Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Dealing with Occupiers

If you have seen Saving Private Ryan, you probably recall in the movie where the men of Charlie Company of the 2nd Rangers, in their quest to find the elusive soldier and last surviving Ryan son (James Francis Ryan), sort through an array of 82nd Airborne dog tags.  As the 82nd Airborne walks by en mass, C Company members playfully trivialize their activity by throwing some of the tags around and mocking them as poker chips. That is, until Charlie Company's medic, "Doc," jumps in and says basically "WTF, these aren't poker chips!!  And the whole Airborne is watching! Put them away!" 

That's what happens when people are given a mission where the purpose seems trivial...valueless...and even counterproductive.  It often happens when foreign armies come into a country and occupy, even in the name of liberation or defense (Afghanistan, anyone??)  Such is the case of what is happening at a company with which I am familiar.  They have initiated a huge endeavor and they have brought in a foreign army of contractors to fight for the cause.  This has left at least some of the citizenry of the organization variously suspicious, ambivalent, fearful, disconsolate, and perhaps all of these to some extent.  Some employees might well feel like soldiers in the 82nd Airborne as they walked past Charlie Company’s silliness and levity.

The parallels to the occupying force allegory are vast in this instance.  While the intentions of the occupiers are arguably sincere, there are subtle instances of actions and words that betray this sense.   For instance, one person overheard one in a group of contractors comment that he would rather be somewhere else.  I’m sure some of the org’s employees thought he should also be somewhere else. 

Also, the org’s leadership has done little to reassure its employees about the nature and purpose of bringing in so many contractors.  It has left the impression among at least some employees that they are inadequate in skill and ability to do the work.  Few reassurances have come forth.  Also, some employees have literally little or nothing to do in the face of this enormous amount of work that faces their employer.  They feel insecure, underutilized, and vulnerable and little support has been forthcoming to assuage these feelings.  Finally, some or perhaps even many of the occupiers seemingly have little regard for the company’s culture and legacy – its norms, behaviors, etc. – that have been in place for quite some time.  This causes frustration and consternation among the employees and does little to build relationships.

Like foreign interventionists, the contractors hunker down in areas where they can associate together and share derisive and sarcastic comments, often in ear shot of employees.  This behavior does little to endear them to the natives.  Like foreign occupiers, their occupation time will come and go and they will leave little behind of influence.  But their demoralizing effect can already be felt.  Interestingly, this organization has long had a rather large contractor population, some of whom have been there for 10 years and even longer. They have assimilated well, somewhat like being accepted as immigrants into a country.  The “new breed,” which seem to be of a haughtier species, is seemingly more distant. 

It will be interesting to see how this occupation plays out.  The nature of the newly adulated, company saving program has incubated an environment fraught with anxiety, uncertainty, skepticism, and a belief in magic, mixed in with bridled optimism and plain old realism. It will, ultimately, be a grand experiment and a most interesting spectator sport.  I wonder who, if anyone, will play the role of Doc in this instance and tell the occupiers to quit playing poker with the employees' dog tags.  Anyone??

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