If you have read this blog before, you know that I like to tell stories. At my advancing age there are so many of them, and social media connections help me remember and revisit them to see if I learned anything at the time, or can still learn now.
So when a Facebook friend posted this comment (about a picture of an alligator), it reminded me of my own time at the police academy.
When I attended the academy, candidates were required to meet certain standards in the following areas – academic, physical agility, and marksmenship. Each area had a minimum score that the candidate had to reach during a final test in order to pass and become certified. If you weren’t certified, you could not work as a police officer.
The physical agility test was a series of tasks, like running a mile in a certain time, and doing a minimum number of push-ups and sit-ups. When it was my turn, I did whatever minimum number it was to pass, and then stopped.
“Hey!” yelled one of my instructors as I was getting up after doing my minimum sit-ups. “I know you can do more!”
“Sure, ” I replied, “but what for? I’m not going to win any agility award, and I passed. I don’t see the point in doing any additional.”
Then I walked away, leaving the instructor scowling.
HR pundits and bloggers often discuss how important it is to try, and how people shouldn’t stop themselves from achieving more. But I’m not sure if it’s necessary to always try to be on top. It may be just as important to minimize your effort in some area in order to shine brighter in another (I did win the academic award with the highest score in my academy class).
Sometimes, I think, good enough really is just that.
I cringe every time I read or hear the phrase “work/life balance“. You can’t cut work and life in half and then plop each on a scale until you’ve achieved some kind of false equilibrium. Each is a part of the other, and you have what property lawyers call “an undivided interest in the whole”.
I first learned this to be true when I was a police officer. (Look here for another time I have written about being a police officer, and to see me younger and in uniform ;-)). At the time, officers in my city were divided into roughly 3 equal groups, each group staying together and rotating work times from days to midnights to afternoons every calendar month. My group of 8 or 10 officers was truly a team, and we socialized almost exclusively with each other. Our work lives and personal lives were entwined; we were truly a family.
Except for Ray Boehringer. Ray didn’t socialize or goof off with us. Ray was our Lieutenant and shift commander; he was our boss and he was in charge. Police work is serious business, and Ray believed that its supervision demanded a certain amount of militaristic aloofness. He wasn’t our buddy, but he cared about us and tried to guide us to be good workers, even though we were vocally critical of and often argued with the city that employed us. We called ourselves Boehringer’s Black Sheep.
Late one evening, when my team was working midnights (11 pm until 7am), I frantically called Ray about 10pm. I told him that I had just discovered that my husband (soon to be my ex-husband) had been cheating on me, and that I was so upset and stressed that I couldn’t possibly come to work. Ray immediately understood that the separation of my life from my job was impossible. He told me not to worry about it and to just keep checking in with him until I was sufficiently calmed and could do my job. I think it took me three days before I was able to come back to work, and to this day I don’t know what Ray did to keep me – and himself – out of trouble (police officers have pretty strict rules of attendance and I probably broke them all).
Ray understood, without a college education and without hearing about “work/life balance”, that I couldn’t just dismiss my personal pain and anguish to drive out into the night in my police car without potentially jeopardizing the safety of my fellow officers or a member of the community. He went out on a limb to protect that mesh of work and life, because it gave him a better work group and made him a better manager. He may not have gone out to the bar with us after work, but he knew that the intense personal life closeness between all of us was an advantage to our work relationship, and he exploited it without becoming part of it.
Author’s Note: As the title suggests, this entire blog is written as a response to Paul Smith‘s “Welcome To the Occupation” blog post entitled “I’m A Me”. Paul argues that discussion about cultural generations in the workforce is “just a bunch of clatter . . .because it’s simply a battle over words and identity, and the strange need for us to place labels on ourselves in order to have a sense of belonging.”
I mentioned this before, but I will do so again: I started out my professional life as a police officer in suburban Detroit in the 1970’s. When I began my police career, professional training and development for police officers was a fairly new concept, less than 20 years old. Police officers of the time were treated to all manner of training programs, particularly programs which advocated a more thoughtful, knowledgeable approach to dealing with community citizens.
One program that I still remember was presented by a psychologist, and officers were shown a movie made about – you guessed it – cultural generations. I’m pretty certain that the term “generations” was never used, but the message was clear: many of the citizens we (“we” being mostly baby boomers) were dealing with were members of what is now called the “Silent Generation” – those people born from approximately 1925-1945, whose formative years were hugely impacted by the Great Depression. The training psychologist argued that police officers could respond to our public – their family fights, abandoned cars, unlicensed pets, and all manner of things that police officers must deal with – in a more compassionate way if we actually understood them, as a group, a little better.
So when Paul argues in his blog that generations are “just a label” that we place on ourselves to foster a sense of belonging, and that individual identity is all that is relevant, I am going to respectfully disagree.
Sometimes circumstances don’t allow the employee or employer to know each individual and make a judgment. Police officers, and anyone who performs public service, uses the tool of generational identity to help them be more understanding and responsive. If I am an HR practitioner, I want my employees to be aware of and use those tools to be better performers. Isn’t helping identify and guide employee performance an important strategic HR function?
Sometimes, individual identity has to be ignored by the HR practitioner when they are making group decisions. If I am charged with reducing benefit costs by eliminating some benefits, and my workforce is largely 60 and older, I might decide to reduce family medical coverage in order to maintain a 401(k) match. I may have some individuals who will prefer a different approach, but I will choose what is best for the larger group of boomers who likely are concerned far more with retirement funds than with dependent coverage. Sometimes the “me” has to be ignored or overlooked for the perceived good of a group. This isn’t “clatter’ – it’s concern and compromise, based on cultural generational differences. Again, the knowledge and understanding of the culture of a generation is just one more tool that an HR practitioner might be able to use.