The Foreign Service Journal, March 2007

it is impressed by the power of a telling performance in large events. Board members are as susceptible as anyone else to posing the question, “Who cares?” One officer acts in matters of great moment to the United States, pushing through a trade agreement with a major trading partner, influencing the creation of a new financial institution, warning correctly of an unexpected change in government. A second offi- cer, in a jungle outpost, stays late and “designs his own kitchen cabinets.” The top ranks of the Foreign Service are thick with officers who went where they were told to go, serv- ing at unpromising posts where they were assigned unglamorous tasks. Some can be said merely to have sur- vived this career test. Others, recog- nizing that it was not enough just to meet the demands of the job, created their own demands. For example, they might make the impoverished host country a model for some previ- ously unthought-of route to economic development. Others, against all odds, were lifted out of anonymity by a political or nat- ural cataclysm. The boss of a one- person post in Indonesia received much praise in official documents for the extraordinary compassion, energy and efficiency he displayed when the 2004 tsunami struck near his modest office far away from the embassy. Much has been made of the pri- macy of “management” as a qualifying skill for rising to the top, and there- fore as important material for an EER. I’m a convert to this view, though not a zealous one. Managers are not necessarily leaders or even conceptualizers. Managers can orga- nize, oversee, discipline and motivate subordinates, but may not electrify them. That is the province of leaders, who may be weak managers. The “law partner” analogy as a basis for the promotion of political officers continues to limp. A political officer may be a writing fool, but if the officer intends only to be a reporter and never a manager, he or she will suffer career limitations. Those employees who view themselves pri- marily as analysts are entitled to their temperaments, but unless they learn to systematize and supervise, they will not, generally speaking, add enough value to the system to justify making them seniors. Destructive Criticism No one likes to give or receive crit- icism, so it rarely shows up in EERs outside of the “Areas for Improve- ment” box. One of the most common entries there is “failure to delegate.” For example: “The DCM’s micro- management resulted in a continuing heavy burden on his own schedule and a relaxation of staff ef- forts.” I believe I noticed, however, that those not subsequently promoted were often accused of a lack of asser- tiveness or even expression: “His only deficiency is that he is not forceful enough in insisting upon his judg- ments and thus earning the dividends of being proved correct.” The bland criticism found in that section sometimes cuts closer to the bone than is realized, however — especially if it is repeated. One of the most damaging pieces of evidence in the eyes of a selection board is the reappearance of the same criticism, however minor, year after year. Raters often employ faint praise in lieu of direct criticism. It is usually a sign of evasive pusillanimity. Words like “fine” and “good” find themselves gasping for air like a mackerel on the dock next to the sharks of “brilliant” or “sparkling,” overused as these gamy fish may be. In dealing with apparent criticism, the rated employee might ask the rater if he or she actually intended the statement to reflect negatively. If not, would the rater consider amending the words or simply dropping the sen- tence in which they occur? If the rater acknowledges that the implied criticism was intended, the rated employee might then ask that the crit- icism be made more explicit as an inducement to growth. In this way, at least one of the two participants in the process is acting honorably. Sometimes worse than faint praise is a sub-category that we might call “inferential ellipsis.” A thought that might initially be considered compli- mentary is not taken to its final, fatal conclusion: “He doesn’t appear to search for the biggest piece of meat, but it always seems to end up on his plate.” Selection boards refer to the employee’s statement as the “suicide box.” One employee described as showing manic tendencies, but not quite clinical mania, tended to con- firm the reader’s worst fears by writ- ing a 10-page statement of refutation. Instances of intemperance abound: “Morale improved noticeably when the office management specialist departed on her broomstick.” “Yes, I’m late for meetings — because I run into so many people in the halls want- ing to discuss his faults.” In most instances, criticism is best accepted gracefully in the employee’s statement while he or she focuses on the positive — or is simply ignored altogether. Most criticism is far from fatal and is thus better looked upon as a pesky fruit fly than a rodent devour- ing the entire performance. Damning with Faint Praise EER inflation, though rampant, seldom threatens a board’s judgment. Even the most sympathetic, enthusi- astic rater cannot manufacture a per- formance where none exists. “Nemo dat quod non habet” (No one gives what he doesn’t have). The worst examples of inflation amuse rather M A R C H 2 0 0 7 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 19 F S K N O W - H O W