Quite recently I had an artist come into my office and tell me the sad story of being in a meeting where "suggestions and input" to make the project better was "encouraged."
So he came up with suggestions, and was told his ideas were interesting and "worth thinking about." And two weeks later his producer informed him that his last day would be January 4th. ("Right after the holidays. Because, you know, we don't want to lay you off right at Christmas ...")
This struck a memory button with me. And sure enough, back in April 2006, right here on this blog, I penned this:
My Door Is Always Open
The above is used so often by supervisors/managers/execs that it's beyond being a cliche. But a veteran animation supervisor gave me a new perspective on it this afternoon...
She said that when a lead actually DOES have an "0pen Door" policy, the lead never broadcasts it or talks about it. The open door just IS. The supervisor makes himself available to provide advice...or information...or simple feedback.
The way you know there isn't an open door, free-flow-of-info policy is when the supervisor keeps proclaiming it, over and over...
"I want someone to tell me," Lieutenant Scheisskopf beseeched them all prayerfully. "If any of it is my fault, I want to be told."
"He wants someone to tell him," Clevinger said.
"He wants everyone to keep still, idiot," Yossarian answered.
"Didn't you hear him," Clevinger argued.
"I heard him," Yossarian replied. "I heard him say very loudly and very distinctly that he wants every one of us to keep our mouths shut if we know what's good for us."
"I won't punish you," Lieutenant Scheisskopf swore.
"He says he won't punish me," said Clevinger.
"He'll castrate you," said Yossarian.
-- Joseph Heller, Catch 22
This general theme pops up over and over in my travels. A few examples:
1) I go to a studio exec, tell him about problems and issues that employees have with some of the company's practices. (I'm relaying the complaints because employees have asked me to. Naturally I keep the complainers anonymous.) The studio exec bristles a bit, says to me:
"I tend to question what you say, Steve. Because I've gone around to our artists on different shows and asked if there were problems. Everybody said things were fine."
(Apparently the employees have read "Catch 22".)
2) An employee at one of our fine animation studios relates how a story artist comes up with several great ideas to improve things in an "open meeting" and gets positive reaction ... and then is let go.
3) A tech director comes up to me and says: "We're noticing in the big meetings for the whole division? The ones with all the top execs up on the stage? We're noticing that anybody who stands up and asks a question is laid off two months later ..."
Long ago, one of the best story artists I ever knew, a guy named Pete Young, said to me: "You can't tell them anything until they're ready to hear it. ...". I've thought about Pete's words often over the years, and marvel how true they continue to be. But then, the nature of human beings never changes very much. Most want to better themselves ... and live to tell the tale.
Of course, nobody plays the political game perfectly. There is no "perfect." But there is "better," there is "worse," and there is denial. (How many times have you heard the words "I don't play politics!" Well I'm sorry, but that's bunk. Everybody "plays politics." Just like everybody breathes. If you are interacting with a fellow homo sapien ... or in many cases, even a four-legged critter ... you are "playing politics." You are trying to move your agenda and better your position. That's what politics is.)
And politics, in part, is also the art of survival. Which is what Joseph Heller's Yossarian is practicing up above. So when somebody tells you and others that "we want everyone's input and thoughts ..." tread softly. Because after you provide your thoughts, you don't want the production manager coming into your cubicle and saying:
"Got a minute? ..."
Because the next thing that will happen, when you're sitting in his office and the door is closed, will be the words "Here's your end date. ..." *
* Some will think I'm being too cynical here. Others will think I'm not being cynical enough. What I'm doing is giving you the distillation of a couple hundred conversations and observations. If not more.