I’ve been writing a lot about “insider threats” lately. Most often, how to detect them and how to interrupt them. I want to take a moment to step away from prevention and mitigation and talk about how leaders at all levels actually create insider threats. It’s easy to assume that so-called disgruntled employees are that way for factors beyond our control. In reality, many disgruntled employees become that way because their leaders drive them to it … through neglect, through mistakes, and through petty abuse.
To set up this week’s example, let’s look at one of the most famous lines in movie history: actor Strother Martin’s admonition to anti-establishment protagonist Paul Neuman in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Seriously: that line was number 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most memorable movie lines. Even if you’ve never seen the original, you’ve sure heard other works quote it.
What makes the line resonate for me (aside from the actor’s stellar delivery) is the context the line is delivered in. Strother’s warden character isn’t particularly sophisticated; as Strother himself opined about the warden, “ … he felt the line was the kind that his character would very likely have heard or read from some “pointy-headed intellectuals” who had begun to infiltrate his character’s world under the general rubric of a new, enlightened approach to incarceration.”
There’s something to that. Something we can separate from the film and apply to our everyday working lives. That idea of “lifting” a phrase, a process, or a practice from the “pointy-headed intellectuals” infiltrating our businesses. That is to say, the practice of someone mimicking an outside expert’s buzzwords or conversation style to seem more qualified – or perhaps hipper – than then they actually are. That’s not in and of itself bothersome; imitation is common practice. No, what irritates me is when imitation is performed without any understanding of what the emulated practice means. That is, reptation without comprehension. Parroting, if you like.
One example of this really sets me on edge. I first noticed it a few jobs back and now I see it popping up everywhere, both in- and outside of work. I call it the “plus name game.” This is a bastardization of what used to be a common business communications process. One important person would email many recipients about an issue, project, or whatnot and – for whatever reason – failed to include one or more key stakeholders. Normal mistake. The protocol was, a member of the thread who spotted the error would REPLY-ALL to the message, listing the missing people and reminding all recipients to include those additional stakeholders in the future. This would often include a short explanation of the new additions’ function or importance, like “Amy is the project manager, so please copy her on all project messages. Thanks.” Problem spotted, problem solved. No one rational took offense.
Long explanations are tiresome to type, though, especially when you don’t have a comfy chair and a full-sized 101-key mechanical kryboard. Once BlackBerrys hit the scene, some mobile leaders started shrinking their “please add these people” replies down to bare minimum phasing, presumably to save wear and tear on their thumbs. Eventually, some clever git (almost certainly a smarmy consultant) hit on stripping away all of the explanation and simply replying all with “add Amy” sans explanation … which, inevitably, degraded even further down to “+Amy” by the mid twenty-tens. Minimum keystrokes. Zero context. Zero utility.
Of course, that didn’t stop the technique from gaining traction. “Plus’ing” people on an email chain was a way to show off how trendy you were. Had that been all, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Unfortunately, over time, people realized that in addition to adding missing stakeholders to an email thread with this shorthand, they could also use the “plus name game” to deflect responsibility for tasks without triggering political backlash! Simply add peers or subordinates to an email chain with zero explanation, allowing ambiguity and inference to shift some or all of your share of responsibility to the named victims in readers’ minds.
Here’s how it works: first, someone starts an e-mail conversation. Call them the “originator.” Typically, the originator’s message includes enough detail about an activity to justify whatever tasks or requests are included in the text. This is the point of the message. Something like “Because Project X is running behind schedule for [reasons], please turn in all Phase IV assignments to [person] no later than [date].” The originator sends their request or tasking to several people knowledgeable of the activity, hoping to motivate them to take the desired action by the indicated date. So far, so good.
Next, a well-intentioned soul asks for clarification through a reflexive REPLY-ALL, often because something in the originator’s initial e-mail was unclear. This will look like “Has [issue] been satisfactorily resolved?” Essentially, the responder is trying to pause the request or command until the factors that make it unlikely to succeed are resolved. This phase can go on for ages as different people chime in with their own questions, answers, and requests for clarification. Email threads in this phase can reach novel length with a cast like a Marvel crossover movie.
Several back-and-forth exchanges later, someone tasked in the chain will feel pressured to respond … but they either can’t or won’t because they’ve lost the plot in the staccato, disjointed, unmanaged discussion. So, they delegate whatever the open task is to one or more of their subordinates by simply forwarding the consolidated conversation chain to them with the cryptic notation “+ [name].”
To the grand audience, this looks like the leader is delegating a task to their subordinate. Or they might be trying to inform their subordinate about the issue. Or something else entirely. It’s impossible to say for sure without an explanation. What matters to the audience is that the leader TOOK ACTION™. From that point on, any failure on the task(s) that leader was responsible for is obviously the fault of their plus’d subordinate’s. Hands washed, the plus’er walks away absolved in the public eye of all bureaucratic sin. Responsibility dodged!
I used to work for a senior leader who played this game and plus’d his subordinates constantly. We would get copied on this clown’s massive, unintelligible e-mail chains with no warning, and our names would be added to the cacophonous din with the dreaded ambiguous “+[name]” at the top. Given the Microsoft convention of appending all previous messages in a conversation in reverse chronological order, a typical example of this clown’s work would look like this:
FROM: Bob the VP
SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: FW: RE: Project Goldfish status upd …
FROM : Some other Bob
SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: FW: Project Goldfish status upd …
Darn it, Bob, you need to get the flensed wombat inter-percolated with annealed uvula before Janice can exorb the urfgerber. We sent you the task order three weeks ago, and now it’s …
Twenty other e-mails that don’t seem to relate to one another save by sharing a common subject line and might not even be written in coherent English thanks to acronyms, abbreviations, and slang.
FROM: The Originator
TO: All of the tasked stakeholders
SUBJECT: Project Goldfish status update and new target date
Everyone: per Robert’s comments at the last stakeholders’ meeting, February’s key deliverables to the software team are missing important data filtering rules. Please review the password-protected project plan on the shared drive that only project stakeholders can access and review your list of secret process steps before …
Ugh! There are so many things wrong with this practice. Who is the message being sent to? To me or to Amy? If to the both of us, why? Is there an implied or assumed task that one or both of us is expected to accomplish? If so, what is it? Or were we added to the epic message chain solely for situational awareness purposes? More importantly, why add either or both of us at so late a stage? Is the entire issue contained in the message chain? Or have there been side conversations with fewer recipients where crucial details have been discussed? What in blazes is the point of adding us to this Zhivago-esque drama?
Then we reach the final, infuriating stage of the gambit: those of us who were just “+[name]’d” would ask our boss for clarification, context, and direction. They’d go dead silent. They might still engage on other topics, but on this one? Nothing. Silent running. Meanwhile, the originator saw fresh new victims suitable to be offered as sacrifices to the god of milestones and would begin flailing us newcomers with questions, demands, and threats that might as well have been written in squirrel-speak. It was all a rancid mess, and everyone was unhappy. Our boss then walked away looking confident and decisive since they’d “delegated” both their problem and all the future blame for it to us.
I loathe the “plus name game.” It’s wasteful at best and downright cowardly at worst. I don’t know where it started (although I have my suspicions). All I know is that it spread like a social disease throughout American business. It’s exasperating because it’s completely avoidable; if you’re a boss or a project manager, call your people, explain the new mission, clarify the context as-needed, then clearly assign your tasks.
Unfortunately for everyone, there are always terrible bosses out there that are either incapable of leading or are simply unwilling to. For them, the “plus name game” is all about seizing the illusion of delegation while fleeing a politically radioactive situation. It’s about sacrificing your pawns to stay in the game a few more turns. It’s petty and insulting … but easy to play. And it’s trendy! All the cool kids in the swanky private offices in London and New York are doing it, don-cha-know!
As Strother Martin so eloquently put it, what inevitably happens when you “plus name” people and then ghost their requests for clarification isn’t a failure to communicate, it’s a deliberate refusal to communicate. It’s deliberately setting your people up for failure. Insisting that people who must obey you suffer the consequences of your failures, at least in the eyes of their colleagues and superiors. It’s blame-shifting, and it is loathsome behaviour.
It’s also a fantastic technique for cultivating your own disgruntled employee! All you have to do is confuse, frustrate, and then denigrate your loyal workers. Abuse their trust. Leave them bitter over the damage you inflicted on their credibility and professional reputations. Give them no way to repair the fractured relationship through simple inaction and refusal to apologize. Inspire your newly disgruntled employees to seek revenge for the stain you made on their honour. Oh, it’s a marvellous method for motivating a mid-level manager to mull some malice. Ahem.
Seriously, though, this silly little bureaucratic blame-shifting game is exactly the sort of petty nonsense that curdles morale, both in individual workers and in groups. Yes, racial slurs, sexist acts, and real bullying will all do the job faster and more efficiently. That’s a given. My point is, even stupid little performance art tactics that wound a worker’s dignity and professional reputation can turn a trusted subordinate into a potential insider threat. Scars accumulate. When there’s no other way to burn off the lingering resentment, they can grow into an irrational desire to get even. Or quit, sure, but take a look at the economy … When there’s little freedom to escape a bad boss, what do we do? We let our grievances fester until they turn toxic. Its’s human nature.
How do we prevent this? We lead, obviously. That is to say, we communicate clearly, respond swiftly, take public responsibility for our mistakes (and those of our team), and treat our people with the respect they’re due. This is simple stuff: new lieutenant mentoring. Most importantly, we don’t play games with other people’s professional lives. They’ll never forgive you for it. Nor should they.
Pop Culture Allusion: Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson, and Hal Dresner, Cool Hand Luke (1967 film)