Tell Me Yes

A military man told me about an interaction that changed his career.  An enlisted man, he was given authority over other enlisted personnel.

One day, he and a man under his authority were called to a superior’s office.  The officer spoke his thoughts regarding the recent behavior of the low-man, stated the actions that he intended to take toward the low-man, and then asked the middle-man to speak his mind as to whether he agreed with this plan.  Obeying, the middle-man spoke his opinion, suggesting an alternative to the officer’s plan.  Immediately, the officer ordered the low-man to leave the room.  Then, he privately derided the middle-man, telling him, “Whenever a superior asks you for your opinion, you (must) say that you agree with the superior, even if that’s not what you really think.”  The officer then stripped the middle-man of his authority, which he never acquired again.

As you would expect, when the middle-man’s term of service was completed, he did not reenlist.

Every organization has its unique culture.  Although some very vocal people say that no person has the right to judge someone else’s culture, do not let their advice prevent you from acknowledging that some behaviors are inherently impractical:  Everyone hates to be punished for violating a standard of which he or she was never apprised.  Furthermore, every person hates to be told, “Always agree with me, even if it means lying.”  A referent power leader understands these truths.

In the APL seminar, we discuss the phenomenon of groupthink, which occurs when the organization’s top value is unanimity.  In the story above, notice how the military officer’s behavior puts his team at high risk for groupthink.  In fact, it guarantees that groupthink will occur:  If everyone who is ordered to give an honest opinion dissents with the superior, is punished, and leaves, then the only members remaining on the team will be those who lie to the superior because he has taught them to do so.

To refrain from asking for a subordinate’s opinion is understandable; to compel the subordinate to render an opinion and then punish him or her for providing it is incomprehensible.

Avoid pretense; tell people what you require of them.  They will appreciate it and they will follow you.

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