteful” behaviour in the military did pretty much exactly the same thing in the white collar office world.  Don’t believe me?  Let me spin a story and tell me if you recognize it:

One day an office worker went to their manager with a report they’d worked on for weeks. It was picture perfect: all spelling checked, all grammar vetted, all facts carefully documented and footnoted, all options explored.  The manager opened the document to a random page, spent less time reading it than s/he’d spent on brushing hair in the morning, before starting to critique stupid little things with vague “this needs rewording”-style criticisms.  The report is tossed back into the worker’s hands and the worker left to “fix up” the report to pass muster.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It happens to almost every office worker, in the small or in the large, several times a year.  This is the manager “justifying salary”.  If you don’t critique, after all—if you just accept your underlings’ work unchanged—you’re not doing your job! You’re supposed to guide your underlings, even if their work doesn’t need it.

Impact the first

I’ve encountered this precise scenario many, many times in many, many jobs.  Almost every time I “fixed up” the document by changing the font size by half a point (to reflow the layout so it doesn’t look identical) and resubmitted an identical (but for the font size) document, only to have it praised.  I cleaned the metaphorical dust from my metaphorical hat by doing nothing, like my father before me.  I never, not even once, got caught in the act (after I learned to keep my mouth shut about it, I mean).  Managers (and teachers!) are so caught up in their little power games they can’t even imagine that someone may just bypass them entirely.

I’ve done worse.

Impact the second

Far worse.  In one company, a scum-sucking, bottom-feeding, body-shopping little consulting firm, I was farmed out to a government project as a subcontractor.  This project (PSCS) was a disaster in slow motion.  It was doomed (for many reasons ranging from contractor malfeasance to sabotage by the PSU) and it was in death march mode.  I was brought in as part of that death march: throwing man-hours at a project in a desperate bid to get it delivered on time.  (Never mind that this was known not to work in the ’70s already…)

One of the more onerous and tedious requirements of the position was the twice-daily status/progress reports.  Yes, you read that correctly: in a project that was at risk of failure (in the same way that the Pacific is wet!) the management had cut even further into worker time to have them write reports twice a day on what they were doing.  And they REALLY hated my first few reports.  Apparently documenting the time spent on reports was verboten.  As was saying “no progress because I’m waiting for actual requirements to be delivered so I can code something”.  Such elements were deemed “unhelpful” and “verging on hostile”.  (Verging?  Really!?  Are you that fucking clueless?!)  So I swung into action to solve this once and for all.

I’d just learned a new (to me) programming language at the time (Rexx) and was looking for something to write in it.  I found it in my automatic report generation facility.  I hit the net and found a collection of stock buzzphrases and used that to build up a madlibs-style random buzzword bingo sentence generator.  I very carefully tuned it so that it ALWAYS generated syntactically correct English, but with zero semantic content.  To anybody who actually knew technology (or management, for that matter) it would be clear that this was content-free reportage.  To the yahoos running this show it was exactly what they wanted. I generated 7 to 10 random sentences in my utility, cut-and-pasted them into a word processor, added the usual memo fields (via template), printed it off, signed it, and submitted it.

My neighbours in the cubicle farm were in awe.  They thought I was about to be fired, but they thought it was an incredibly stylish way to get fired.  Imagine their surprise (and their stifled giggles; oh so many stifled, choking laughs that day!) when in the next all-hands meeting one of my reports was held up as an example of exactly the kind of information management needed to track project progress.  All that afternoon the dozens of people who’d been saying I was about to get fired were lining up at my desk to get my script so they could write good reports as well.

See, the reports, again, were not actually intended to be useful.  How did I know?  I could do math, see.  I sat down and read a typical report in my speed-reading mode (which is blazingly fast).  I then multiplied that time by the number of people on the job (hundreds), then by two (twice per day), then divided by the number of managers.  It was literally impossible for the managers to read these reports if they spent 24 hours per day doing nothing but reading them.  The reports were a desperate bid to grab control in a project that was spiraling out of it.  It was, basically, a way for managers to prove to themselves that their dicks hadn’t shrivelled down to micropenis territory.  And it was literally inconceivable to them that people would spot this and just ignore them; that people like me simply would not play along.

And I’ve done even worse.

An impactful hat trick

That same bottom-feeding firm had a grand pretension to make a CASE tool.  The concept was doomed from the start: started after CASE tools were falling into disrepute, had too few resources on it, and the boss changed his mind about what it was literally every week. (I am not exaggerating.)  It could not possibly have ever been done.  The time I spent on it was basically time two friends used to hone their programming skills under the pretext of making a product.

Still, the owner of the company wanted strict accounting for time spent on it because he was getting R&D tax credits for our efforts.  And he especially wanted the overtime documented for those credits.  The overtime … he didn’t pay us for.

Well, if he was going to cheat the government out of money and not send any of it out of my way, there’s no way I was going to help him in the process.  So I wrote a VBS script in Excel to stochastically generate my timesheets.  I faithfully recorded in the timesheet the times I arrived and left … whenever my boss happened to see them.  The rest of the times were left open and I used a random number generator to fill in numbers such that I had a very plausible looking timesheet that was corroborated by the observations (if any) of my boss.  And that always, mysteriously, week after week, month after month, for my entire stay at the firm, added up to precisely 37.5 hours per week.  He never caught on because his little power game (“I can make you work longer hours, get money from someone else for it, but never pay you”) was ignored.  Sure he got extra work out of me (or so he thought).  I did do loads of overtime in the office.  He just saw nothing for it: not a product (for reasons already outlined) and not an extra tax credit.  And he lacked the imagination to consider that someone could play timesheet judo with him.

The Real Game of Thrones

This is, in the end, the reality of fantasies like Game of Thrones.  Most power plays are petty things done by insecure people who inflict misery on others to prove (mostly to themselves!) that they can.  The more insecure they are in their power, the more they feel the overpowering urge to make others suffer.  Insecure petty tyrants feel the need to do what is nowadays referred to as “microaggressions” (but is more accurately termed “acting like a petty asshole”): throwing reports back for improvement, forcing status updates, etc.  Insecure grand tyrants instead starve populaces or bomb them.  It’s all the same shit, just one pile is a lot bigger than the other.



And you don’t have to play along.  At least not on the petty side.  (It’s rather harder to ignore barrel bombs being dropped by helicopter into your marketplaces obviously.)  This refusal works on power mongers of all kinds: bosses, ambitious coworkers, government officials, policemen, and teachers.

You don’t have to play along because the people who play those games can literally not fathom the possibility that you wouldn’t.  You can hand in your “dusty hat” (literal or metaphorical) and you will get away with it.  Just pretend to play along and you’ll be ignored, or even favoured.  You don’t have to sell your soul; you don’t have to become a quisling or toady.  You can retain your dignity (and feel smugly superior to boot; always a bonus!) and you can let the power plays flow around you leaving you alone.  All it takes is recognizing them for what they are and then refusing to play along.  (And keeping your mouth shut about that fact.  This is an important thing that too many people fuck up when trying to do this.)

—Michael Richter