…by which I mean: Cover Your Ass.
Perhaps you’ve already been exposed to the work axiom of C.Y.A. before. If you haven’t, allow me to present my understanding of it. C.Y.A. is not merely a selfish goal. And it is not confined solely to business. It should be a way of life. It boils down to this: If things go awry, if a deal falls through, if the fit hits the shan, if the bottom falls out (or whatever way you like to describe failure happening), when the blamemongers come a-calling, make sure you are not to blame.
Do your due diligence, cross the T’s, and dot the I’s. Don’t assume that someone else will take care of it. Don’t guess some lapse won’t become a problem or won’t get noticed. If it crosses your desk or falls in your lap, do what needs to be done. Here is one way of approaching a problem.
- IDENTIFY the situation. Be on the look out for potential potholes, roadblocks, and hiccups. Train yourself to sniff out things which are hinky, wonky, or just not right. The Powers That Be won’t be much more forgiving if your answer is “I didn’t notice.” If the problem could be spotted from your position then you can be faulted for not seeing it. It worked for Jack Ryan, didn’t it?
- ASSESS the problem. Is it actually a problem? Before you raise a red flag or call in the Army, make a preliminary assessment from a level-headed perspective. Overreacting can be just as bad as ignoring the problem. For instance, if someone you don’t recognize enters your normally secure office area, don’t tackle them and bind their wrists with printer cable. That may be the new office manager or the CEO’s son.
- NOTIFY appropriate parties. Now that you’ve discerned the problem, figure out who should be alerted. This is NOT the same as passing the buck. If you were a sentry on duty, you would be required to tell your watch commander you’ve seen something awry before you go check it out (unlike the guards of most movie villains). Tell your superior (or the department responsible) that you think something is wrong, whether or not you’re going to fix it. And, if it is a problem you created, don’t be embarrassed and hide it. If your minor error escalates, you’ll be in exponentially hotter water if you didn’t notify the right people.
- DECIDE to act (or not). You’ve sent an email to the I.T. Department (or whomever) and now your back to staring at the problem alone. Is it, in fact, something you can possibly fix? Should you try? Or does regulation (or common sense) dictate you let the experts handle it? A typographical error in a report may be something you can and should correct but a downed (and live) power cable is probably not your area of expertise (really, 1.21 gigawatts is not something you should play with, no matter what Doc Brown told you). Decide if you have the capability to fix the problem and, if so…
- FIX the problem. If you almost tripped over a poorly-placed and perfectly movable object — then go back and move it. If someone has left an empty coffee pot on an active burner then take it off. If the security door didn’t close all the way when you passed through, go back and shut it. Don’t panic. Don’t assume the next person will fix it. Don’t justify unnecessary inaction by saying, “It’s not my job.” If you saw the sign which said the bridge was out but didn’t tell the bus driver because you figured “It’s not my job” then enjoy the ensuing plummet into the freezing river. Either fix the problem or, if you can’t, tell someone who can (in extreme situations, get off the damn bus).
- RECORD (or ANNOTATE) your actions. By now, you should have already notified the appropriate people of the initial problem. Whether your attempt to fix the problem was successful or unsuccessful, or you decided you could/should not try, record those decisions and actions. Not only will this information be helpful when the experts arrive to tackle a problem you were unable to fix, it will help your case should the problem escalate and the politics of it get sticky. And it’s not just about avoiding blame. It’s also about being credited for showing good judgment or doing your due diligence. You’re not going to get very far in work or life by just ducking your head and turtling up every time there’s a problem.
To Cover Your Ass is something which requires a little common sense and hopefully some common courtesy. Covering your ass does not mean passing the buck or screwing over a colleague. It simply means, when the dust settles, you will be able to show that you saw the problem, you told the right people about it, you acted appropriately to help (or solely) fix the problem, and you recorded your actions (where possible) from start to finish.
Some situations and problems will be difficult to assess or decide on your involvement. This is unavoidable. However, like so many things, the more you practice the C.Y.A. methodology, the better you will get at it. And if more people used the C.Y.A. methodology, it would make for smoother operations in the office, at home, and in general society.
I first learned C.Y.A. as a teenager while working at Canada’s Wonderland. The woman who taught it to me used the term “Annotate” instead of “Record” because her mnemonic device for remembering the 6 steps of C.Y.A. was this: Identify, Assess, Notify, Decide, Fix, Annotate = I-A-N-D-F-A = “I Am Not Doing Fuck All.”
(Pardon my French, but the term “fuck all” is a colorful way of saying “nothing”)
I should also add a shout out to Kirk Jackson, one of the best bosses I had, a fine practitioner of C.Y.A., and a good friend.