On June 15, 2010, the NSA debuted a new recurring feature on its intranet—an advice column. This really happened. The existence of the column was revealed by Glenn Greenwald’s new website The Intercept a few days ago. The advice column was called “Ask Zelda!” The “Ask Zelda!” columns were distributed on the agency’s intranet and accessible only to those with the proper security clearance; they were among the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The lighthearted column addressed to most mundane and quotidian issues of NSA life, issues familiar to all office workers, including workplace attire, stolen food from common refrigerators, co-worker body odor, and so on.
The inaugural column consisted of one letter, and it was about the skimpy clothes that some younger NSA staff were wearing during the balmy late spring of 2010:
Now that the warm weather is here, some of the newer Agency employees in my office are dressing in ways that are less than professional. How do I, as their supervisor, get them to stop dressing like they’re going to the beach when NSA doesn’t have a formal dress code?
Oy! Once the thermometer hits 80 degrees, it can look like Ocean City West around here. Somehow, shorts and flip-flops don’t exactly convey the image of a fierce SIGNIT warrior.
You are right to be concerned, and I applaud your initiative as the supervisor to take corrective action. Not only is beach attire unprofessional in the workplace, but in certain cases it can be downright distracting to co-workers (if you get my drift).
As with most things, communication is the key to a happy and productive workplace. With a little proactive discussion on your part, your staff can look professional during the summer months. So the next time one of your employees looks like they work at the National Snorkeling Academy instead of the National Security Agency, try these tips and let me know how it turns out.
The identity of “Zelda” is not known, but a biographical snippet in the first column supplies some clues for those who are familiar with the NSA hierarchy.
“Zelda” is the pen name for a manager who has spent most of her 29 years at NSA in SID [Signals Intelligence Directorate] (and its predecessor orgs), supplemented by several years in career development (ADET [Associate Directorate for Education and Training]). Her managerial experience includes approximately 20 years as a first-line and mid-level Agency supervisor, as well as supervisory positions in the entertainment and food service industries. Zelda develops and teaches leadership training as part of the Nartional Cryptologic School’s Adjunct Faculty, and enjoys bossing people around outside of work, too.
In September of 2011, “Zelda” addressed the issue of—you guessed it—unwanted spying in the workplace. Her response was a fascinating brew of pie-in-the-sky helpfulness, naivete, and inadvertent revelation. Here’s the exchange in its entirety.
Here’s the scenario: when the boss sees co-workers having a quiet conversation, he wants to know what is being said (it’s mostly work related). He has his designated “snitches” and expects them to keep him apprised of all the office gossip – even calling them at home and expecting a run-down! This puts the “designees” in a really awkward position; plus, we’re all afraid any offhand comment or anything said in confidence might be either repeated or misrepresented.
Needless to say, this creates a certain amount of tension between team members who normally would get along well, and adds stress in an already stressful atmosphere. There is also an unspoken belief that he will move people to different desks to break up what he perceives as people becoming too “chummy.” (It’s been done under the guise of “creating teams.”)
We used to be able to joke around a little or talk about our favorite “Idol” contestant to break the tension, but now we’re getting more and more skittish about even the most mundane general conversations (“Did you have a good weekend?”). This was once a very open, cooperative group who worked well together. Now we’re more suspicious of each other and teamwork is becoming harder. Do you think this was the goal?
Silenced in SID
Wow, that takes “intelligence collection” in a whole new – and inappropriate – direction.
It’s lonely at the top
First let me say that I do not think this manager’s intent is to discourage teamwork. What it sounds like to me is that he (I’ll call him “Michael”) feels like an outsider and wants to be in the know. It can be lonely being the boss. You sit closed off in an office and miss the easy camraderie with your co-workers, while at the same time feeling the need to “police” their behavior. Maybe someone told Michael there was too much chit-chat in his organization or that some specific problem existed, and resorting to snitches is his misguided way of ferreting out the culprit(s). Either that or he’s been watching too much “Law & Order.”
Why don’t you try this: go overboard communicating with him. Call him over when he’s wandering around spying on people and fill him in on things. Give him details of work projects and ask his opinion about mission matters so he feels like he’s “in the loop.” Get others to drop by his desk periodically just to say hello, “hope you had a good weekend,” or “How ‘bout them O’s?” [I’m pretty sure this means the Orioles.] I bet that will satisfy his need to know what’s going on and he’ll back off with the nosiness.
NSA=No Secrets Allowed
We work in an Agency of secrets, but this kind of secrecy begets more secrecy and it becomes a downward spiral that destroys teamwork. What if you put an end to all the secrecy by bringing it out in the open? You and your co-workers could ask Michael for a team meeting and lay out the issue as you see it: “We feel like you don’t trust us and we aren’t comfortable making small talk anymore for fear of having our desks moved if we’re seen as being too chummy.” (Leave out the part about the snitches.) Tell him how this is hampering collaboration and affecting the work, ask him if he has a problem with the team’s behavior, and see what he says. …. Stick to the facts and how you feel, rather than making it about him (“We’re uncomfortable” vs “You’re spying on us.”).
If, after your attempts to bring things out into the open, it becomes clear that Michael is simply evil (some people live to stir up trouble), your best recourse may be to approach Michael’s boss with the problem and perhaps Michael can be reassigned. Be sure to focus on the effect it’s having on the team’s work when you talk to his manager.
No one likes a tattle-tale
“Silenced” implied that in this situation the snitches were unwilling accomplices for Michael. The reluctant snitches feel like they’re “damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” and everyone else is walking on eggshells. If you are bothered by snitches in your office, whether of the unwilling or voluntary variety, the best solution is to keep your behavior above reproach. Be a good performer, watch what you say and do, lock your screen when you step away from your workstation, and keep fodder for wagging tongues (your Viagra stash, photos of your wild-and-crazy girls’ weekend in Atlantic City) at home or out of sight. If you are put in the “unwilling snitch” position, I would advise telling your boss that you’re not comfortable with the role and to please not ask that of you.
Trust is hard to rebuild once it has been broken. Your work center may take time to heal after this deplorable practice is discontinued, but give it time and hopefully the open cooperation you once enjoyed will return.
Emphasis mine. I’m relishing that series of words…. “We work in an Agency of secrets, but this kind of secrecy begets more secrecy and it becomes a downward spiral that destroys teamwork. What if you put an end to all the secrecy by bringing it out in the open?” I hope that wherever in Russia Edward Snowden is today, he can take come grim solace in the fact that somewhere inside the vast NSA, there exists or once existed (maybe she’s retired) a 29-plus-year veteran who, even if she doesn’t know it, thinks that Snowden did the right thing.
But then again, as she wrote, “No one likes a tattle-tale.” I think I’ll go vomit now.
Posted by Martin Schneider |