Thursday, September 15, 2016

Word of the Day: Merit

When I was a student journalist in college, I spent one semester as the designated “left-wing” op-ed columnist. Looking back, I realize that I wasn’t very good, mainly because I hadn’t developed fully-formed views based on experience. Over the years I’ve become less reliably “liberal,” because unlike your typical “liberal,” I had to experience in close proximity the vagaries of human nature, not always a pretty sight. I watch CNN and it seems that the only people who matter are either black or white, and I see self-absorbed hypocrisy expectorating from the sluices from both ends. Because of my apparent “ethnicity,” I reside between a rock and a hard place in this society, and sometimes even further; once at work an immigrant woman started chattering at me in a language I didn’t understand, and I let her run on for a minute until someone broke in and told her I didn’t understand Spanish. 

As a college-educated former service member, sometimes I feel like that guy in the Direct-TV commercial having a bad day with his cable service, plays handball to blow-off steam, beans himself in the eye, is prescribed an eye-patch, sits on bus while some thugs accuse him of being a “tough guy” because he’s wearing the eye-patch, and then he gets chased by the same thugs and winds-up being bloody and beaten in a ditch. I wouldn’t call myself a “liberal” anymore; maybe “progressive” on some policy issues, but I’m not certain that Goethe’s estimation of the German people, “so estimable in the individuality, yet so wretched in the generality,” if applied to all races gives anyone any comfort regardless of their social stands. For myself, I take people for what (not who) they are, whether good or bad—that is to say, they are either “good” or “bad” and there is no gray area anymore.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to the word of the day: Merit. In the workplace where I currently reside, this is supposed to mean demonstrating competencies in several different functions in several different departments, not just arrive off the street and be declared “good” without any evidence for it. I never asked for anything; I just did what I was told. But merit is a word that is often confused with favoritism, especially in regard to incompetent friends, family, political allies and social peers. “Merit” of this sort in the workplace is usually seen by someone in authority, like a supervisor, usually because the favored person either speaks “well” or shares some social, gender or racial commonality; however, this can easily be seen as unmerited favoritism by those who actually have to deal with the person’s dearth of merit on a regular basis. Myself, I was never the supervisor’s “favorite”; in fact, I well remember the moment I first walked in the door as a temp, she being there to “greet” me with the unfriendly tone of rude contempt—and you know how first impressions are. 

Merit is also sometimes confused with illusion, which often requires the manufacture of “merit,” rather than that which is innate. For example, being put into positions that appear to be “complex” but in fact require far less dexterity and effort than the “ancillary” tasks. Illusory “merit” can also be manufactured by pairing the “favorite” with someone who is actually “good,” who is forced to sweep-up the leavings of inefficiency. The person imbued with false merit is usually exposed when paired with a person who is of similar “speed” or slower, falling hopelessly behind, even going slower in the hopes that someone will soon relieve them of the consequences of their ineffectiveness. When I watched such a person  appearing to be as helpless as a baby when confronted with the task of, say, lifting a twenty-pound bucket with a handle two inches off the ground, even though she is the biggest—or at least the widest—person in the department, this merely reflected the continuation of a “trend.” 

Unfortunately, since the favorite is imbued with false merit by the supervisor, blame for her shortcomings must be found in other people. Don’t say anything true, because punishment for wrong-thinking is swift and unpleasant. Even when the department lead offers her opinion, it is ignored; rather, she is told how and where to use the favorite, completely undermining her ability to decide how best to maintain good order based on her own judgment. The supervisor often manipulates both the quality and quantity of people available to the lead in order to deliberately limit her options, all to benefit the favorite imbued with false merit.  

Because the favorite is protected from being seen in the worst possible light by higher authority, she herself has only nominal regard for the lead’s authority, knowing that the supervisor will “correct” anything interpreted as negatively impacting the illusion of her “merit.” The resulting arrogance and conceit can manifest itself in noxious ways, such as the favorite imbued with false merit behaving in a domineering manner toward people who are demonstrably more efficient but unfavored, usually in regard to work that the favorite has already demonstrated herself to be inefficient. There were many I times I had to work overtime to restrain myself from “commenting” on her imperious lecturing to better people than herself. 

After watching the person whose merit is a fiction of favoritism completely lose control during a period that required only ordinary effort, and causing repeated breakdowns of a machine that I repeatedly had to take time out to fix (at least a dozen times in a two-hour period), I could no longer restrain myself and declared aloud that we needed to replace her with a good—i.e. “fast” person—which the lead was helpless to do, because the supervisor would be unhappy with her, as she had told me. The favorite imbued with false merit, herself believing her own myth, complained to the supervisor. When the supervisor confronted me and told me to desist from making unauthorized comments, I asked her what it was that I said that was wrong; she was the one who insisted that her favorite was “good” when she was just adequate in easy jobs and much less so in “hard” jobs that required a certain amount of dexterity. I also had the audacity to refuse to fall for the trap that the work she was doing would be “hard” for me, saying that I could do it not just “better,” but a “lot” better. 

If you asked me if it is a good idea to express an opinion about a supervisor’s favorite, I would advise against. Of course, I seldom follow my own advice. You might find yourself being “punished” for my honest assessment based on lengthy observation. Before the supervisor forced her favorite on the department, we had a fairly well-functioning operation. Now, things may appear to be the “same” on the surface, but for those of demonstrated merit, their load has increased. Or you might find yourself removed from your former position in which you had been performing with efficiency and proactivity,  and placed where you would not be in a position to make any more unauthorized comments. But one need not make any comment; anyone could see that without someone to keep things on a leash, the table where the favorite imbued with false merit held court looked like Mount Rainier had blown and caused an unstoppable lava rush.

The next day we briefly reached our production goal for the first time in several weeks because for once we had the right people in the right places, but naturally this made the supervisor unhappy. She subsequently made further mockery of good order because her favorite was being "misused," and the lead unwittingly allowing herself to be trapped in this game by her own bout with lethargy,  the predictable result of the deliberate withholding of adequate bodies for the job, and with a predictable outcome. Of course, if you are more Cutter than Bone and offer your observation of events, you might find yourself removed from the department altogether, at least for the time being.

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