James Comey’s opening statement reads like the test answer you’re supposed to give at the end of the Human Resources training video. When your superior makes you uncomfortable should you a) explain your boundaries b) discuss the issue with your direct report c) make contemporaneous notes to lock in your recollection or d) all of the above.
Comey picked D.
The question of whether the president tried to impede the FBI investigation will go many rounds, but the former FBI director’s opening statement doesn’t just illuminate those issues. It is also a workplace document—a window into how the president operates. Along with other developments in the Trump administration this week, the Comey testimony offers a striking picture of boss and subordinate relations.
The issues raised are not just of obstruction of justice but obstruction of progress. How can Trump administration officials operate in such an unpredictable environment? The president delights in breaking norms, but he undermines his colleagues who can’t predict where he’s going. That contributes to an atmosphere of chaos and saps from administrative veterans the greatest skill they bring—the ability to anticipate events that occur along normal patterns.
A number of Donald Trump’s supporters told me during the campaign they had faith that he would be a good president because he would be helped by the experts around him. But the president’s improvisation saps experts of their key skill: pattern recognition. Chess masters don’t evaluate all the possible moves. They know how to discard 98 percent of the ones they could make and then focus on the best choice of the remaining lot. That’s the way expertise works in other fields too: Wise practitioners recognize familiar patterns and put their creativity, improvisation, and skill toward the marginal cases.
This week, experts throughout the administration were having their plans scrambled. Department of Justice officials fighting to defend the second Trump order limiting immigration from terrorism-linked countries were undermined by the president’s tweeting. “The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C.,” he wrote. That’s his justice department he’s talking about there, carrying out his orders. This caused George Conway, the husband of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, to plead with the president on Twitter to stop undermining his case.
Oliver North went a little too far, of course, but the Trump White House faces the opposite problem. In the Trump White House, when staffers try to anticipate the boss they get undermined by the boss.
Three weeks ago, National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster issued sweeping statements knocking back reports that the president passed on sensitive information to Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting. The next day, the president offered a different story.
These kinds of moves lead to embarrassing paralysis. No staffer wants to get too far out on a limb when they’re working for an unpredictable arborist. For two days in a row this week, White House spokespeople couldn’t answer if the president still had faith in his attorney general. Usually a staffer would say, “Of course he does,” but that guess can’t be made in the Trump administration. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked if the president had confidence in Comey and said of course he did, but then six days later, Trump fired Comey. Soon enough, the president was describing Comey as a nut who was mentally unstable.
The culture of undermining sends signals of disrespect. This approach not only saps motivation and undermines teamwork, it also lowers the motivation to work extra hours anticipating what can go wrong. If people feel like the boss doesn’t respect them, they don’t stretch for the boss.
So far, Trump has picked nominees for only 80 of the 558 important appointments he needs to fill. Only 40 of them have cleared Senate confirmation. He lags far behind his predecessors, according to the Partnership for Public Service. To fill those spots the president doesn’t just need warm bodies, he needs the highly talented types that were the implicit promise of electing a novice to the job. I’ve talked to several who have been approached for short- or long-term duty in the Trump administration. The evidence of the work environment that mounts with each passing day makes them highly wary. There is no human-resources training for how to respond when you work for an unpredictable president. It’s perhaps fitting that when you visit the website of the White House Office of Administration it says “Check back soon for more information.”
Source: The Atlantic