Carl hated writing his monthly reports, because there was no evidence that anyone ever actually read them. Still, he had to finish it by five, so he kept at it despite the pain, all the while looking for other things to do. He was relieved when the phone rang.
It was Betsy, his boss. After the polite chitchat, she said, "Can you look at Paula's report on Marigold? Let me know what you think of the risk plan."
Paula, Betsy's peer, had recently assumed responsibility for Marigold from Betsy. Betsy had been a little peeved about this, because Marigold was Betsy's brainchild. Almost everyone thought she was still bothered about it, although she never said anything explicitly.
Betsy continued, "in strictest confidence of course."
"Sure," he said. They said good-bye, and Carl slowly and thoughtfully placed the handset in the cradle.
Carl felt uneasy. The request seemed strange, because it had come by telephone, rather than Betsy's more usual email. And Paula herself had asked Carl to comment on her risk plan, and Betsy knew it. As he wondered what was afoot, he completely forgot about his monthly report.
An ammo dump, in military parlance, is a place where ammunition is stored. "Staffing the ammo dump" is the job of retrieving ammunition for someone else to use in an attack on a third party. It's a dangerous role in the military, and it's no less dangerous in the office.
Unlike real ammo,
for safe handlingWe can't know for sure what Betsy had in mind, but it could have been a trip to the ammo dump, looking for ammunition to help her reclaim Marigold from Paula.
This is a dangerous role for Carl, because unlike real ammunition, Carl can't be sure of the safety or effectiveness of any metaphorical ammunition he provides. If something he provides harms Betsy, she might not honor her assurance of Carl's anonymity. She might be tempted to defend herself by claiming that she was relying on Carl's information. So if the ammunition is defective, or if it's misused, the staff of the ammo dump could be blamed.
What did Carl do? He replied by email to Betsy, indicating that he was perfectly comfortable with being open with Paula, and enclosed as an attachment the comments he had previously sent to Paula. What could Betsy do? She couldn't ask — or wasn't willing to ask — for ammunition explicitly, at least not in email. If she had in fact wanted ammunition, she had cloaked the request as a request for information, which Carl had honored. So Carl had complied with her request, without incurring the risk of staffing the ammo dump.
Requests for ammunition are usually ambiguous; ambiguity gives the requester deniability. But if the requester needs protection, you do too. If you think you might have been asked to staff the ammo dump, find a way to honor the literal request as openly as possible. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- How to Get a Promotion: the Inside Stuff
- Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us are, but are you doing all you can to make it
happen? Start with a focus on you.
- Social Entry Strategies: II
- When we first engage with a group at work, we employ social entry strategies to make places for ourselves
to carry out our responsibilities, and to find enjoyment and fulfillment at work. Here's Part II of
a little catalog of social entry strategies.
- The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: II
- Anecdotes are powerful tools of persuasion, but with that power comes a risk that we might become persuaded
of false positions. Here is Part II of a set of examples illustrating some hazards of anecdotes.
- That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
- In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects,
"That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work,
and how can the respondent escape the trap?
- The Artful Shirker
- Most people who shirk work are fairly obvious about it, but some are so artful that the people around
them don't realize what's happening. Here are a few of the more sophisticated shirking techniques.
See also Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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