On February 27th, CNN commented a recent publication by the War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, commissioned by exiting Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. Following the research, conducted by Leonard Wong, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute and retired Army officer, and behavioral sciences Professor Stephen Gerras, who held company and battalion command roles during his 25 years in the Army, “lying and deceiving have become standard practice and normal behaviour at all levels of leadership in the US Army!”
Could the same be happening inside our organizations?
Following some of our well informed partners who had access to the study, two cultural drifts were identified as the causes of this shocking revelation:
- Leadership: A highly demanding leadership style, where “failure is not an option”, which rejects any “excuse” for underperformance and whose first reflex is to ask “who was responsible for that mess?” leads to fear and “Power Distance”. When people are distant from their leaders, damaging stories start to emerge, people let their negative fantasies about authority take the place of reality. All gestures, all the behaviours of the significant leaders are scrutinized and used as a reinforcement that “Our leaders can’t be trusted, as they are punishing and do not tolerate mistakes!” Very rapidly a “Let’s guess what the boss wants to hear” culture will take over from honesty, control will replace trust and self-discipline, seeking permission will replace asking for forgiveness, entrepreneurship and innovation will have to follow rules and procedures if they want to have a chance to succeed. Fear of leaders is reigning, pushing subordinates in the arms of lies and deception, when they are not simply emulating the behaviours of their leaders.
Simon Sinek (known for his simple but very telling “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you did it!) is giving back some of its lost honour to the US Army (“In the Military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain”) vs the Corporate World (“In business, we give bonus to the people who are willing to sacrifice others, so that they may gain…”). For Sinek, what explains that ordinary people may do wonderful things (or basically what we would expect from any leader: being honest, courageous and transparent) is the culture (the environment) they live in, a culture of trust and cooperation. And trust and cooperation (and, would I add, entrepreneurship and innovation!) will only happen if we kill the fear in our organization, if people feel secure and protected!
- Procedures: the CNN article mentions something interesting: “Army officers are faced with an increasing number of requirements and bureaucratic hoops, according to the study, and rather than work with a rigid military brass to reform a burdensome bureaucracy, officers will simply sidestep those requirements, lying on forms and often rationalizing their answers.” Does this sound familiar?
When procedures become the purpose, when rules are made to ease the life of those who are not on the battlefield, there is indeed something wrong. Rather than blame and punish those who decide to “cut the corners”, let us understand the psychological “cover my a..” reflex which leads some people to believe that, by imposing more rules and procedures, they will protect themselves and their organization against competition and their disruptions.
Michael Newman, one of our partners who design some of our amazing business simulations, came up with one called “Tera Farma”. Without giving it away, I would say that one of the fascinating reflex we tend to see displayed by people, in it, is the fact of inventing rules that constrain them, recreating a complicated landscape, instead of freeing themselves up to become entrepreneurial and deal with the complexity that Michael’s simulation presents to them.
I recently was in one of the best interaction I ever saw between an Executive Board Member and a sizeable number of his top leaders. One of them was bitterly complaining of the amount of time he had to dedicate to bureaucratic requests of the central admin… “Just don’t do it!” was his provocative and determined reply. When he explained his view, he meant that a leader is expected you have a sufficiently strategic view of the organization to deal with the numerous dilemmas it presents to them and make the right decision.
Are our organizations open and transparent, does our leadership culture foster courageous conversations, does our leadership style induce people in guessing what we want to hear or have we built the trust needed so that our people can be “brutally honest” with us and us with them? I will resign the day that an audit claims that, in the Enablers Network “in the routine performance of their duties as leaders, our partners lie”.