Saturday, April 19, 2014

An Elephant in the Room?

I'm still wondering if this title is a bit misleading, because it makes it sound as if I'm going to write about something that everyone knows about, but that no one wants to talk about. The misleading part comes in because I think this topic IS talked about to a small degree, but to me it's tangible to a HUGE degree and therefore worthy of mention. Plus, I've had many conversations with co-workers and/or their spouses who note that it was an unpleasant surprise once they joined the Foreign Service.

So what is it?  Competitiveness.

Big deal? Depends on the person, I suppose.  For me it was a very palpable thing, really elephant-sized, that became obvious to me as I first started investigating the idea of joining.  

As a disclaimer, I should start off by saying that by nature I'm a very non-competitive person. By that, I mean that I don't like to win for the sake of winning.  When I win, whether it is in a board game or an athletic endeavor, the flush of excitement of prevailing over others is quickly dampened by the realization that my victory comes at the cost of their loss and that now they probably feel bad. It really ruins the whole victory thing if I care about the person I out-whatever'd because who can feel up when another person is now down? (However, if they were a boastful, show-off to begin with, well then all bets are off.)  Before I sound like a sappy dishrag, I must note that I am very self-competitive, which means that victory, achievement, challenge-and-success IS very sweet to me when I beat my own expectations, when I push myself to succeed or reach a difficult goal.  That kind of stuff I love because I feel proud for having the determination and discipline to have accomplished whatever the thing is. I'm just not the person who wants to feel superior to others, or that I've bested them in a "Ha! In your face sucka'!" sort of way.  

The  competition thing became apparent when I first joined the many Yahoo groups that exist to help people learn about the testing and hiring process for the State Department. These groups are extremely informative about the various examination steps and how to prepare for them, but one also gets a pungent whiff of one-upmanship on these message boards.  (By the way, they are very useful. I don't think I would have gotten through the hiring process without this preparation.  Please see this link for a comprehensive list.) Upon joining these groups, I quickly realized that I had to be on top of my game to play in this league.  All the time.  Mistakes or misinformation posted by one person innocently, even when in an effort to help another person, are quickly brought to light by other users under the guise of setting the record straight, but sounding a lot more like being outed by Donald Sutherland in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."   It was a very good introduction to the kind of pool I'd be swimming in.  Yes, people are supportive and friends can be made, but this competitive element is just, well there, all the time.  Consider yourself forewarned.

Why should I be so surprised? Why does this even bear mentioning?  After all, it is a very competitive process to get hired with a small percentage making it through. It's a very competitive job once you DO get hired, and there is an up-or-out system where one must continue to be promoted in order to keep your job.  Promotions are competitive; we're compared to others within our group. Why should excellence be a flaw?  It keeps us progressing and looking for better ways to do things; it makes people stay sharp.  All good points for which I have no defense, and all the truth.  

I also shouldn't be surprised about this competitive thing when I look at the mix of people who gravitate towards this career, and it's quite a mix. From the fellowship program members who are fresh out of grad school (usually in their very early 20s) and who have already been successful in a highly competitive selection process and who have earned graduate degrees from serious-marquis named universities; to retired military Colonels, to former lawyers, former doctors, former Indian chiefs, to mayors of cities and life-long scholars with PhDs in neuro and rocket science - I have colleagues who have been nearly all the above.  These are not slackers; these are people who are used to challenging themselves and achieving results. These are usually people who are used to being the smartest kid in the room.  These are academic introverts, natural leaders, captains of industry and problem solvers.  Why should I now expect them to be any different? 

For those of us who feel we got hired because we happen to have a sunny personality, who prepared ad nauseam for each step in the process, and who feel that we just had a few good days - lemme' tell you, it can be pretty stressful to have to keep up this pace.  

So how does this competitiveness look and feel in the day-to-day working life?
(Another disclaimer: I am now assigned to a post that is a rare creature among posts worldwide. It is a consulate the size of many embassies with 47 entry-level officers [ELOs]. That means 46 other first and second tour, nontenured officers who are fresh from the starting block, ready to learn and make their mark, eager to be noticed and prepared to elbow their way to the front of the crowd.  Eager once again to be the smartest kid in the room. This is not the average post and my reaction could very possibly be in response to this particular setting. Your mileage may vary elsewhere.)

Back to the question:  Competitiveness is palpable when assignments are handed out and quickly the whispering starts about why someone was or wasn't chosen and why didn't I get selected instead?  Who is the fastest visa adjudicator and has the highest numbers? Who has the best handle on the language and who still keeps saying it wrong? Who knows the FAM (Foreign Affairs Manual) inside and out and is a resource for the other slackers? Who gets praised publicly with awards? Who did or didn't make tenure?  ARGH.

The very first day at post, when I had meetings with each of the Consulate's senior leadership, I noticed a recurring theme among the advice they offered: As an ELO, my only goal should be to just do my best at my job, be a generally nice person to work with and tenure will naturally follow.  After that, keep up with this motto and promotion will follow.  I now understand why each of them made a point of saying this, because I'm sure they see all us chickens, squawking and pecking at each other when we really don't need to.  

But now back to my calling this competitiveness an elephant in the room:  While I appreciate the advice given by our senior leadership that first day, it seems that unfortunately we DO need to elbow each other a bit.  We do need to have certain achievements on our annual employee evaluation reviews (EERs) to get tenured and promoted, and to get these achievements, we have to be a bit better than the average bear.  We have to make process improvements, which means always looking for a better way to do something, fixing what the other guy just did.  We have to take leadership roles which inevitably entails telling our colleagues what to do and how.  We have to make ourselves known and shine just a bit brighter than the rest.  (Sidenote example: my husband volunteered to work the grill at a Consulate BBQ recently along with a handful of ELO coworkers. He noticed that each ELO who took their turn manning the grill would rearrange the food and preparation process slightly different from the previous person to do things just the way they liked.  I thought that was hilarious, and very true.)  And unfortunately it means that we're subject to taking a tiny bit of pleasure in hearing about another person's shortcomings. 

I'm finding that I'm guilty of all the above and I don't like it. Not the job; I love my job. But I hate that this competition brings out the high-schooler in us all. I hate that it's an atmosphere where it's hard to be wholeheartedly happy for someone else's success.  I hate that I feel like if I have a few bad days, I'll lose pace with the pack.  I hate that I have to very carefully choose with whom I confide my own shortcomings or worries for fear that they will be used against me in the future.  I find that I relive my work day nightly in my dreams, using that time of mental relaxation to find any possible errors that need correction or ways to do things better the next day.  In fact, in our first three months in Bogota, I experienced more stress-related health issues than ever before in my life.  

When viewed individually, I truly enjoy 97% of my colleagues, finding them interesting, funny, and often generous and kind. In fact, it's hard to pinpoint just who is responsible for this competitive ambiance, as in, "Well when so-and-so leaves, it'll all be so much more relaxed around here."  Therefore I conclude that it really isn't some ONE, but rather an unconscious collective effort among us all.

Is this what life these days is like anywhere?  Do teachers and firefighters feel like this too?  Will I achieve higher highs for having swum with these sharks when it's all over? After all, steel is hardened only by tempering, right?  I'm sure that even at my ripe ole' age, I'll benefit from this competition.  Honestly, it could go one of two ways: either I'll eventually say (in my best Cartman voice) "Screw you guys, I'm going home!" or, "Wow, I really could do more when pushed a bit!".  

I suppose it's all up to me.  I've wanted to write this for a while to let y'all know the reality of what it's like and also to help myself discover what the best answer could be. Thanks for listening, and good luck to us all. 


  1. This really struck a nerve with me:

    "Mistakes or misinformation posted by one person innocently, even when in an effort to help another person, are quickly brought to light by other users under the guise of setting the record straight, but sounding a lot more like being outed by Donald Sutherland in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

    I am a member of the Yahoo boards as well, and I believe I wholeheartedly I would have not passed the OA if it were not for the advice presented there...but I do feel your above statement is very true. I actually thought about leaving the groups because of one thread that got particularly nasty.

    Your writing reminds me a little of what life can be like here in Peace Corps. It's not the same level (we don't have an "up or out" system) but the competitiveness is rife -- especially because my post is so close to the United States and we receive constant visitors from HQ, Members of Congress, etc. all the time. Sometimes it feel like we need to stand out all the time and in every positive way possible. Some here try to stand out at the expense of others, while others embrace the competitive nature of our post, even though it can be an extremely tiring and frustrating endeavor.

    Anyway, thank you for writing this post; I appreciate gaining a real view into a bit of the Foreign Service work culture.

  2. Thank you Future Diplomat for adding your experience to this topic. My husband was in the Peace Corps, too (albeit many years ago) and his experience was very different from what we experience now and what you describe here. I wonder if it's just that "the times they are a changin'" or that a weaker economy adds a dog-eat-dog element to even volunteer work? I must admit that the camaraderie and feeling of being accepted into a family-like group is still strong and very positive in the FS - which I love - but it seems the competitive atmosphere is the price of admission we pay to be in this club. Good luck with in your journey towards removing the "future" from your title.

  3. As for me, I enjoyed the Cartman reference....

  4. I really enjoyed your article Caitlin. I'm a fairly competitive person myself, but I am hyper aware of it. I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa and experienced the same competitiveness you describe as well as what Future Diplomat described. It was one of the hardest parts of my service, I felt like I was being judged constantly by my fellow Volunteers, despite everyone having a different experience.

    I hope that I can continue to work on reigning in my own competitiveness as a FSO. I start A-100 next month!

  5. Girlfawkes - I'm sorry to hear a second version of the same story about Peace Corps. My husband notes that in his PC days it was very unpretentious and he felt being a volunteer wasn't the means to something or somewhere else, but a destination in itself. If you're heading to A-100 in a month, I'm sure you've already started to notice the posturing. Wait 'til the happy hour the night before class starts! It's a lot of fun, exciting, but can also feel like high school in better clothes and with no curfew. Bonne chance!

  6. I also served in CDJ, and I think that the feeling of competitiveness there is amplified due to the huge number of new officers doing the same job and the fact that visa adjudications are quantifiable, as in Joe did 120 NIV cases today but Sharon only did 100. I also think that fact that it's such a large visa mill and the work is tedious, so everyone wants to do something else for awhile. So, that naturally prompts additional hurt feelings when someone feels like they deserved a rotation and didn't get it.

    I'm now in Ottawa, with only a handful of ELOs and doing different jobs and spread out amongst several sections, and with plenty of opportunities for special projects, and there's not the same sense of competitiveness. One, there are plenty of opportunities to go around. Everyone will get to be a control officer for something at some point, all of the consular folks get to do visas, ACS, and some management functions, etc. Also, it's harder to compare what others are doing to what you're doing, because the jobs are different. I'm in the Econ section, there's another ELO in the POL section, a couple more in the CONS section, etc, all doing different jobs. And, people are at different stages, too. We have a mix of first and second tour ELOs, and on different bidding and tenure/promotion cycles. So, instead of having a ton of us up for tenure at the same time, it's rare to have more than one. So, that also mitigates the sore feelings.

    So, while competitiveness is certainly alive and well in the foreign service, I think the circumstances in CDJ make it especially acute in that environment because so many people are doing the same job and clawing for the same few opportunities to do something different.

    1. Texpatica - Thank you for sharing your experience in Juarez. I'm sure you're right about ELO-heavy posts having this extra special competitive environment. I heard from a friend in one of the larger Chinese visa mills (one that has more ELOs than Juarez!), and her experience has been much the same, if not worse in this respect. Nature of the beast, I suppose.