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March 10, 2008
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Invasion of the ‘But’ People

Tempting as it is to write a 1950s science fiction movie script with the title shown above, perhaps with a spelling change, that’s not what this article is about.

It is, however, about an invasion of people that causes harm and lays waste to creative opportunities in others. The But People are not alien invaders from another star system. Rather, they are often people who work or live right next door or in the next cubicle.

They are the people who modify many sentences with phrases like “I would have been on time, but…” or “I could have done such and such, but…”  The But People invest a lot of time and energy describing reasons and circumstances that prevent them from achieving a task, bringing in a project on time, getting promoted or generally feeling sorry for themselves.

At work there is a lot of time spent by the But People bemoaning their fate, comparing themselves to other people and expressing their displeasure about assignments, office layout, why this or that person got a raise but they didn’t and much more.

It is very likely that outside of work, in the private lives of the But People, a similar situation exists. “I’ll finish my homework later…but right now the latest episode of Dancing with the Starsis about to come on.” Relations with a spouse and with children as well as neighbors often follow the path described above. The But People can be identified, not by having three eyes or wearing aluminum foil helmets, but by the extent of whining which develops in their presence.

The But People are drainers. They are often on the margin of satisfactory or less than satisfactory performance and behavior at work. They extract significant amounts of time and energy from their supervisors and managers as well as their colleagues.

The HR Doctor served for several years as a county government chief administrative officer. In the many presentations given to community groups and sometimes to children, I was regularly asked what it was like to be a county CAO. My answer was that, among other things, the days were busy and usually very productive. There were very exciting times of important contributions, and there were very frustrating times. 

Often I described being a CAO as like trying to herd grasshoppers. It is an effort to move a swarm of colleagues and citizens and other governmental entities along in a common direction with a common vision. Often too much time was spent dealings with the But People, who could always come up with a myriad of reasons why an initiative was not a good idea, or why an idea was doomed to failure from the start.

Certainly in our society the media have evolved, or perhaps devolved, to a point where they not only report the news and create the news, but that they represent an industry overflowing with But People. 

If the screenplay for a sci-fi movie was being written, it would most likely focus on the epidemiological impact of the But People. They are carriers of an infection that retards innovation. They make other people who have not yet caught the virus less willing to take a risk, step out in front to make a suggestion or change the status quo.

Another outcome of the invasion of the But People is the harm that the But attitudes can have on the excitement and willingness to participate, grow and learn on the part of brand-new staff members just entering public service.

Rarely will the But People be among the best mentors or “go-to” people to help develop the careers of others. To spend an hour helping a new colleague appreciate the opportunities available would mean taking time away from the more engrained time to be spent in finding “buts” to include in conversations. 

The counter-measure to the But People invasion might be found as much at the Centers for Disease Control as in the Human Resources Department of the local agency. Among the epidemiological principles is to take steps to isolate and contain an invasion and to identify the sources. Besides isolating and identifying them, infections generally need to be treated therapeutically.

The antibiotics to apply to infections include a strong dose of positive role models by organizations’ top leaders. When elected officials or top appointed executives are among the But People, the infection problems grow and containment becomes that much more difficult. Simply saying “thank you” and “I appreciate what you do” represents a strong antibiotic to people feeling unappreciated.       

It is all too easy to believe that But People are everywhere and that the invasion cannot be repelled. The HR Doctor is convinced that this is not the case. 

There are factors in our society which seem to make whining and excuse manufacturing two growth industries. While other manufacturing is being sent offshore, the growth in the mass production of excuses at home has mushroomed. 

You personally don’t have to be “absorbed” by the But People. Resist the invasion in the way you behave and project your behavior to others at work, at home and perhaps most importantly in the private space that exists between you and the mirror.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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