Managing people in real life is markedly different from how it appears on television. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses how easy it is to make dreadful mistakes when it comes to judging people by the rules unique to the telly.
I only just discovered Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries this year when my DVR accidentally recorded 2012’s one-off origin story Endeavour. That got me interested enough in the character and the setting to add all of the old television specials to my Netflix queue. Watching those, in turn, led me to the Lewis series of mysteries, which led inexorably to me hunting down Mr Dexter’s original novels.  I’ve been enjoying the heck out of them, even though they occasionally leave me confused over snippets of English dialogue that don’t translate directly to American pseudo-English. 
Night before last, I Netflixed  the last of the DVDs from Lewis, season 6, that featured two episodes that I’d managed to capture on my DVR earlier in the year. I’d seen them both, but the rest of my family hadn’t, so I cheerfully (perhaps smugly) re-watched the mysteries with Theresa and my boys after dinner. In episode 4, The Indelible Stain, there’s a scene where Laurence Fox’scharacter happens to notice a copy of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in a suspect’s office. Both characters remark on how much they appreciate the book, and then move along to a question regarding the murder inquiry. The book seems (at the time) to be incidental to everything.
After the episode finished, I used that scene as an example of the ‘economy of necessity’ in screenwriting for the benefit of my youngest son. Essentially, I told him, the director of a television show is rigidly constrained to an absolute number of minutes in telling his or her story. The editor has to be meticulous and only include scenes and shots in the final, televised version that actually contribute to the story. A movie or a novel can afford to linger on an inconsequential scene; a television editor usually can’t, especially in a complex story that features dozens of locations, encounters, and characters. We also talked about Anton Chekov’s dramatic principle:‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there’ and applied that aphorism to DS Hathoway’s seemingly-meaningless discovery of the book in the Lewis mystery. As a viewer, I explained, we have to assume that the book has something to do with the story, somehow, and should therefore pay attention to it, simply because the director chose to leave that scene in the episode.
After the rest of the family went to bed, I got to thinking about the ‘economy of necessity’ maxim and how badly it skews people’s thinking in real life. Maybe this isn’t as big an issue in Europe as it is here in the USA; here, I’ve found that it’s a bloody headache. Many people in the places that I’ve worked were raised on television back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and subconsciously imprinted some general expectations for how the world works from the rules of how television programmes are constructed. Two crippling beliefs that frequently lead people to incorrect conclusions are (a) that the meaning of an encounter can be accurately understood using only what’s in one’s immediate field of vision, and (b) that the nouns (people, objects, locations) appearing ‘on stage’ in a given encounter will tell you the complete story of what’s happening in the scene. That works fine when watching television; it doesn’t work most of the time in the real world when you’re dealing with real people.
To illustrate my argument, I offer two nearly identical tales that had diametrically different meanings. Both stories involved young women who brought their offspring with them to work late at night. At first glance, both events were exactly alike: a manager from a different department discovered the employee working in the data centre, with a child present, and called the responsible senior manager (me) at home to complain. In both incidents, children were expressly not allowed in the workplace. Even though both reports and their peripheral circumstances were essentially identical, I disciplined one worker and defended the other. Here’s why:
Case number one took place at a hospital in Alabama back in the mid-90s. Jane  was hired specifically to manage the server backups in the data centre after the majority of the other employees went home. She’d come to work at 4 in the afternoon in order to liaise with the other IT staff members, and would then work in the data centre until midnight cycling and labelling blank tapes in the twenty drives that we used for nightly backups. This was 90% of her assigned job function, five days a week. Not a great job, but a steady one with good benefits.
When Jane was discovered one night by a doctor who happened to be passing by the data centre on the way to the car park, all three of Jane’s children were playing chase-me games in the server room while Jane chatted with friends on the office phone and (somewhat indirectly) monitored the tape drives. Once caught, Jane confessed that she didn’t have a reliable source for childcare, so she simply brought her children to work with her every night and let them have the run of the complex. She hadn’t informed management of her actions, didn’t have permission to bring her kids to work, and certainly didn’t have permission to let her children play in a room containing hundreds of confidential medical records. The kids were effectively using the server room as their private indoor playground.
Case number two took place in a Dot Com start-up in Texas in 2000. Jill  was hired specifically to configure the company’s telephone switch. She worked a regular 9-to-5 job with the rest of the IT crew. Thanks to some problems with the new switch, she spent nearly a month working from a console inside the server room rather than from the PC on her desk. This, too, was a steady job with good benefits – and with the prospect of an equity stake, should the company ever IPO. 
When Jill was discovered one night by a marketing bloke who happened to be passing by the data centre on his way to the lift, her infant was asleep in a car seat beside her just inside the door to the server room. Jane was feverishly programming configurations into the telephone switch control console. She confessed that she had to watch her child because the little tot was running a fever, and her regular childcare provider wouldn’t watch sick children. She’d asked for (and had received) permission from management to bring her child to work that evening since she had to work late preparing for the company’s global product launch. When she got work, though, she discovered that the building super had turned off the air conditioning for all parts of the building other than the two server rooms. She wasn’t going to let our side down by failing to complete her work, but she wasn’t about to leave a sick child in the break room when the temperature inside there was well over 40 Celsius.
In both cases, the key facts of the complaint were the same: an employee of the IT department had brought her offspring to work and had brought her child/children into the restricted data centre in violation of company policy. Honestly, if you redacted the names and room numbers in the complaints, you’d be hard-pressed to tell which complaint had come from which company.
In both cases, I was the head of the IT department for the organization, and upper management raised hell with me over the complaints. Strictly based on the ‘evidence’ presented by each complainant, both young ladies should have been immediately terminated from employment. In both cases, I flatly refused to take immediate disciplinary action until I’d figured out what had really been going on. The key differences between the two cases (Jane and Jill respectively) were telling:
1. Did the employee have a valid business reason to be in the data centre at night? Yes and yes.
2. Did the employee ask for permission beforehand to bring her children/child to work the night of the incident? No and yes.
3. Did the employee bring her children/child to work more than once? Yes and no.
4. Were there extenuating circumstances that necessitated allowing the children/child into the data centre? No and yes.
5. Was sensitive information compromised by the presence of unauthorized persons in the data centre? Yes and no.
The two cases may have appeared identical at first glance, but they certainly weren’t the same.
Jane’s case was a clear and unmistakable abuse of access. She had been bringing her kids to work night after night, without permission. Worse, she allowed her kids to roam the restricted area for her entire shift (again, night after night). I terminated her assignment as a backup technician, and moved her to different job within the company – one where she’d have to work the same hours as everyone else. She thrived in the new role, and I didn’t have any problems with her from there on out.
Jill’s case, by way of comparison, was a clear case of emergent necessity. She had received permission from management to bring her sick child in on one night only in order to complete a crucial task. When the building’s aircon was shutdown, she had to make an on-the-spot judgment. Her child remained asleep and buckled into a car seat, and couldn’t cause in any trouble even if he’d been awake. As her supervisor, I took responsibility for her decision and thanked the marketer for bringing it to my attention. We never needed to discuss it again, and she thrived thereafter. 
In both of these example cases, the executive in charge wanted to bin the workers. In both cases, cooler heads prevailed. By insisting that we get all of the relevant facts first before leaping to the punishment phase, I helped to keep two workers on the payroll. I also managed to increase team loyalty throughout my department by demonstrating that management was committed to treating everyone fairly. We’d act decisively to correct misconduct, to be sure, but it would be action driven by validated facts, not by impressions.
There’s one other great take-away from the Inspector Morse mysteries that apply to this story: in the books especially , the protagonist is often wrong about who the baddie is for 90% or more of the story. The good inspector draws incorrect conclusions, misinterprets clues, gets confused by red herrings, and generally stews in frustration because he can’t completely explain what’s happened. The thing is, he knows that he’s often wrong, and he accepts that he’s going to make mistakes along the way. All of us that work in a management role – especially in an IT management role – need to internalize that lesson and hold fast to it. We’re often wrong about things that seem obvious. We’re going to make mistakes, all the more so where people are concerned. That’s why it’s critical for the well being of our employees and for our company that we struggle to find all of the facts of any given situation, and not just pronounce judgment based on whatever we immediately perceive.
Real life is definitely not like television. If it were, I’d go for Morse’s version: I’d get to drive avintage Jaguar to work, and could slip out any time I felt like it during the workday for a pint.
 If you haven’t already read them, Colin Dexter’s first three novels are available from Amazon’s Kindle store for under £8.50.
 Fortunately, I have friends in the UK that claim to not mind overmuch when I badger them with language and culture questions.
 Yes, that’s a verb now. I feel that I should apologize to the English-speaking world for that on behalf of all nerds.
 Not her real name.
 See 
 That, too, was a verb during the height of the Dot Com Bubble. Everyone wanted to conduct an Initial Public Offering, whereupon (as lore foretold) all of the early employees would get rich overnight due to the public’s insane appetite for Internet company stocks.
 Up until she and everyone in the company was fired the next summer after the company’s venture capitalist pulled the plug in a fit of pique.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own).
His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.