Criticizing Superiors Considered Harmful

I had lunch with Nancy Van Schooenderwoert yesterday.  She’s co-founder of Lean Agile Partners, but we also co-founded Agile Rules together.  These days she’s a very popular Agile coach and consultant, flying all over the world for gigs.  She’s in high demand, and worth it.  We got into the topic of chain of command and information flow.

One of the areas she’s studied a lot is safety issues in the transportation and medical industries.  She told me about this study that happened at Korean Air a while ago.  The airline industry is under constant scrutiny on safety issues, for obvious reasons.  But they’re also under a lot of pressure to monitor themselves, because they know the less they monitor themselves, the more external scrutiny they’ll be under, and that’s a lot more painful.  Korean Air had more safety issues than their competitors.  In doing their analysis, they found that a significantly higher percentage of safety issues happened while Pilots were flying than when Copilots were flying.  When she told me that, my assumption was that was because the Pilots flew during the more critical parts, like takeoff.  It turns out the real problem was that Pilots would regularly correct or warn Copilots when they felt there was a current or impending safety issue, but Korea’s cultural norms prevented many Copilots from doing the same to Pilots.  In essence, Pilots were on their own, while Copilots had backup.  Discovering this, they successfully tweaked their rules and protocols to make it mandatory for Copilots to report these issues to their Pilots, and for the Pilots to listen.

The issue of leaders not listening to their subordinates (or subordinates being afraid to feed information to their leaders) is an old one.  Anna Forss just wrote a post on her blog (Absolute Agile) with a similar story about Gaius Julius Ceasar Augustus Germanicus, better known as Caligula (read the article, but I don’t recommend the movie for your team).  No matter what he commanded his forces to do, because if they followed his orders, they may die, but if they didn’t, they would surely be killed.  This is, of course, an extreme example.  That is not a recommended motivational tactic in the business world.  Her post also talks about the difference between a leader and a manager, which is partly related to my topic.

It’s a shame we haven’t evolved past this culturally.  Maybe it has to do with the personalities of the kinds of people that reach for those high positions, or their insecurity once they get there.  I know I’ve worked in companies where I could walk into the CEO’s office and discuss an issue, and companies where my first-level-Manager boss wouldn’t return my emails, and invariably the companies of the former type have thrived much more than the latter.  Even on the project scale, it’s why many forms of Agile require regular retrospective meetings for continuous improvement.

So what can be done about this?  Does it make sense for a subordinate to save the mission and fall on their sword in the process?  Does it make sense for a Manager to lose some face and admit they made a mistake which was pointed out by some mere employee? What will it take to gain acceptance of listening to the heads attached to the shoulders you’re standing on?


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