Technology

The American View: Silence is Endorsement

The business world doesn’t need to become the military, but it does need to emulate the military when it comes to repudiating hatred and bigotry. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert argues that leaders in every industry have a duty to renounce hatemongers whenever and wherever they manifest.

The military teaches an aphorism to young, aspiring lieutenants and non-commissioned officers as soon as they start to show interest in (or aptitude for) leading: ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.’ If that phrase seems familiar, it’s probably because it was widely quoted following Lieutenant General David Morrison’s video presentation to his troops on 13th June 2013 in response to a misogyny scandal in the ranks. [1] In his three-minute-long speech, Lt. Gen. Morrison was blunt, direct, and unequivocal about the Australian Army’s stance on discrimination.

‘…the Army has to be an inclusive organisation,’ he said, ‘in which every soldier, man and woman, is able to reach their full potential and is encouraged to do so. Those who think that it is okay to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues, have no place in this army … female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us, maintaining our capability now, and in to the future. If that does not suit you, then get out!’

Morrison’s video was widely circulated inside the US military, mostly by people who strongly agreed with his position and advocated for a similar condemnatory position towards discrimination. This wasn’t a one-time thing. In military culture, leaders are expected to champion institutional values. That was made clear this last week with the chiefs of the US military services publically condemned the violence that erupted during a Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Admiral John Richardson, the US Navy’s Chief of Operations, was the first of the chiefs to step up and actively repudiate the hatemongers and their message:

Courtesy of Twitter.com

The public stances taken by Gen. Morrison and Adm. Richardson aren’t aberrations; they’re time-honoured traditions. In order to lead people effectively, leaders must be perceived by their people as fair, impartial, just, and competent. That last characteristic is the easiest of the four to establish: write a good plan, give good orders, win a battle or two, and you’re covered. It’s proving the first three characteristics that give leaders fits. You can’t just be a decent person; in order to be perceived as a decent person, you have to constantly demonstrate it. Claiming character isn’t enough; your people need to see that you being fair, impartial, and just. Fortunately, the universe seems to be dedicated to creating an endless parade of opportunities for those who take up the challenge.

Leaders are constantly tested on their purported values, whether they realize it or not. Just by living in a group, a leader is regularly confronted with ideas, opinions, and actions that run contrary to both the leader’s personal values and to the institution’s stated values. This is a normal part of acculturalization: people from all over join up and then have to conform to service expectations. The early days of a soldier’s or sailor’s career is spent ‘sanding off’ their incompatibilities in order to fully integrate into the larger military culture. Behaviour that may acceptable back home isn’t tolerated in the ranks. Learning and accepting those lessons helps civilians become squaddies.

That’s why we teach young corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, and ensigns that ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’ aphorism. We mean it. Every time that a leader encounters unacceptable assertions or behaviour, he or she has only two courses of action: step up and correct the violator, or else do nothing. Doing nothing is always easier, because it eliminates any need for confrontation. Unfortunately, inaction also corrodes good order and discipline, because whatever example of misconduct a leader fails to correct becomes the organisation’s unofficial new standard.

When you hold leadership authority, your people are always watching you. Your squaddies, your peers, and your superiors all want to know if your actions live up to your claims. Do you really believe the things that you say? Are you willing to risk conflict to enforce your standards?

After Neo-Nazi James Fields murdered protester Heather Heyer, thousands of government, military, ecclesiastical, and business leaders stepped up to publicly denounce the hate, bigotry, and violent crime that wracked Charlottesville, Virginia. Despite some clearly earnest and eloquent speeches, the ‘me-too’ echoes largely lost their impact once it was clear that many speakers were only taking a public stand because they’d recognized the political utility of appearing to be on the ‘correct’ side. The people whose condemnations resonated were the people who had spoken out immediately … the ones who didn’t wait to gauge public opinion and calculate the optimal response.

Adm. Richardson denounced the Neo-Nazi hatemongering a scant few hours after Ms. Heyer’s murder. He did what military leaders are expected to do: see the action, rebuke the unacceptable action, thereby reinforcing the organisational standard. He warned the sailors under his authority that similar acts and attitudes wouldn’t be tolerated on his watch.

If only more of our business leaders had exhibited the moral courage to do the same, we wouldn’t have so many Neo-Nazi agitators marching that weekend in Charlottesville.  Let me re-phrase that: I’m not admonishing those corporate heads who denounced the Charlottesville outrage over the course of the following week. Rather, I’m denouncing all of the first-line managers and supervisors who had seen the Charlottesville hatemongers’ bigotry-fuelled antisocial behaviour manifest in the workplace over the years leading up to this mess and who turned a blind eye rather than call it out as utterly unacceptable. Those influential leaders who had the opportunity and the responsibility to blunt the malcontents’ belief that they were entitled to spew their hate in public without fear of chastisement. Every supervisor who failed to take immediate corrective action tacitly encouraged those workers to repeat their performance. Either through active approval or by timid refusal to engage, those first-line supervisors created spaces where spouting such venomous nonsense was okay. This emboldened the young, impressionable workers who later grew up to be the rage-drunk activists that we saw in Emancipation Park.

That willingness to confront and condemn destructive behaviour and attitudes is something that the military does very, very well – most of the time. It’s something that the corporate world does remarkably poorly – again, most of the time. This is something that we need to change. Now.

It’s weird that a culture with so much indifference towards swaggering condescending bullies would be afraid of a little necessary confrontation.

The military tends to do this well because the military is built on a culture of constant confrontation: every new member is conditioned to endure aggressive, bombastic, in-your-face constructive criticism from the first moment that he or she arrives at whatever passes for a service’s basic training. The pop culture image of the raging drill instructor isn’t much of an exaggeration; new members are taught to expect immediate corrective feedback when they violate standards. That’s because the consequences of misconduct in the military can lead to death. Many deaths. High-stakes activities demand high-intensity training and very low tolerance for sloppy work.

The corporate world, however tends to do this poorly because the majority of businesses simply doesn’t have to. Workers come and go making office relationships ephemeral and shallow. The consequences of failure and inefficiency are so low as to be immaterial to the average individual contributor. No one dies if a deadline gets missed or a quarterly dividend misses an arbitrary target. The pressure’s off, so to speak.

Moreover, there’s real ‘basic training’ for life in the cubicle yard. You’ll never see a platoon (a ‘start-up’?) of young business school undergraduates marching stoically in formation while a grizzled old Venture Capitalist screams vicious criticism at them. That’s not to say that businesspeople are undisciplined, or that verbal abuse doesn’t occur in business. Rather, the problem is that there isn’t a universal, institutionalized indoctrination programme that everyone has to graduate from in order to serve in the corporate trenches. Businesspeople come from everywhere imaginable, with no common cultural touchstones or shared expectations beyond popular television shows.

That’s why there aren’t truly any universal corporate behaviour standards. Tendencies, yes; but not real standards. Some companies demand that everyone where a sharp blue suit with a humourless matching tie; other companies don’t bother with a dress code at all. Some companies demand that all of their workers start the day by signing the company song in unison; other companies don’t have enough self-awareness to assemble a coherent strategy (let alone set it to music). Because of the immense range of possible corporate cultures, there are very few actual common cultural touchstones.

As a result, every new job is an administrative minefield. Every time a leader changes employers, he or she has to figure out where the boss, HR, legal, security, and (when applicable) the employee union stand on the practice of confronting and condemning misconduct and toxic attitudes. Because there’s no common business standard, the lessons learned at Company X don’t apply at all in Companies Y or Z. Every minor misstep made as a manager undermines the credibility and deterrent effect of management as a whole. No wonder that leaders tend to grow timid over time, and ignore any issue that might be the slightest bit controversial … like the manifestation of discriminatory attitudes and beliefs.

It’s astounding just how many varieties of irrational prejudice there are in any given office. One of the side-effects of managing people is learning all of the bizarre reasons why one group you didn’t know existed hates another group you didn’t know existed for reasons that make no rational sense.

Business culture traditionally approaches the issue uniquely … and that’s a damned shame. Swift and clear condemnation of anti-social attitudes helps to nudge some potential bad actors off of their self-destructive path. I’m not saying that a manager’s rebuke can sting the bigotry out of a hard-core bigot’s heart; that’s unlikely. Rather, I’m arguing that a well-timed rebuke can deter a casual offender from repeating instances of bad behaviour. An immediate scolding not only educates the offender on why such conduct is incompatible with company and team values, it also communicates to everyone else watching where leadership stands on the issue of openly-expressed bigotry. To say nothing in response is to condone the speaker’s expression of prejudice.

Employees are looking to their leaders for proof that what the company proclaims isn’t just a bunch of vapid marketing tripe. Workers want – and need – to see that their leaders’ convictions aren’t just empty posturing. As leaders enforce standards of conduct, it causes a ripple effect throughout the organisation. Non-leaders and aspiring leaders start enforcing those standards as well. First, to help those co-workers that they like by keeping them from getting in trouble, and second, to rebuke those co-workers that they don’t like by calling out their obnoxious behaviour. In both cases, the cultural values are clarified and enforced throughout the team.

To put in traditional business school language, ‘leaders must immediately and unequivocally confront their subordinates’ execrable exhortations in order to reverse any attempt to redefine the boundaries of acceptable conduct.’ Or, to put it in less eloquent (but far more practical) grunt speak: ‘You can think all the crazy stuff you like, but your twisted brand of crazy best not ever leave your lips or show up anywhere in your work. We don’t tolerate bigotry here, so knock that *£&$ off!’

It doesn’t matter so much how you say it as it does that you say something. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.


[1] I’ve read that Lt. Gen. Morrison attributed that quote to General (Ret.) David Hurley.

[2] Note that phrasing: I said ‘brother’ officers deliberately; I never once heard a female trooper opine that sexism in the ranks was good, acceptable, or appropriate behaviour.

Title Allusion: None, out of respect for the dead, dying, and injured.

Photographs under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk, copyright: angry woman pulling man's tie, Ron Chapple studios, business team argument, Wavebreakmedia Ltd, Indian businesswoman, michaeljung


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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