A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
March 7th, 2014 by William

That’s So Close to Interesting

Henry Ford, the pioneer of mass production, a true command and control type personality once said, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” What Ford’s really saying here is that he despises an employee that can think for him or herself or who would stand up for what they believe is right v. wrong. However, Ford is right that employees who can think for themselves and are not afraid to call out the boss then he’s wrong literally have no place in a strict hierarchy of the command and control management style. If you’re an employee in that type environment, challenging authority is hard, as ultimately the stakes are high.

I saw an article on LinkedIn by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Wheeler, titled “Sorry Captain, You’re Wrong” that got me thinking about this subject. Wheeler talks of the 2013 Asiana Airlines accident in San Francisco. The official investigation of the crash revealed that one of the co-pilots was afraid to warn his captain about the low-speed landing. As a result, the plane crashed short of the runway and three people were killed and 181 others were injured. What’s really interesting is the response to the crash by the CEO of the airline who blamed the crash on the fact that Koreans tend “toward a patriarchal culture and pilots work and fly within the strict military order.” In the military you do not second guess your commander and you certainly don’t point out his mistakes.

Actually, in the modern business environment, the receptivity of the boss to criticism is a universal problem. It’s not confined to Asia or airplane cockpits. And it isn’t simply whether workers should express their disagreement−it’s also whether the boss is even receptive to critical input. Therefore I’d never advise you to go tell the boss he/she is doing something wrong unless you know without a shadow of a doubt that he’she is receptive, i.e., what happens to people who do challenge authority? In many organizations the quickest way to move to the top of the lay-off list is by voicing any criticism of management or the status quo.

Wheeler also uses the 1982 Air Florida plane crash that killed both pilots, along with seventy-six others on board or on the ground, as an example. Air Florida Flight 90 was a domestic passenger flight from Washington National Airport to Fort Lauderdale. The plane managed to take off and stay airborne for 30 seconds before crashing and hitting six cars and a truck on a bridge and then plunging into the Potomac River. This sad tale is an example of the boss’s lack of receptivity to any simple questioning, let alone criticism, and utter calmness in ignoring the input from the copilot. The following is the flight-recorder exchange between the captain and his copilot as they waited for the control tower to clear them for takeoff. Their Boeing 737 had been de-iced earlier, but flights were backed up, and freezing rain was still falling.

Copilot: Anti-ice?
Captain: Real cold, real cold.
Copilot: Let’s check the ice on those tops [wings] again, since we’ve been sitting here awhile.
Captain: No. I think we get to go in a minute.
Copilot: [As they are rolling down the runway] God, look at that thing. That doesn’t seem right, does it? Uh, that’s not right.
Captain: Yes, there it is, eighty.
Copilot: Naw, I don’t think that’s right.
Captain: Hundred and twenty.
Copilot: I don’t know. [There is the sound of the plane straining unsuccessfully to gain altitude.]
Captain: Stalling. We’re falling.
Copilot: Larry, we’re going down!
Captain: I know it.

This transcript reveals a fatal discontinuity between the good intent on the part of the copilot and belligerent disregard on the part of the Captain. Despite the co-pilot’s concerns, the Captain nevertheless attempted to take off. This pilot and copilot certainly didn’t have a very trusting, respectful, relationship. The best guess is that the pilot simply didn’t want to wait any longer and going back for more de-icing would put him back to the beginning of the take-off queue. Intent on leaving, he shut out any input or information that would derail his original plan.

The captain shut out the copilot from any discussion and didn’t appear to even be listening to the copilot’s questioning of possible ice buildup. You’d swear the pilot must have been thinking: “this is so close to interesting-when’s he going to shut-up.”

The real problem lies in the fact that most modern leadership and management techniques are based on what’s called a “predict-and-control” paradigm. This management mindset revolves around the assumption that “management knows best.” They are responsible for planning the best path, anticipating the problems, and then controlling any deviations to the prescribed plan–they’re running the show. No one else in the organization is capable of that. This mindset is partially responsible for the “no surprises” mentality we see in many organizations. Since management can’t stand deviations to their plan they abhor being told when a problem exists. Learning of a problem usually progresses into the blamestorming mode that is another effect of predict and control.

This management style is a holdover from the 19th and early 20th century management mentality which gave rise to the hierarchal organizational structure still commonly in use today. In the typical top-down power hierarchy, work is organized, directed, and managed by those above and performed to process and procedure by those below. This worked well with the labor-intensive type work of the industrial revolution, but is doomed in the better educated, knowledge-based, information age we find today.

For true up-and-down communication to occur, what needs to happen is that business needs to shift from predict-and-control, to more of an “experiment-and-adapt” or “sense-and-respond” mentality. The key word here is “adapt.”

True “adaptive” behavior in an organization requires everyone have the freedom to question what’s happening, i.e., bring forward problems, and be respected and listened to. Being reactive is a hallmark of predict and control management methodology, but let’s face it, reactive is the way we’ll all spend most of our careers. Thus, adaptive behavior comes from being able to convert (react to) new information from an uncertain environment into action to either improve organizational performance or put a plan back on track.

The “steering wheel” type of control that is the hallmark of today’s command and control style explains why management doesn’t show much receptiveness to criticism. Just like the Captain of Flight 90. Why? Because they are afraid to take their hands off the steering wheel−they are gripping the controls of the organization tightly to keep it from hurtling into the abyss. The irony is that’s what usually happens anyway.

This is the mentality that has to be abandoned in favor of more receptive management that can receive not only constructive criticism, but accept surprises for what they are−that stuff happens. If management really wants to be successful, they should be encouraging challenges to the way the organization is being run, after all that’s what thinking inside the cockpit is all about.


2 Responses to “That’s So Close to Interesting”
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