Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.
- Christopher Logue
A perk of being a lawyer is that you learn a little about a lot in the course of taking instructions from clients and asking questions about their work and lives that will help tailor the legal advice.
An airman explained to me about microfails. The way I remember it, every new aircraft type is put in a test laboratory and subjected to flexing and bending and other forces that replicate the stresses it will experience in flight. The airframe's responses are electronically measured and calibrated into units called 'micro fails'. When the airframe finally breaks, the engineers and designers know how many micro fails it took to do so and therefore its tolerance to the unpredictable forces of flight.
An airframe's life is calculated as being as long as it takes to suffer a certain number of micro fails. An aircraft that does a lot of high stress manoeuvres that result in G forces on it will suffer more micro fails in a flight than if it flew straight and level. It will therefore have a shorter life.
Instruments in the aircraft detect and record each micro fail. The engineers monitor the total and when it reaches certain amounts, they will replace parts of the airframe, and 'rewind' the micro fail measurement instrument to zero.
MIcro fails are invisible. As the name suggests, they are tiny fractures of the integrity of the airframe that gradually degrade its strength until the point when one too many stressors adds the micro fail that breaks the aeroplane.
The airman who came to see me was alleging that the engineers were rewinding the micro fail measuring instruments to avoid having to ground the aircraft and put them into maintenance.
People have micro fails in response to forces around them in the workplace.
Missed promotion. Bang. A hundred micro fails.
Frustrating meeting. Shudder. Ten micro fails.
Brusque email written in haste. Ouch. Two micro fails.
A name forgotten. One micro fail. Catastrophic explosive decompression resulting in loss of a sense of proportion and humour and crash landing into stress leave.
Everyone has a unique total micro fail capacity before they break. A boss can rarely predict the stressor that will push the worker beyond their limit. It's not always the obvious less than perfect act of management. It might be an innocent misunderstanding. Crack.
Organisations wrongly assume that a new employee starts on zero (ignoring the legacy of their last job and their life in general) and assume to standardise the total micro fails for each employee by their contract, policies, pay and values.
People also wrongly assume that quitting a job and finding a new one will reset their micro fail metre to zero. There's almost always leftover fatigue that transfers to the new boss.
Organisations have various ways of doing the people maintenance that they again assume allows them to rewind the individual and collective worker micro fail meters to zero from time to time
Sometimes bosses just replace the people frames for new ones.
Worse, they introduce the equivalent of fraudulently rewinding the meter by running a professional development or team building day, introducing some new values of code of conduct, or emailing out inspiring and motivating words.
After the butchers paper has been binned, the mandatory training has been completed, the all staff email has been deleted - a boss chips a worker in front of their peers and deep inside the metal of each witness staff member, fissures grow and the individual micro fail tally resumes its countdown to breakdown.
Legions of experts, lawyers, consultants, therapists and researchers make their living both inside and external to organisations from training, advising, measuring, mentoring, coaching, facilitating, supporting, assisting, delaying, mending and covering up the human equivalent of the micro fail.
It's mainly placebos. Good and bad bosses alike are never sure what act of theirs will be the one too many.
A bad boss can routinely be bad and his workers will keep on building Widgets.
A good boss may omit one name from a speech acknowledging thirty others and the entire office is sprayed with debris and body parts from the disintegrating staff member for months afterwards.
So we keep on legislating, regulating, training, coaching and parenting in a vain attempt to smooth out the turbulence of the workplace and keep everybody happy.
It's not working. It can't. We can keep rewinding the meter or flying straight and level and avoiding tight turns and gravity, but we're deluding ourselves and each other.
As M Scott Peck wrote in the opening sentence of his book 'The Road Less Travelled':
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
The workplace is part of Life. It's difficult. The more we seek to protect people from the stressors of doing their jobs with good and bad bosses, peers, subordinates, clients, customers, machines, and gravity, the greater disservice we do to them by denying them the opportunity to confront Peck's Great Truth, learn from it, and to transcend it. All in a relatively safe environment - the workplace - compared to the unpredictability of the rest of Life where there is no boss to blame for what befalls us, and often no Widget to measure our bearings from.
I checked with my Aeronautical Engineer friend Francisco about my memory of micro fails. He'd never heard of them. He works on modern Boeing 787s.
'I think that you're referring to aircraft structures of the past that were built with a safe life,' he said. 'Newer aircraft are fail safe.'
We need to rethink our 'work frame' design and maintenance. We need to evolve from our artificial 'safe life' philosophy of minimising the consequences of engaging with the healthy human stressors that arise from doing any job that's worthwhile - ie Life. We need to stop demanding that the boss shields us from the natural turbulence and forces of doing innovative, creative, speed-of-sound work.
We need workers to become the equivalent of fail safe and bosses with the wisdom and bravery to allow it.
We need to come to the edge so that we can fly.