Don't Staff the Ammo Dump
by Rick Brenner
"Staffing the ammo dump" is the job of retrieving ammunition for someone else to use in a political attack on a third party. It's a dangerous role.
Carl hated writing his monthly reports, because there was no evidence that anyone ever actually read them. Still, he had to finish it by five, so he kept at it despite the pain, all the while looking for other things to do. He was relieved when the phone rang.
It was Betsy, his boss. After the polite chitchat, she said, "Can you look at Paula's report on Marigold? Let me know what you think of the risk plan."
Paula, Betsy's peer, had recently assumed responsibility for Marigold from Betsy. Betsy had been a little peeved about this, because Marigold was Betsy's brainchild. Almost everyone thought she was still bothered about it, although she never said anything explicitly.
Betsy continued, "in strictest confidence of course."
"Sure," he said. They said good-bye, and Carl slowly and thoughtfully placed the handset in the cradle.
Carl felt uneasy. The request seemed strange, because it had come by telephone, rather than Betsy's more usual email. And Paula herself had asked Carl to comment on her risk plan, and Betsy knew it. As he wondered what was afoot, he completely forgot about his monthly report.
An ammo dump, in military parlance, is a place where ammunition is stored. "Staffing the ammo dump" is the job of retrieving ammunition for someone else to use in an attack on a third party. It's a dangerous role in the military, and it's no less dangerous in the office.
Unlike real ammo,
for safe handlingWe can't know for sure what Betsy had in mind, but it could have been a trip to the ammo dump, looking for ammunition to help her reclaim Marigold from Paula.
This is a dangerous role for Carl, because unlike real ammunition, Carl can't be sure of the safety or effectiveness of any metaphorical ammunition he provides. If something he provides harms Betsy, she might not honor her assurance of Carl's anonymity. She might be tempted to defend herself by claiming that she was relying on Carl's information. So if the ammunition is defective, or if it's misused, the staff of the ammo dump could be blamed.
What did Carl do? He replied by email to Betsy, indicating that he was perfectly comfortable with being open with Paula, and enclosed as an attachment the comments he had previously sent to Paula. What could Betsy do? She couldn't ask — or wasn't willing to ask — for ammunition explicitly, at least not in email. If she had in fact wanted ammunition, she had cloaked the request as a request for information, which Carl had honored. So Carl had complied with her request, without incurring the risk of staffing the ammo dump.
Requests for ammunition are usually ambiguous; ambiguity gives the requester deniability. But if the requester needs protection, you do too. If you think you might have been asked to staff the ammo dump, find a way to honor the literal request as openly as possible. Top Next Issue
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See also Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 28: The Limits of Status Reports: Part II
- We are not completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits. Available here and by RSS on January 28
- And on February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
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