Liquid courage. We’ve all seen it in action; some of us even remember our own acts of drunken “bravery.” As the only sober person at a business dinner, my downfall was that I believed the sloshed slobs surrounding me.
I was working as an accounting manager in a branch office of a large law firm, and my counterparts from other offices and I were all at HQ for a “retreat.” The first evening, a dozen or so of we branch office types went out for a nice dinner. The wine flowed, laughter pierced the night, and the conversation turned to trash talk.
Every year, the meetings at the retreat included an “open forum” in which we were all encouraged to speak freely about what was on our minds. Ha. Lovely little trick that, let me tell you. A big fat trap designed to ferret out the rogue spirits and shut them down. It was the same thing every time; some idiot (mostly me) would decide to actually speak up during the open forum and would quickly discover that no one at HQ had any interest whatsoever. The idiot was labeled a dangerous dissident and cut out like a cancer. Well, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it was almost exactly like that.
So that evening at dinner, I mentioned some things I thought HQ should be asked to address. A dozen colleagues were slurring “you know it Jill,” and “I agree completely Jill.” OK, so tomorrow at the meeting everyone is going to speak up? “Damn straight!”, “Hell yes!”, “We’re not going to take this anymore-united front!” Looking around at my fellow rebels, tears in my eyes, I felt like the Lech Walesa of the law firm branch office accounting manager world.
The next day I seemed to be one of the few people not wearing dark glasses and washing down Tylenol with mimosas. But wouldn’t it all be better when we cleared the air? A couple of hours of looking at white boards that mapped out the way various general ledger transactions flowed through T accounts (it was the perfect time to take a quick nap), and there it was on the agenda…Open Forum.
I cleared my throat, looked the CFO straight in the eye and said, “the branch office managers have some issues we’d like to discuss” He gave me a look that said a) I probably can’t get you fired for this and b) but I will die trying. I stood up and threw out a couple of items. Not adversarial mind you, just advocating for our right to think rather than blindly follow orders like sheep. Baa.
When I finished speaking the CFO said he thought I was the only one who felt that way. Smug, hands on my hips, I said “No, we all spoke about it last night and we stand behind this.” Sweeping my arm grandly around the conference room, I was straining to hear the sound of my colleagues cheering me on…but it was just the sound of silence. I looked around, starting to feel a little desperate. Crickets. “Cathy, did you not bring up this very point last night at dinner?” Cathy shrugged her shoulders, mumbled something incoherent, and stared down at her lap.
“Joe, weren’t you fired up about that new software being shoved down our throats?” Joe stared at the ceiling and looked like someone who had never been fired up about anything in his life. And so it went as one colleague after another denied all involvement. I did have one partner in crime who spoke up, but with no other momentum we were shut down, turned off, and kicked to the curb.
I stood up at Open Forum every year and spoke out against the hypocrisy until I was cited for war crimes and sentenced to a lifetime of accountancy. Thank goodness I later broke free. After I left the firm I begged my friend to play a video at the next retreat of me whining and complaining…but it seemed like a wasted effort. Annoying the CFO was one of my greatest pleasures in life, but it wasn’t the same unless I was there.
Let this be a cautionary tale; friends don’t let friends down one bottle of wine after another while plotting a coup d’état.