One bleak December day back in the mid-1980s, my boss’ boss asked me to come to her office. At the time, I was working in a just-a-smidgeon-above entry level position for a major governmental agency. I was a technician of the law. My job was to help people who were having trouble solving problems within the normal system. My parents had also worked for governmental agencies, and I knew the meaning of hierarchy. I had a healthy respect for bureaucracy. Therefore, my anxiety antenna went into overdrive when I received the call from the mid-level manager. For the sake of convenience, let’s call her Patty.
I cautiously toddled on over to Patty’s “office.” In those days, the workplace was experimenting with open concepts and cubicles. Even a second-level manager would not merit an “office” with walls and a door. To create some semblance of privacy, someone pushed together an elaborate system of cubicle walling to make a “cone of silence” with no top on it.
As it turned out, Patty was not summoning me to give me the ax or anything equally tragic. In fact, she was asking me if I would take on an acting manager role for four weeks- the last two weeks of the current year and the first two weeks of the new year. The agency was even willing to give me a temporary promotion and raise to compensate me for assuming this additional duty. I was flattered, but also surprised. Patty registered my shock and wanted to salvage the situation, so she reached over the desk and carefully pushed my jaw shut.
“We really thought you would be such a great person to do this because you are so calm and unflappable,” Patty explained.
Calm? Unflappable? Me? There was a never a more flappable person on the face of the earth. Way to ratchet up the pressure, Patty.
I agreed to take on the assignment, but I told Patty that I planned a few days off after the first of the year. My then husband and I were taking a short vacation for the first time in four years. I had worked out the timing with the New Year’s holiday and a weekend so I would only have to take off two workdays. Patty’s face dropped. She began to make noises designed to convince me to cancel the trip. I guess I won that negotiation without even knowing it was a negotiation. I had no intention of bailing on the trip. My husband was a full-time student, so was only able to go during the holiday break. I had not taken off any vacation time in my four years of employment with the agency. I needed this time off very badly. Left without a fallback position, Patty agreed that I could take my two days off but made me promise that the weekly statistics for the department would not tank while I was gone.
This, of course, was a totally worthless promise. There is no way to guarantee a statistical outcome, especially for a period during which one is not working. On the other hand, being as flappable as I have always been, I immediately began devising a strategy to maximize my odds. In retrospect, I know that the whole scenario was toothless. After all, what could they do to me if the weekly statistics did tank while I was gone? Take away my birthday? None of this rational line of thought entered my head.
Anyway, my strategy involved scheduling out all the cases that would probably close in a two-week period. I also evaluated all the other cases in the inventory to see if there were any criteria we could apply to make them closable. Then, I devised a calendar for closing the cases during the entire time I would be acting manager to make sure that the proper balance of old and new cases closed in a given week so that the average number of days on closed cases and the percentage of closing inventory that was over 30 days old would be within acceptable limits. Scratch that. Not “acceptable” limits. Ridiculously low limits so that, in case I screwed up the math, we would still be okay. In other words, I manipulated the statistics. I also schooled my coworkers/temporary subordinates on how to manipulate the statistics in my absence if anything went astray.
Flappability is a great motivator. Some people call it “drive” and praise it as a desirable quality. In my case, it is simply nervous energy wrapped in fear of confrontation. As much as I have matured in the forty or so years since this episode, I am afraid that I still struggle to find the calm… before the storm or otherwise. As hard as I work to keep things in perspective and evaluate situations from a rational point of view, I am afraid flappability is something with which I just must live. I guess I might as well embrace it.
I plan and schedule everything. I am facilitating a brainstorming session at church in a couple of weeks. I have prepared a PowerPoint presentation for it. We made dinner reservations for a trip to Las Vegas… four-and-a-half months from now. On my first trip to Disney World, I spent a whole night awake worrying about what to do the next day because it might rain. When I was working on a simulated project as part of a management training class, I came to the class with a rolling suitcase of supporting information. I am, if I had to put it in one word, ridiculous.
I am also prepared. I am also dependable. I am also generous with my efforts. I am also typically successful in implementing anything I set out to do. Flappability works for me a lot of the time. On the other hand, there is a cost to my central nervous system. The key is to figure out the risk/benefit analysis in each situation. In most cases, I could conserve a lot of the energy I expend on anxiety by demonstrating a little wisdom as to when flapping works for me and when it works against me.
Flapping is not all bad. I must flap if I am going to fly. The trick is figuring out when and how to flap that will propel me forward, not cause me to crash and burn.
Are you a flapper? What do you do to control your flappability to keep it working for you instead of against you? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fly high today!