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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Corporately aging gracefully, or solving workplace problems before they are problems

Every now and then since leaving the Army, and even sometimes while I was in the Army, I wonder if I didn’t slip into a wormhole and pop out in an alternate universe where everyone else is mentally somewhere between 12 and 16 years old. And if anyone else is thinking that would be a great idea for a movie, we had better make it a horror sci-fi because that is terrifying.

What was the worst thing about middle and high school was not homework or the classes in subjects you didn’t want to take or the attitudes, it was the propensity towards not dealing with issues with other people directly. With very few exceptions to the rule, we as a collective were terrible. Your best friend was enlisted to drop hints to your crush. You were either the person who everyone smiled at and then gossiped about, or you were one of the people guilty of doing this to someone. Even when we were kids, those of us with siblings can attest that if the offending party did something to us or to our belongings, it was more often than not whichever parent was handy that heard about it before the sibling. And if that parent pushed you off, you could always hit up the other one.

We like to think that we learned at some point that this is not appropriate behavior, that the best means of dealing with an issue is to deal with the issue. In the Army, we had a few sayings that were relevant to this topic, the primary of which was managing at “the lowest level first.”

But not everyone seems to have gotten this message, in the military or in the mass population, and it isn’t country specific either. I can’t help but shake my head and be concerned that it’s a byproduct of entitlement and coddling, that everyone feels they are just as important as anyone else so why shouldn’t they be allowed to speak directly to the VP of Marketing or to the Division Commander?

Well, there are a few reasons why not, and why you should in fact handle issues at the lowest possible level:

Respect (and it goes both ways). There is a system in the military. If you walked into the commanding officer’s office or even up to him while he was out sneaking a cigarette after yelling at the privates to get back to work, you had better have talked to the entire chain of command first. This not only was respectful to the commander and making sure the issue was worth his time, but also respectful for those who would be most likely for him to go back and speak with. They would look foolish if one of their subordinates had something that needed his attention of which they were unaware when it is their job to know something is afoot. Remember that jumping the chain might imply, right or wrong, that you didn’t think they could help solve the issue and could be interpreted as disrespecting either position or worse, person. We had an accompanying saying, “Sh!t rolls downhill,” namely that if we jumped our chain of command that we would learn our lesson when each person in our chain would successively now be hearing about it from the top down, and they wouldn’t be happy about it. And for such disrespect, we deserved whatever disrespect we got in return.

It’s just faster. If I walked into my commander’s office at any point and said I had an issue with one of the junior soldiers, I’d be laughed at (if I was lucky) and sent back out to deal with it like an adult: by talking to the offending party. But to even get to his office I had to go through other levels, and all of those requests took time during which the issue wasn’t being resolved. The fewer people I could have involved, the better, because it was an immediate correction. Fixing issues directly with the co-worker can be intimidating, because no one likes to be told they are wrong, but with a little bit of tact everyone can move on quickly and get back to business.

It sets a positive precedent. This one is reminiscent of when you might tease someone and your mother would ask if you would like it if they did it to you. The answer is no, you probably wouldn’t, and a little bit of empathy might do well. Do you want someone going to your supervisor with a problem without letting you know first there is an issue? You would probably rather handle it first, or at least have a chance to take care of things with the offended party. If you earn the reputation for dealing with people directly, they will be encouraged to do the same for you.

It increases the camaraderie and builds trust. So many companies pay a lot of money to build a team environment. Yes, the military puts you through weird, muddy versions of hell to work on the team building, but most of it is just a sense of relying on each other and learning to trust each other. When you have a team that understands Mom and Dad (or the CEO) aren’t going to solve this problem, they learn to rely on themselves and each other to solve it instead. And this is how a real unit and cohesion are born. By keeping managers out of the petty disputes you are helping build a group that can not only solve their own problems more efficiently, but potentially company problems as well.

All this being said, there is naturally still a need for personal privacy. There are times where you might not want everyone in a supervisory role to know your business, but it was something only those a few positions higher might be able to handle. For the Army, each command had an Open Door Policy where any issue, any time, could be brought to the commander… you just had to anticipate that the likelihood of being asked if you’d tried handling this at a lower level. If you didn’t have a good reason as to why not, however, you were going to be sent back out. Always have a way for personal issues to be resolved in your office, but you also need to be sure the culture exists that encourages the best use of everyone’s proper time and energy, and builds a better team.

This isn’t high school, after all.

Elana Duffy is co-founder and COO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. Working with everyone from authors to Fortune 500 companies, we provide a range of writing, editing, and training services. Lana is also a veteran of the US Army, a masters of engineering graduate, and a freelance writer in NYC. She is the co-author of the first in the Present Tense “singles” short ebook series, 10/10, for sale on Amazon and other major retailers.

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