Mel's Misguided Managerial Minions - The 204B Survival Kit, Part One
204b Survival Kit
I have often puzzled over what the term 204B means. In postal vernacular it is a ubiquitous expression that every postal worker has thrown around at one time or another, mostly with an unprintable expletive attached to it, without knowing where it comes from. At times I wondered if 204b was simply the serial number for some half-human half-cyborg organism that responds without question to the impossible mandates thrown out arbitrarily by some semi-psychotic operator wearing a tie, but I now know that this is not true. The people that the United States Postal Service lumps together beneath this 204B banner are actually human beings with a soul, even though they are instructed to leave these souls at home before coming to work, because they become an unnecessary encumbrance. I can joke about this because I did my time as a 204B and I actually came out of the nightmare with a small piece of my own soul intact.
I do not wish to alienate my non-postal friends out there, so I will start off by giving a brief explanation of what a 204B is. A 204B is a craft employee such as a carrier or clerk that is "temporarily assigned to a management position as the needs of the service require. (Public Law 68-June 10, 1955 Section 204(b)." As it turns out ,the needs of the service always require. The Post Office is always short of delivery unit supervisors because the job sucks and nobody with any self respect wants to do it. All the same, using the term "temporary" to define this position is a stretch of the imagination, to say the least. I have known 204Bs who have been in their jobs for 10 years or more without ever being promoted. They grind out the miserable days and nights, sometimes working 15 hour shifts, with the mostly vain hope that someday they will be promoted and become a real boy or girl like Pinocchio being blessed by the magic wand of the blue fairy. Sadly, more often than not this magical transformation never happens.
So the 204B position was actually enacted by law in 1955, and 204(b) is simply the section of Public Law 68 that created it. The selection process for the job position is not exactly rigorous. The Postal Service tries to convince its best workers to do it first, but because the job requires longer hours of work for what often turns out to be less pay, prospects are not exactly lining up out the door. So after scratching off the best people from the top of the list the 204b scouts keep working their way down until they finally find someone who is willing to try it. By this time they are often scraping bottom, which solves the mystery of why postal managers in very lofty positions are frequently found who really stunk it up as craft employees. These less than stellar performers often started off at the bottom as 204bs, discovered that their lack of demonstrable conscience was an asset rather than a liability, and used the post as a springboard to move up.
In this hub I will examine the steps that the aspiring postal supervisor known by the rather colorless, lifeless title of 204B must carry out in order to ensure longevity in this position. In other words, I am going to compile a list of all the things that I did not do in order to make sure that the newly assigned 204B, with the glimmer of hope for a promising, upwardly mobile future still in his or her eyes, does what is necessary to stay alive in the cruel, heartless Postal Universe. I am almost certain that most of these steps apply to management positions everywhere, so don't tune me out if you are lucky enough to dwell in the non-Postal Universe.
I call these guidelines the 204B Survival Kit. But no matter where you work, if you follow these directives you are bound to stick around for awhile.
1. Don't Be Smarter Than the Boss
This piece of advice should be a no-brainer for anyone aspiring to a management position, no matter where you work. Every once in a millennium or so a real prince of a boss will be found who appreciates your intelligence, imagination, and innovative ideas, but if you really want to move up the food chain, keep your ideas to yourself, or disseminate them only among the thimbleful of co-workers you can trust, which won't be many. Dumb it up around the big boss if you can, because if he or she feels threatened by your intelligence you are sure to be exiled to the equivalent of 204b Siberia: working at some dilapidated tomb of a ghetto delivery unit with intermittently functioning electricity and inconsistent running water.
2. Shamelessly Steal From Others
So if you are in the blessed position of not being smarter than the boss, do not hesitate to take advantage of those who are by stealing their work and parading it around as if it was your own. Your immediate superior will not be offended by it. He works with you every day, after all, knows you are an idiot, and will not be fooled. Furthermore, he or she will be more comfortable around you from then on and think you're a real chip off the old block because they probably pulled shenanigans like this on their way up the ladder. After this you can wow visitors to your office by showing off some fabulous productivity-enhancing device you did not create, but they don't need to know the specifics, do they?
I once created a real nifty spreadsheet for calculating mail volume that cut out a lot of tedious calculator work. Later on a trusted colleague of mine told me that an unscrupulous rival was showing it off to visitors from the Area office and beaming with the praises that were heaped upon his head for his fantastic work. The point I am ultimately trying to make is that if you come up with something really good that can ultimately save thousands of man hours for your fellow 204bs, for goodness sake keep it to yourself. Showing it off only creates more trouble than it's worth.
3. Mete Out Arbitrary Punishment
Ultimately, as a 204b or as a supervisor anywhere in the corporate world you are expected to discipline your underlings with official discussions, letters of warning, suspensions and other forms of discipline; up to and including execution, which is allowable under federal law in certain circumstances, I think. Failure to distribute such discipline is interpreted as a sign of weakness, so you better get with it if promotion and advancement is your ultimate aim. Of course all of this discipline will eventually be overturned by the Union, but in the meantime, as one manager proclaimed to a gathering of supervisors, "you'll have fun doing it!"
Whatever route you go in selecting a victim in order to make your impression on the higher ups as a real take charge kind of guy or gal, don't go after the true evil doers. This is way too easy and you will probably be rewarded with a yawn by your boss before he throws you out of his office and slams the door behind you. So don't worry about the employee who you catch taking a two hour lunch. Chances are he's had everything thrown at him already and the people upstairs are tired of looking at his name. If they see your name on the top of the latest report they will only remember you as a source of continued irritation. Furthermore, and I have honestly seen this happen; he might be the bosses drinking buddy, which could be why he is so loose in his interpretation of the postal clock. Instead, I recommend going after the poor fellow or gal who exceeds his/her lunch or break by say, two minutes or less. If you do this you'll get a reputation as a real stickler for rules and will be feted and applauded by the decision makers up there on mahogany row. The fact that you will probably turn a good employee into a bad one by doing this is irrelevant to your career in the long run, so don't waste time worrying your handsome or pretty little head about it.
4 - Blame Your Co-Workers
Shifting blame away from yourself and onto somebody else is a time tested technique for moving up the corporate ladder, whether your work in a Post Office in Podunk, Iowa or a widget factory in Wherever Wisconsin. Your rather rotund, shifty-eyed Postmaster or Station Manager will not find fault in you for doing this, because he routinely engages in the practice himself and it responsible for a lot of the plaques and awards that adorn the walls of his meticulously neat office, which is so clean because not a lot of work goes on there. Also in his office are a lot of thick, heavy books on management skills that are mostly unread decorations, but every once in a while he will take one off the shelf and underline a quote in it, which he will then memorize to impress others. He or she will use the quote out of context and inappropriately, of course, but you will be momentarily fooled into thinking that your leader is some great swami or sage. Anyway, one of the subjects Managers love to quote on without understanding it is "resourcefulness," and blaming your co-workers for your goofs definitely falls under this umbrella, in their view. As a general rule of thumb, if you can set up somebody else to be a patsy for your own habitual mistakes and chronic incompetence than the sky is the limit! Just try not to leave an embarrassing paper trail when you do it, although this is not completely necessary if you are the boss's golf buddy or you laugh at his jokes when nobody else does.
To be continued...
I tried to create an all inclusive 204(b) survival kit, but to do so I discovered I needed a container about the size of a freight car, and these do not ship cheaply. Therefore, I have limited my kit to 8 items, and so that you can thoroughly meditate upon these first four I am going to examine items 5 through 8 in a second hub. So be on the lookout for 204b Survival Kit Part Two, coming soon to these pages. See you then!