The Hermit Shrimp

2021.01.30

Silence is not always a good thing.

What can you do when your end users are afraid to speak up.

I don't think this is a normal topic for a normal workplace. I also don't think any healthy workplace would ever experience this. Hell, I think this is the exact symptom of a terribly unhealthy work environment. A work environment that's so toxic that end users are terrified that they are going to get the stick if they even make a peep that a serious system issue is going down. My organization has been one that has slowly instituted this kind of fear over the past few years and the Covid layouts accelerated the issue faster than I could have ever imagined. Who would've thought that having a suggestion, idea, or issue would cause upper management to come kick in your door and give you the third degree.

The best way I can describe what is happening is with an old Japanese saying, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered." Which if you do into the backstory of the quote, the original translated meaning is closer to, "People who try to set themselves apart from the crowd will be pulled down in envy by those around them" which is still quite applicable here. (Also, almost the same definition as crab mentality if you want to dive even further.) Luckily, this isn't happening directly to my department, however, I do have to deal directly with the users that are experiencing this environment.

There's several reasons that I can percieve as what's causing this problem, but I'll just refer to the elephants in the room. The first one is everyone's attempt to not be known. At this organization, whenever there are any kinds of cuts or layoffs they almost always seem to hit those who generally are quite well known and liked by a large amount of the population that is downstream from the person. We have had (yes, past tense) a lot of really good people who did really well at their jobs and had great relationships with those around them. Immediately, any normal person would ask, "Wait, why is this person's head on the block?" The answer starts right from the top.

Executives come up with dumb ideas. Yes-men formulate these ideas into dumb plans. Executives approve these dumb plans with dumb modifications. Then the dumb plan is assigned to someone who isn't in the graces of the upper echelon.

This is truly the modern corporation at work. We can all sort of guess what happens next, the person bungles the project, higher ups give no assistance, and then they are off to the guillotine in no time. This has become such a common occurance that most people are afraid to achieve anything past the bare minimum. Rarely is any form of achievement rewarded and even if someone achieves something, upper management swoops in and grabs it to curry favor with the nearest caeser. Eventually this also flowed over into fear of doing anything outside of the ordinary to almost the point that they feel shameful for just asking to get their account unlocked after forgetting a password.

This is where it starts to get messy for me. We roll out updates to our internal applications constantly and we've been sort of running on a skeleton crew with little to no QA/QC since executives thought it would be a good idea to completely axe that entire group when Covid hit. I beat the heck out of my code before I let it into the wild, but without a second pair of eyes, I still miss quite a few things that I'm left scrambling to fix afterwards. That is, if I'm even notified. A lot of our staff have just stopped reporting issues completely for fear that there's any escalation to their supervisor. This means there can be crippling issues eating hours of productivity and I'd never know about it. Some departments have just outright dropped using an application just so that they didn't have any conflict rather than make a small request that eventually took me less than an hour to implement. (You'd think this kind of behavior wouldn't be possible but it's the wild west out there for all I know.) The general populace is so focused on not making a single peep that they do everything possible to avoid any communication.

As always, this comes back to a toxic work environment. Sure, I didn't cause it. But it's my problem. But how do you work with a dysfunctional mess like this? Well, you get creative and personable. So the first thing we learned in the story is the avoid the big shakers and movers. Generally, this would usually be the opposite as you suckle from the teet of your boss hoping for him to bestow a nickle raise upon you. But in the world of Covid, none of that matters anymore. Just revealing yourself is the same as asking for a pay cut at this point. So what do you do? Well, you'll need to find someone who's willing to talk. Most are too afraid. Some are just plain incompetent. But eventually you'll find someone worth your time.

The plan is to go straight to the people who will be using the systems and ask them how they're doing. Screw the managers. They probably don't even know 90% of what happens aside from the pretty report it dumps out once a month. Screw surveys. Surveys can say that they are anonymous but nobody trusts that especially when their job is on the line. Screw meetings. People are there to eat then leave. No, what you need to do is have relationships with people of various levels who use your applications.

Sadly, a great population of my contacts have been cut, but I still have a few people here and there that I can rely on to tell me that something serious is happening. Most of them communicate outside of any sort of ticketing system and you'll usually get a direct email with nobody else on it, but that's fine.

Because they know I don't care about office politics and I don't pass info upstream unless absolutely necessary, I'm a safe haven for complaints and requests.

They're choosing to do it this way for their own safety. It might seem obnoxious or that they are jumping the line, but in the situation that they are in it's usually just to protect themselves.

"But that's not protocol." Okay and? If the protocols are causing the issue, then they are broken and just like our users, you have to find work arounds. And I'm not saying that you have to be buddy buddy best friends with these people. I'm just saying it's good to keep them at arms length where they feel they can send you something that they came across. If I didn't have that much, I'd be completely blind to what's happening outside my department. "But that's your boss's job." Why filter-feed 3-day old information from someone who barely cares? Sometimes you need to make your own destiny and if that means shifting priorities around a little, well then, sometimes it has to be done.