Tag Archives: organizational culture

The Strange Business of Fronting For Others

Flight Attendants for Singapore Airlines Source: Wikipedia.org
Flight Attendants at Singapore Airlines.  Source: Wikipedia.org

 Fronting is the requirement to represent in speech and body language the interests of others who have a specific lexicon and level of enthusiasm they want you to employ.

Most of us have heard writer David Sedaris’ story of gaining seasonable employment by becoming one of Santa’s elves in Macy’s New York store.  It’s funny in part because we know that it cannot be easy for a sardonic man to put on green tights and prance around in fake snow.  The job comes with the built-in need to be a happy supplicant to overstimulated children and demanding parents.  As Sedaris first explained it on NPR’s This American Life, he mostly did his part.  But each time we read or hear the tale we are aware of the yawning gap between the prickly man and the fantasy of simple innocence he’s required to enact.

This imperative to perform in a non-congruent role has a name: fronting.  It’s a handy term because it identifies one cause of the angst we experience when a communication task seems daunting.  Specifically, fronting with apparent conviction is often a lie, made worse if we’re born with a strong sense to recognize our own hypocrisies.

Formally, fronting is the requirement to represent in speech and body language the interests of others who have a specific lexicon and level of enthusiasm they want you to employ.  It’s the primary job skill for work in customer service, sales, teaching, lawyering, and most forms of inter-organizational communication.  Typically, in manufacturing engineers will front and protect each other, not necessarily revealing departmental differences to the sales people one floor up.  Professors front for their disciplines to students or deans.  Lawyers remain the very picture of client loyalty, even when they have significant doubts.  And let’s not forget restaurant servers, who usually know enough to be more optimistic about the food coming out of the kitchen then simple devotion to the Truth would allow.

There is an obvious performance aspect to all this. Professional actors front so well that they seem to become their characters. Who knew that actress Alexis Bledel hated coffee?  Her character dutifully carried a paper cup of the stuff with her everywhere in the hundred and fifty caffeinated episodes of The Gilmore Girls. The rest of us are simply amateurs, and often uncomfortable with the gap between our assigned roles and the authentic person we claim to be.

There is some evidence that airline attendants carry around more fatigue than most of us, partly because fronting for air-carriers today means remaining upbeat in the face of the countless real and perceived affronts to passenger dignity.  Look carefully, and you can almost see them straining to keep their frustrations out of view. It can be very stressful to serve the interests of an organization if we believe it betrays a core value.

The most difficult kind of fronting  is when an individual is induced to deliver as their own what is essentially another’s message. It’s the burden of allowing oneself to seem to be the active agent in an exchange.  Thus spouses and partners will sometimes ask the other to represent themselves as a committed believer to a point of view, when no commitment exists.  One instructs the other about what to say, as in “When you call the Fredericks back, be sure to remind them that we are opposed to attending any event that. . . [Insert the offending feature here]”  Whatever principle is at stake, it is the protesting partner who has passed along the task of an impassioned reply that the other may not share. Couples provide this stress-inducing service to each other all the time.

There is an interesting final irony about fronting.  My impression is that its burdens are eased if a person is wearing a uniform.  The official garb of an organization implicitly says to all clients and customers, “I am performing my assigned role.  I have clothed myself in the firm’s attitudes, but know that underneath I am still my own person.” A policeman has sartorial support to claim that the ticket he is giving you is simply an application of the law.  Besides, who would quarrel with anyone with both a gun and a club?

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Papering Ourselves to Death

paperwork commons wikimedia.org
Source: commons wikimedia.org

The rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often rule-making leads to the measurement of success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.

In a debate on the explosion of American lawsuits a few years ago the famed law professor and trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz described one litigation strategy used by large corporate defendants as “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that a lawyered-up organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too risky and time-consuming.

The phrase has always stuck with me as a perfect representation of a common bureaucratic impulse. Paper has perhaps been replaced by online documents and files.  Even so, there seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform.”  But in fact these rules function in part to mystify others into compliance. No one, for example, reads the “conditions of use” fine-print attached to nearly every downloaded application.  But the sheer volume of their legalese lends authority to the source. Or try having your car or yourself serviced at a facility that is supposed to assure us to keep things in good working order. The front desk clerk taking down your information is now likely to go through a prolonged data-entry mode that leaves little time for a description of the problem that brought you in.  Filling in forms seems to be a primary function that exists for its own sake.

Our organizational life seems to thrive on hiring and promoting rule-makers: policy specialists, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, contract law specialists, employees charged with reviewing procedures, and especially organizational members–some with OCD tendencies that make them ready to see any free choice as a vacuum that needs a procedure. After all, someone must police the miscreants who would initiate a novel approach to a routine task.

“Procedures” nailed down in multiple pages of “steps” have the perverse effect of replacing individual initiative with a gloss of uniformity.  Organizational culture naturally wants uniformity, which is not itself a bad thing. The problem is that the folks who write the rules seem to self-select, forming groups who are all too willing to “paper” the rest of us.

Alas, this compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists motivated to reverse the process. So organizational culture typically embraces a snowballing accumulation of regulations.

Even college professors aren’t immune from this tendency, especially when setting up rules defining the  work status of their colleagues. The pedant in all of us loves to make guidelines, rubrics, checklists, worksheets, mission statements, instructions, directives, standards and criteria. People who might better spend their time on scholarship often drift into generating handbooks of rules for even the most simple of professional tasks, such as observing a younger colleague’s teaching. The arc of a college teacher’s professional career is now tracked, classified, quantified, compared against a rubric, assessed by insiders, assessed by outsiders, tested in online questionnaires, burdened with filings to outside agencies, and itemized in reports to higher-ups. One wonders how Princeton’s Albert Einstein would have responded if told that his career arc at the Ivy League school was out of compliance with the guidelines applied to all of the school’s disciplines.

The rhetorician Kenneth Burke called this tendency to over-produce regulatory flotsam “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” It’s a perfect phrase. Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often this impulse leads to the measurement of success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.

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