05 November 2009

Guarded Speech

I had a wonderful conversation with two officers the other day. While discussing the pros and cons of Army organization and culture, I admitted that I could not be totally honest with them.

They seemed surprised and even disappointed.

But, as I often do with Soldiers who outrank me, I had to remind them that their world is colored by the insignia planted on their chests. We are all affected deeply by rank dynamics; it is impossible to avoid it. That is, after all, why the military has formal rank.

But it always surprises me when people claim that it doesn't affect them, that somehow rank doesn't matter. Such a claim is an utter delusion.

Not too long ago I was in a meeting with a couple of dozen Soldiers: two lieutenants, four captains, half a dozen majors, a handful of light colonels, a full-bird, and a smattering of staff sergeants, sergeants first class, and master sergeants. There was one other E4 besides me.

It was an informational briefing, and I was struck by how desperately everyone was out to impress the colonel with their information. It was the bling at BET awards night.

Even the colonel noticed, and brought it to a halt: "If you don't have anything don't put it in [the slide]. Don't make it up."

Aside from the sycophantic spewing of information, relevant or not, I also noticed how guarded everybody seemed to be. Opinions were offered half-heartedly, not-so-good news was explained away in the most rationalizing terms, and clarifications were cut short prematurely because of a perceived look of annoyance on the part of the high-ranking.

None of this is healthy for an organization that feeds on information. The main things that were accomplished from this particular meeting were that those who performed well or said the right things got a few brownie points with the colonel, while those who offered unflattering information or did anything timidly lost points.

Somebody needs to wise up to the fact that good decision must be based on a free exchange of information. The problem is that those at the top are probably not wise enough, and those at the bottom are too afraid to let anyone know.

How open and honest is communication in your organization?


  1. It’s quite apparent that communication is the least open in our organization. Someone made a point that there is an open door policy in HR yet, you need a key card to get in.

    Figuratively or not, organizations should refrain from making claims they are unable to comply with.

  2. I suppose you should be careful how honest you are in your public blog posts! :-)

    We've all seen the clip from the German film "The Downfall" be re-used over and over again with different sub-titles put in, whether it be a sporting event, xbox, or something else (one example here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSNQHeVsdfk). These are all great, but the scene in the film it is reflecting is a real life example of how this type of guarded culture creates problems. Fortunately for the world, Hitler was insane and his top reports did not feel comfortable giving him honest information all the time.

    In any relationship, whether personal, professional, military, or any other nature, when honest communication results in punishment (be it harsh words or worse), we only stifle communication. We don't change the nature of the situation, but rather only stop hearing about it, which is worse.

  3. Don't ever forget that you can tell someone they are stupid. I tell people they are stupid all the time and they just take it for what it is worth. Mostly because I am right and the time and they really are stupid. It is even funner when they are supposed to be of higher intellect than I or are in a leadership or supervisory role. The only thing you ever have to lose is the opportunity to make a different choice then the one you just made.

  4. Hey anonymous, you are stupid!!

    Face the reality, honesty is relative in any organization. The level of honesty sometimes reflects the motivation or drive of people to move upwardly in the organization.

    The view isn't so bad from down here! :)

  5. We have a little bit of (Friendly?) trash talking going on!