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Don't Wish for Obedient Employees

Instead, like the military, nurture an environment of moral courage, one in which team members break stupid rules, and suggest smarter solutions.
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When Fred Krawchuk was a lieutenant colonel, the U.S. Army sent him to business school. As the class explored leadership issues, one of his classmates argued "For you, Fred, leadership is easy. You give orders and people follow." It was clear that to these executives, military command must make leadership issues a cinch. But Krawchuk, who went on to lead complex and sensitive projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, thought that leadership was far more complicated—and I think he's right.

Nevertheless, plenty of CEOs dream of simple obedience. Why, they want to know, won't people just do what I tell them? What makes everyone think they're entitled to an opinion? Can't we just get on with things?

Be careful what you wish for. Psychology experiments over the last 50 years have demonstrated—with a robustness that's worrying—that most people, most of the time, are obedient. Even when there are no rewards for compliance and no penalties for disobedience, most people will do what they're told. Of course in the workplace, there almost always is some kind of repercussion for non-compliance and most people imagine they'll be rewarded for following orders. That's why it proved so easy to get men and women who, in other circumstances were decent, ethical individuals, to sell sub-prime mortgages and other kinds of debt to people whom they knew could not afford it. You can't have a banking failure on the scale we've just witnessed without thousands of ordinary men and women doing things that, on reflection, they know are wrong. People mostly do what they're asked and lack of obedience is not a significant leadership problem.

Engagement, on the other hand, is a problem. A truly engaged employee might well disobey a stupid instruction— but you'd want them to. An involved employee might come up with a better solution or at least alert you to the problems with the wrong one. Employees who are proud of the company and feel committed to its success may be more challenging to manage—but that's a good problem to have. If all you want is obedience, get a robot. Or a dog. But if you want creative solutions, you'd do better to foster a culture of moral courage.

What's perhaps surprising is that the military has considered this issue with infinitely more subtlety than most business schools. In part, that's because obeying orders has a distinctly worrying history in the military: Think of the Third Reich or of My Lai. But the Army is also crucially aware that what goes on in the field is too complex and changes too quickly and unpredictably for any one leader to be able to anticipate or even keep up with events. That means power and initiative has to be distributed and people have to be trusted. What that also means, according to Krawchuk, is that moral courage isn't one person's job; it's everyone's.

"Obedience is just too simple," Krawchuk told me. "In a highly complex situation, anything too simple doesn't work. And it is a misservice to sit back and wait to be told what to do. There is something about moral courage, about standing up for what is right. It might mean you assume some risk and write a position paper or schedule a briefing to help solve some of these difficult problems we're facing right now. I think we need more than just people doing what they're told or waiting to be told."

Last updated: Mar 30, 2012

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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