How exactly not to do things
“It is the nature of human institutions to degenerate, to lose their vitality, and decay, and the first sign of decay is the loss of flexibility and oblivion of the essential spirit in which they were conceived. The spirit is permanent, the body changes; and a body which refuses to change must die. The spirit expresses itself in many ways while itself remaining essentially the same but the body must change to suit its changing environments if it wishes to live.”
Picture this scenario:
You’ve worked hard and saved up some money to take a nice trip. You are taking your friends/family/loved ones along. You don’t travel much, but you’ve saved up for this one. You buy some upgraded seats on the flight just to make things a little more special. After a glorious week away, you land back at home, only to find that your luggage is missing. You stand there at the baggage claim, waiting…nothing. The belt, now empty, stops. Ok, the bags didn’t make the flight – time to head over to customer service…
You: “Excuse me, my baggage evidently didn’t make it onto my flight, can you please assist me?”
Attendant: Walks away. Says nothing.
“Well, that was odd…”, you think as your blood pressure begins to elevate.
After a minute or two of standing at a now-vacant customer service desk, you call the manager, whose number is posted on the wall at the counter.
Manager, answering the phone: “Hello?”
You: “Excuse me sir, my baggage evidently didn’t make it onto my flight. I just tried to speak with a customer service rep here at the airport, but she just ignored me then walked away. Can you please assist me?”
The manager hangs up.
Now you’re getting pretty pissed off. Your bags are missing, the “customer service” attendant walked away from you mid-conversation, and the manager just hung up on you.
You see another phone number posted on the wall at the still-empty customer service station: the nation-wide central customer service number for LowFrillsAir. You call it. No one even answers.
Let’s interrupt this scenario for an alternate branch (beginning with the same unfortunate lost-luggage event).
You, at the customer service desk: “Excuse me, my baggage evidently didn’t make it onto my flight, can you please assist me?”
Attendant: “Absolutely, sir. Let me look into that right away! Ok, sir, looks like your luggage, instead of coming here to Albuquerque went to Abu Dhabi. I can’t get your luggage to you quickly, but I can definitely look into what happened and how we can rectify it.”
Are you still upset? Sure. Now you can’t show off all those souvenir conch shells you bought on vacation, and you probably will need to buy some more underwear. But are you as upset as you were in Exchange A? Likely not. Why? Because in Exchange B, your concerns were acknowledged and anyone savvy in the field of customer service, or, hell, basic human interaction, knows that this is 50% of the battle when it comes to diffusing a situation.
Next time you call your internet company (at least mine does this), notice the conversation goes something like this flow:
Greet customer, ask them what the issue is → Allow customer to vent → Inject sympathetic sentiment here (“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that”, “I can understand how that can be frustrating”, e.g.)
If you’re on the other end as the irate customer, even though you know full well the associate probably doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your internet outage, they are developing rapport with you, albeit superficially, and are diffusing the situation.
If this passage is thus far not blowing your mind with these astronomical concepts, that’s a good sign! However, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t see it play out time and time again in the DIA case. And with that segue, time for a new scenario. This one, most definitely not hypothetical:
Me and one of my colleagues to our superior officer (the Defense Attaché): “There is a colleague who is both toxic and derelict in his duties.”
Defense Attaché: Vacillates, does nothing.
Me and now five of my colleagues to our superior officer’s superior (the Chief of European Attachés): “There are some major concerns of toxicity and dereliction of duty here.”
European Branch Chief: Travels to Europe and assaults everyone who complained by having their assignments curtailed and/or their follow-on assignments canceled.
Me and those same five colleagues to our boss’ boss’ boss (Director of the Defense Attaché Service): “We have an office gone completely awry and your European chief just took out everyone who raised that concern.”
DAS Director: Ignore
Me and my now 30 colleagues to our boss’ boss’ boss’ boss (the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency): “There are some major concerns of toxicity and dereliction of duty in your Attaché Service, as well as some violations of the law. Also, your DAS leadership has been made aware of the situation and has done nothing.”
DIA Director: Ignore
Me and now 65 colleagues… well, you are starting to see the issue here and also perhaps why the DAS affair escalated.
Now, let’s spice up our initial lost luggage scenario with a few more doses of reality. Remember the attendant who just walked away from you? Instead of walking away, she walks around the counter, has you take your frequent flier card and cuts it up in front of you. “That’s what you get for complaining!” she says. See the parallels?
I oftentimes think about the last two years and what would have happened if people did the right (and frankly simple) things and intervened when they should have. If I play the events of the past back all the way to the beginning and my boss just would have, instead of going shields up in self-servitude mode, said “I’ll take care of this,” I honestly don’t think we would be where we are at. I think the situation would have been diffused right there and we both would have carried on with our lives. Obviously, that’s not how it played out. Instead, here we are nearly three years on with:
2 ongoing Congressional-level inquiries into DIA
2 ongoing investigations into the conduct of the DIA/IG,
2 national news articles on the DIA affair,
Multiple ongoing and forthcoming civil lawsuits,
60+ witnesses to come forward to attest to DIA toxicity,
200+ pages on documents produced to the above,
At least 4 personnel removed / “requested” to retire,
Dozens of attachés/staff exiled from the Attaché Service,
Countless hours and resources invested,
And, most importantly: perhaps no winners.
Sitting here and writing this today, I ponder what I will think when, five or ten years from now, I read this. What emotions will it evoke? What will have been accomplished? Did I do any good? Was it all a lot of hullaballoo for nothing? Was it just a brief shakeup followed by reversion back to the old caustic status quo? The aim of this years-long Herculean effort was so that the organization would eventually learn, adapt, and ultimately improve. Time will tell if those objectives are met, I guess. In the interim, an anecdotal preview of how the future may unfold…
In attaché training, there is a very useful block of instruction regarding media and press. One of the cardinal rules in that block is: “don’t ever say ‘no comment.’” The basic principle here is that any interaction with the media is an opportunity to get your side of the story out and, with a little training, you can capitalize on most any chance you have to do that. When the Wall Street Journal published an article about the DIA affair in February 2022, the Inspector General, the DAS Director, and the DIA Director all declined to comment. Sound to you like an entity capable of learning and improving?