Note: I’m having to redact swearwords on my blog these days, because the advertisers don’t like them and that means I make less money. Now I’m a skint student, I need all the pennies I can gather.
I first heard of the term “sh*tburger” through my friend in the Royal Marines, who used it to describe an awful task he had to get his subordinates to carry out. If late on a Friday orders came in meaning everyone would be working the weekend, and some of the unit were already halfway out the door and looking forward to some time with their families, my friend would say he had to ask them to eat a sh*tburger.
Anyone who’s been in the military will tell you that servicemen put up with all manner of harsh conditions with very little complaining provided the commanding officers have been honest with them. In other words, if they need to run 10 miles, don’t tell them they need to run 5 and then spring the next 5 on them later. Outside of basic training, this sort of stuff doesn’t go down well and really erodes trust between the officers and men. Soldiers are professional men, who expect to be treated as such: if they need to run 10 miles, tell them so and they’ll figure out how to do it.
If the men run 10 miles and it transpires they need to run an additional 10, you’re asking them to eat a sh*tburger. Even in the military, especially a unit as tight as the Royal Marines, this needs to be approached with caution (we’re talking peacetime here, not the middle of the Battle of the Bulge). A decent officer will straight-up acknowledge he’s asking his men to eat a sh*tburger and he’ll be somewhat apologetic about it. He’ll also take great pains to give the impression the sh*tburger he’s asking them to eat is not a result of his poor planning or incompetence, nor of his desire to please his own senior officers. He’ll dress it up as something out of his direct control that his unit now needs to get done, and as professionals he expects them to get on with it. There might be a bit of chimping from the men, but under those conditions they’ll knuckle down and do it, in part because they don’t want to let down their fair-minded CO.
If the men get the impression they’re eating sh*tburgers because their CO is too poorly organised to arrange the transport back to base after a 10 mile run, they’ll be absolutely livid. Now this might not seem important – after all, the officers of the French Foreign Legion probably didn’t care what the legionnaires thought of them in the 1890s, but times have changed. I was speaking to a Royal Marine officer in August who told me his approach to giving everyday orders to his men is to start with, “right lads, this is what we have to do” in a very calm, reasonable voice. This is sensible, particularly if there is brutally tough NCO with 20 years experience and a waxed moustache on the receiving end of your words. If they don’t like you, they won’t mutiny but they can make your life an awful lot harder (which I’ll write about in another post). In summary, even if you’re a Royal Marine officer, respect runs in both directions through the chain of command and simply ordering your men to eat a succession of sh*tburgers of your own making is not on.
Back in civilian life, I always saw a large part of my job as a manager to act as an umbrella, keeping the sh*tburgers off my team’s plate. In a modern corporation, sh*tburgers rain down from on high as if pumped from a machine, and a huge percentage of them are unnecessary. I understand if a platform catches fire or there’s an oil leak, everyone is expected to run around eating sh*tburgers. But if in the course of normal, steady-state operations someone comes running in demanding my team eats a sh*tburger because he’s left something way too late, or neglected to communicate something, or is unorganised, or his own department hasn’t done its job, or is panicking because someone high up has merely asked, “where are we with that, then?” I see it as my job to look at it and go, “nah”. Not that I’ll refuse to do it, but I’m not going to ask my team to cancel their weekend, skip essential steps in the process to meet a deadline, do a half-arsed job, or compromise their professional integrity because someone else has screwed up. As I’m fond of saying, “your f*ckup ain’t my emergency.”
What most people don’t realise is it’s a manager’s job to manage the hierarchy above him, particularly his own manager. A manager has an obligation to protect his team from unnecessary sh*tburgers, not blithely hand them down as he receives them. If you’re given an unreasonable deadline by your manager, it is your job to question it, to push back, to do whatever it takes in terms of popularity and career progression to avoid asking your team to eat unnecessary sh*tburgers. In the course of my career I have seen less than a handful of managers actually willing to do this. Like I said in this post, a lot of modern corporate managers spend around 95% of their time looking upwards, grovelling their way to the next promotion, and view their teams purely as an inconvenience. As such, they have no qualms about relaying sh*tburgers downwards as fast as they come in, and they’d sooner throw their children into a pit of lava than push back against their line manager. But there have been some exceptions, and one Frenchman in particular stood out from his peers by a mile by his willingness to challenge his own hierarchy and support his team members should they be put in an unreasonable position. If only there were more like him.
So to answer the question Matthew McConnagay poses here, you push back on the unnecessary sh*tburgers. You ask your manager straight-up whether he pushed back on what was clearly an unreasonable request, and if not why not. Most of the time you’ll get a small, effeminate shrug while he bleats “but this is what the boss wants so we have to do it” or some dishonest guff like “but this is the nature of our business”, but at least it makes him uncomfortable. Many managers, especially weak ones who want their subordinates cowed and compliant, interpret silence as contentment. Believing their actions are being met with approval, they are emboldened to continue in the same manner. Keeping silent allows bad managers to justify poor behaviour to themselves and keep their consciences clear. It allows them to go home at night and look their wives and kids in the eyes instead of hanging their heads in shame. I would prefer a consistently bad manager to be made uncomfortable; say something, and you make them uncomfortable, far more than they let on. Subordinates are under no obligation to give their superiors a comfy ride at their expense.
But here’s the odd thing: I don’t think batting back sh*tburgers whence they came did much damage to my career. Near the end of one assignment I was told of a conversation which took place by a third party who was in the same room:
“Oh wait, no. We have to perform a HAZID before we send it to Engineering, or Tim will just refuse to accept it and hand it back. He’s done that before, we need to do this properly.”
“Yes, he’s awkward like that. But he’s right, we are supposed to do a HAZID before we pass it to Engineering. In a way I respect that he maintains the standards. He’s a pain in the neck, but maybe we should all be more like that?”
Of course, if you’re more worried about your career then it’s best to cooperate fully and do whatever your boss tells you without question, regardless of the effect it has on your team. But you’d better get used to the taste of sh*tburgers and being despised by your subordinates.