December always makes Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert contemplate how some senior leaders mistakenly believe that their good intentions justify the lies that they tell their employees.
Authority figures often lie. Not all authority figures, to be fair. Those that do lie don’t necessarily lie all the time. That being said… I’ve found that in general, the more power a person has within an organisation, the more often they tend to obfuscate and outright deny what’s really happening within the organisation. Sometimes they do it to keep bad news a secret from their critics. Other times they lie to achieve a specific result. There are always ‘good’ reasons for a leader to lie, or so it’s rationalized. We, the powerless masses, have grown accustomed to being lied to. After all, our parents lied to us about where babies come from and that (spoiler alert!) Father Christmas was real. Our politicians lied to us about how their policies would create jobs and why it was critical to our nation that we send our soldiers off to die in foreign climes. As we mature from child to young adult, we come to expect that those older than us and in authority over us will regularly and consistently lie to us.
I suspected as much when I was a lad growing up in the seventies and eighties, but it didn’t really sink in for me until I joined the Army. I enlisted shortly after I turned seventeen, and was allowed to start drilling with my unit  while I was still in high school. As a ‘perq’ of signing up early, I was mobilized and sent to Fort Riley, Kansas for ‘Pre-Basic’, a week-long, immersive orientation to what we’d experience a few months later in the Army’s Basic Combat Training centre. I thought it’d be a great experience, since we’d be issued our first utility uniforms and would be taught the basics of marching and close-order drill.
The actual course wasn’t too far removed from what we’d been told to expect. The Drill Sergeants bellowed at us constantly, just like we’d seen at the movies. The slightest delay in carrying out an order got us dropped for push-ups. Marching in formation was just as difficult for uncoordinated schoolboys as TV suggested. We even got to billet in the old World War II era wooden barracks.
Those old barracks were, supposedly, fiery death-traps. Constructed of old, dry wood and years of accumulated floor wax, the buildings would supposedly catch fire in an instant and burn to the ground in five minutes (or so we were told). That’s why we were required to post a ‘fire guard’ at all times when soldiers were inside the barracks. A fire guard’s only job was to wander through the complex and look for signs of fire or smoke; if he spotted a fire, the guard’s job was to order everyone to evacuate the building. That was all well and good, except that the fire risk was (I later learned) just an exaggerated excuse for teaching soldiers how to deal with standing watch in the dead of night. Standing watch is a darned important skill, and your brothers-in-arms’ lives may depend on your professionalism in wartime, so sure – let’s learn that.
On our first night in the barracks at Riley, I drew my first fire guard shift from 0200 to 0300. My bunkmate and I dutifully pulled on our utilities and started patrolling the bays – me downstairs, and Private Smith upstairs. It didn’t take long for fatigue, darkness, and stillness to take a toll on our alertness. I’d learned from my father (himself an Army veteran) that falling asleep on guard duty was a serious offence, so I thought about it, and then fetched Smith. We agreed to change from parallel circuits to a joint patrol, talking to one another so that neither of us succumbed to fatigue.
Shortly after 0230, while we were walking the second floor, one of the drill sergeants entered the barracks and immediately sounded the evacuation alarm. As all fifty privates scrambled out of the barracks, the offended DS and several of his mates subjected the lot of us to vicious calisthenics for the offence of having a fire guard fall asleep on duty. Having been that guard, I was furious: the sergeant hadn’t caught us sleeping. He hadn’t made any attempt to check on us at all – he lied to the entire platoon about what had happened (thereby earning Smith and me a couple of minor beatings from our angry platoon mates after the drill sergeants left).
It wasn’t until the ride home at the end of the week that one of the older soldiers helped me to understand what had probably really happened. I was exhausted, and our battered old M1010 ambulance was stifling hot, but I was too miffed over the affront to my professionalism to nod off. My squad leader let me know that the drills had likely planned all along to wake us all up in wee hours of the morning in order to make sure that we were fatigued and sluggish the next day – that’s what real Basic Training was all about. BCT would be a ten-week-long exercise in slogging along in spite of constant exhaustion. We needed to get a taste of it early. Additionally, they probably wanted to leave a lasting impression in everyone about how bad it would be to have a fire guard nod off and get caught. The truth never mattered; they were going to roust our platoon out no matter what they found the 0200 guard shift doing.
Looking back on it, I understand both the logic and the necessity of the action. The benefits that all 50 soldiers gained from the deception were certainly more important and longer-lasting than the bruises that Pvt Smith and I received for something we didn’t do. I know that I never forgot the incident – I never fell asleep on guard duty (although I did harbour a strong desire to buttstroke anyone wearing a drill sergeant’s campaign hat for years afterwards). On the other hand, I learned to never completely trust anything that a drill sergeant told us.
Sure enough, my drill sergeants at BCT pulled exactly the same stunt on my platoon at Fort Leonard Wood a couple of times. We also had our entire platoon ‘smoked’  for leaving fingerprints on the drinking fountain. We got rousted from our tents on bivouac because a guard supposedly sneaking a cigarette on watch. There were dozens of other invented excuses tossed at us to justify various lesson-imparting punishments. Lying to recruits was standard operating procedure.
That ‘principle of necessity’ rationalization stuck with me as I went off to uni and later joined the working world. It coloured how I interpreted other people’s statements; I cynically tried to guess what our executives really meant (or what they were hiding) whenever they made official pronouncements. I never accepted anything that a Top Fellow said at face value in a public setting. Further, I developed a maxim of my own (egotistically called ‘Hubert’s razor’) that I still use today to evaluate curious statements uttered by people in power:
Hubert’s razor: If, during a period of turmoil or uncertainty, a person holding a significant position of power in the company makes a discordant declaration during a public pronouncement, the oddity in their statement is most likely a red herring that, if reversed, likely reveals the speaker’s actual intent.
As an example: when I joined Yahoo! Broadcast back in late 2000, their stock share price was in free-fall, plummeting over 90 per cent in three months. Yahoo! founders David Filo and Jerry Yang held a company-wide webcast at the end of 2000 to reassure us employees that everything was just dandy in the land of the Big Purple Y. One of the two Top Men (I don’t remember which of them it was) made a strange comment during an unrelated subject that broke the flow of the discussion. He said: ‘We’re not considering lay-offs, because lay-offs don’t represent how Yahoo! does business.’ Us old hands who were standing in the back of the crowd glanced at one another, nodded, and started clearing our personal possessions out of our cubicles that night. Sure enough, our operation was gutted by layoffs at the end of the quarter as Big Y! struggled to cut costs and pursue profitability.
I remember thinking at the time: ‘Sure you’re not “considering” layoffs – you’re actively planning them. Why the *#&$ would you say that at all unless that option had been discussed – and you don’t want us to know yet?’ That slip was amateurish. It was meant to mollify us so that we’d all keep our heads down and keep working while the lawyers worked out how to terminate a bunch of us – sacrifices to the fickle gods of the stock market, like virgins chucked into a volcano to bring back the rain.
The reason why I bring this up in this week’s column is because the start of December always reminds me of that bloody insulting Yahoo! webcast. We knew at the time that the Dot Com Bubble was collapsing. We knew that Big Y! was haemorrhaging money and didn’t have a coherent path to profitability. We knew that the executives at Sunnyvale had no idea how to leverage a service delivery company like Broadcast.com. We accepted that the crash of Yahoo!’s share price was likely going to spur the company to take drastic cost-saving measures. Lay-offs were likely; we just didn’t think that the company would be so short-sighted as to cripple its only division that was actually making a profit. We were wrong. We were not, however, surprised.
When the alumni from the freshly-gutted Engineering Services Division gathered at Café Brazil to drink coffee and compare severance packages that morning, the mood was more annoyed than fearful. The seasoned business people in the outfit all understood the factors then in play that had led to the decision to cut us. We were prepared. Yes, most of the young workers panicked when the layoff finally happened, but the veterans took it in stride – and we had compassion for the poor, terrified HR folks who had to deliver the bad news. It’s unpleasant, but it’s business, we said. Don’t take it personally. Deal with the paperwork and move on smartly.
What annoyed us was two-fold: first that the company’s owners had blatantly lied to us. That constituted an unforgivable betrayal of trust. More importantly, though, was that we weren’t given a fair, fighting chance to help make things better. We wanted the company to succeed. We had a bunch of good ideas that could have helped the company improve. Instead, we were written off with no regard for what we were already doing or could do in the future to boost profits. Our termination order had been signed, even though the logic behind it was dead-wrong. My division had taken steps to produce over $3 million in profits for the company between January and April; when Big Y! laid us off, they lost all of that revenue because there was no one left of staff capable of delivering it.
I tell this story to my students when I teach leadership theory and practice. There’s a peculiar sort of cognitive dissonance that often afflicts people when they gain power – especially positions of great power. As Colonel Stefan Eisen wrote in a 2003 Air War College faculty paper:
‘All this serves to bolster and feed the normal narcissism tendencies in the senior leader and may set the groundwork for potential problems. It is suggested that a senior leader, in believing this paradigm that he or she deserves to be treated differently than convention due to rank, may result in the senior leader getting used to this concept and perhaps believing that notion of “deserving this good deal”. This digression from the straight and narrow… may be incorrectly rationalized more as a reward for a previous (legitimate) sacrifice rather than for what it is, deviation from accepted behavior. The consistency and frequency of these opportunities to digress from the straight and narrow path increase in frequency and intensity in positions of senior leadership.’
Along with this warping effect of narcissism tends to come an arrogant belief that other people aren’t clever or perceptive enough to know when they’re being lied to. I’ve discussed this phenomenon with several executive-level leaders, and was stunned to hear that many of them honestly believed themselves to be so smooth that they could lie to a subordinate’s face and get away with it. Their success in the workplace fed their ego to the point where they truly thought that they were ‘better’ than ‘lesser’ folks.
I admonish my leadership theory students to hold fast to the knowledge that they’re never going to become so slick that they can deceive all of their people all of the time. People below them in the corporate hierarchy may have less power than they do, but that fact has nothing whatsoever to do with their perceptive talent, intelligence, wisdom, or gullibility. Never assume that your people are fools.
If you lie to your people, you will fool some of them – but you’re never fool all of them. Further, the advantages that you gain in deceiving your people aren’t likely worth the damage that you’ll do to unit cohesion and morale. People abhor attempts made to deceive them. Getting caught lying to your people will immolate all trust or loyalty that your people might have had in you like one of those old wooden barracks buildings, thereby ruining your effectiveness as a leader. Trust, like any other fragile structure, requires constant safeguarding.
It’s better to hold fast to a policy of speaking only the truth. If it’s important that your people don’t know about something, then it’s better to say nothing about the topic than to try and misdirect attention away from said topic. Your people’s trust in your worthiness to lead them is one of the most precious and irreplaceable components of esprit de corps. Don’t squander it.
 The Army’s 971st Medical Company (Clearing). My first official job was ‘litter bearer.’
 Forced to perform calisthenics to the point of exhaustion.
Keil 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.