Sunday, August 19, 2012

Herding Cats

Sometimes dealing with people is like trying to herd cats.

This may be an impression I have from dealing primarily with civilians for the past 13 years. Prior to that, on active duty, I had no such problem. When given an order my response wasn't exactly "Yes Sir, Yes Sir Three Bags Full", but in general (unless my superior was a complete fool, and yes I had a few) the orders made sense and concerned something that needed doing. So it got done.

And when I mentioned something to a subordinate that was, shall we say, directive in nature, you'd better believe it got done. (I have given a dumb order once or twice in my career. But those were the exception, not the rule.)

I am reminded of a Staff Sergeant (SSgt) who worked for me in Germany. My Colonel asked me for some data which I knew the good SSgt had been processing over the past few days. By processing I mean entering into our database.

Me: "SSgt X, I need you to drop what you're doing and make some queries in the database."

SSgt: (Turning in his chair) "That's not my job."

Me: (Taking multiple deep breaths before speaking) "I beg your pardon Staff Sergeant?"

SSgt: "My job is to enter data into this computer. That's it."

Me: "Your job, Staff Sergeant, is whatever I say your job is. If I tell you to grab a broom and sweep the parking lot, you will by God grab a broom and commence sweeping the parking lot."

SSgt: "I don't think so. Sarge."

At this point I was stunned beyond belief. Say what?

Me: "Let me see your ID card Staff Sergeant."

SSgt: (Looking puzzled, but humoring me by handing over his ID card) "Sure."

Me: (Gazing at the ID card) "SSgt X, I am  placing you under apprehension for disobeying a direct order. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to ..."

SSgt: "What? What are you doing?"

Me: "Weren't you paying attention? I gave you an order, you disobeyed that order. That is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I am placing you under apprehension prior to turning you over to the proper authorities for possible prosecution. Am I getting through to you Staff Sergeant?"

SSgt:, "Uh, what kind of data did the Colonel need? Are we cool?"

Me: "Here's the list of what the Colonel wants. And no we are NOT cool. If you ever question an order again, mine or anyone else who out-ranks you, I will see you in Leavenworth. IS THAT CLEAR STAFF SERGEANT?!"

SSgt: "Yes Master Sergeant, very clear."

Blunt, simple and to the point. In the military things can be real simple. Do your job. If not, you might go to prison. Or die, if the job is combat. But everyone for the most part understands the ground rules. Like the Centurion in Matthew, "For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it."

Working with civilians ain't so easy for me. I'm always hearing things like "well, we can't just make a decision like that, we need consensus from the team." Or "well, that's not a bad idea but the process says..."

Yeah, herding cats would be a lot easier.

Perhaps you can sense what kind of day I had. Oh yes, it was one of THOSE days. When I got home and mowed the lawn, it was almost pleasant. A nice mindless activity that made me sweat. No thought required, no people to deal with.

No cats to herd.


  1. That "herding cats" commercial was made by EDS, the first civilian company I worked for. Ross Perot still owned the company when I signed on (he later sold it to GM and shit proceeded to go downhill IMMEDIATELY, but that's another story) and Ol' Ross had a well-known preference for hiring ex-military guys. As a s'matter o' fact, us EDS'ers lovingly referred to the company as a "paramilitary organization." My first few years there weren't so different from the AF, but thangs slowly went downhill after Perot left.

    I never had to deal with anyone like yer SSgt when I was in. On the one hand I find it sorta amazing, but OTOH I don't... it was a slightly different time. The worst I ever had to cope with was putting one or two folks on PIPs... but that was it.

    1. I loved that commercial!

      Fortunately that SSgt was the exception, rather than the rule.

  2. I've never been much of a cat person so it's just as well that I ended up as a DOD Civilian. Working with sheepdogs is much preferable to working with cats.

    1. "DOD Civilian" - Don't worry Tuna. I won't hold it against you. Some of my best friends are DOD Civilians. Heh. /snark_off

    2. In case your readers don't understand my reference:

    3. I like that so much I'm making that my next post. The whole article. Outstanding and muchos gracias Tuna!

  3. I herd cats all day, every day in my job. An Executive Assistant is a herder - yes, we herd. All. Day. Long.

    1. Ouch. They say you can lead a horse to water, but you get make them drink. Cats? Can't lead them to the water, can't make them drink, hell, not much you can make a cat do. Unless they want to do it.


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