Obedience is dangerous for organisations

Most of us accept, to a large extent, the indoctrination of obedience that we receive in our youth.  Parents and teachers combine to teach us that doing what we are told is right and good and rewarded and failing to do what we are told is bad and wrong and will be punished.

Corporations and large organisations typically recruit people who were successful at school.  The key characteristics that successful students take from school are obedience and an unwillingness to challenge the teacher.

As a parent, there is no doubt that obedience is much prized as a behaviour at home and many businesses reinforce cultures of obedience and compliance.

But how much obedience is a good thing and what are the risks of obedience in organisations?

When the OSS (the predecessor to the CIA) created their Simple Sabotage Field Manual they devoted a whole section (11) to organisational sabotage and most of it revolves around the diligent application of the rules.

Norman Dixon’s classic “On the psychology of military incompetence” uses the narrative of British military disasters to come to the conclusion that if you promote people for their willingness to do what they are told, when they get to the top they won’t have any idea what to do.

Bill George, author of Authentic Leadership, True North and former CEO of Medtronic gives an example of an executive recommending an individual for promotion because they had done “everything we told him to do”.  Bill replied – “it’s about he worked out what to do for himself.”

When we at Holos are analysing organisational cultures for systemic risk, there is no doubt that the single most significant indicator of the likely hood of a major crisis is an unwillingness to challenge colleagues, line managers or processes.

There are three fundamental risks of excessive obedience in organisations:

1 – Catastrophe:  Too big a word?  Think about situations like VW emissions scandal, Banks and Subprime/Libor/PPI/Credit default swaps, marine accidents like Costa Concordia, Titanic, Exxon Valdez, corruption scandals like Olympus or Enron to name a few.

The key factor in poor decisions or behaviour turning into catastrophes is the unwillingness or ineffectiveness of whistleblowers or people speaking up against it.  As a society we are equivocal about speaking up (look at the treatment of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange), but the evidence is clear:

If we want to minimise the risks of catastrophic failure we have to enthusiastically encourage and enable people at all levels of the organisation to challenge the ways that things are being done.  And given that most of the people we employ in large organisations are there because of their predisposition to not challenge, we must actively create a culture where challenge is both easy and valued.

2 – Irrelevance:  Slightly less dramatic than “catastrophe”, but no less terminal for organisations like Kodak and Blockbuster.  Disruption is happening faster and faster to more and more industries, particularly due to the megatrends of digitisation and decarbonisation.

Virtually every sector that is not actively disrupting is being disrupted.  The combination of renewable energy, battery storage, artificial intelligence, internet of things, blockchain, virtual reality, robotics and general increases in computing power and connectivity mean that science fiction is available on Amazon tomorrow.  By 2020 the oil industry, might be more worried by virtual reality and telepresence than they are now by electric cars, buses and trucks (which they are currently trying to ignore).  Most individuals in the sectors that are currently at the greatest threat from disruption are not even aware of the threat.  In a recent innovation session with a major bank not a single middle-level person had heard of any of the four new mobile-only banks.  By 2020 the oil industry, might be more worried by virtual reality and telepresence than they are now by electric cars, buses and trucks (which they are currently trying to ignore).

Most individuals in the sectors that are currently at greatest threat from disruption are not even aware of the threat; in a recent innovation session with a major bank not a single middle-level person had heard of any of the four new mobile-only banks in the UK.  The reason for this is they are discouraged from taking responsibility or initiative and encouraged to wait to be told what to do.  In the fast moving world we are in this is commecial suicide.

3 – Bottlenecks: Clearly not as terminal as “catastrophe” or “irrelevance” but hugely damaging none the less.  When people are waiting for instructions the line manager immediately becomes a bottleneck to initiative and progress.  I sometimes play a game called “Leadership football” with teams. One “half” (of three) is played with two non playing team managers.  None of the players are allowed to do anything without an explicit and specific instruction from their manager.

Predictably the game is very slow as the manager struggles and fails to maintain a sufficient information flow.  What is less predictable is who they choose to instruct, typically those they know best.  Anyone whose name is not immediately familiar to the manager gets very little of the action – does that sound familiar at all?

Summary: The British Army learned these lessons at a cataclysmic cost of human lives in the Battle of the Somme.  It was then, 100 years ago that they started the shift away from obedience and towards what they now call Mission Command (ironically the based on the system that they Germans had been using for over 100 years already).

Mission Command is based on the idea that objectives are set and it is up to those tasked with achieving them to work out the best way to do it.  Objectives are tiered down from the top so that all sub-objectives combine to support the overall objective.

In a similar way, Holos works with Cause – a combination of vision, mission and purpose.  We align leadership and around their Cause and then encourage each level of the organisation below to contribute their own bit towards that Cause with a maximum of support and listening from the leadership a minimum of micro-management.

The result of this is that leadership bandwidth gets freed up to think strategically and far more gets achieved more quickly – catastrophe, irrelevance and bottlenecks are all avoided.

Holos helps make change easy. We help organisations develop their leaders, map out and deliver the changes required to achieve sustained success even in a highly disrupted environment.

At Holos we have been studying change leadership and leadership training in the crucible of reality for years. We know what great leadership looks like and we know the journey to achieve it. We have developed a suite of diagnostic tools to understand where companies and teams are on this journey and how to take them from there to sustained success.

Holos has a wealth of specialist leadership and culture coaches and consultants with decades of experience working with a huge variety of leaders. Holos can help you or your organisation to upgrade it’s leadership to flourish even in a challenging business environment.

Please share your ideas, comment and discuss here – click on the blog title and scroll to the bottom to find the comment box.

You can subscribe for free at www.holoschange.com


Neil Crofts

+447803 774239


About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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