We expect people to act like jerks on social media, but not in the workplace. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses why some embattled and anxious leaders reflexively lash out when they’re presented disquieting news.
On Friday 26th June, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS, if you prefer) decided in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that the US Constitution guarantees a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. This was a big decision for millions of Americans who had staked out positions both for and against the idea. As you’d expect, the social media sphere lit up immediately in equal parts celebration and indignation. Within a minute of the ruling being made public, my Twitter feed was inundated with quotes, quips, condemnations, and expressions of joy. Everyone that had held an opinion about the subject before the SCOTUS ruling continued to advocate for his or her position after the ruling was announced. That’s hardly surprising; the court doesn’t have the ability change people’s minds – only to clarify the law of the land.
During the first hour after the ruling, I saw several respected authors and pundits analyze the justices’ official statements. Some posts were complimentary; others were critical. In most cases, the commenters quoted exactly what the justices had written and then expressed their personal opinion about the subject based on the quoted excerpt. The writers’ language might have been pithy, but their analyses were (more often than not) thought provoking. I enjoyed reading most of the comments, and followed several discussion threads to find amusing quips that I might be able to use later in casual conversation.
Fast-forward two hours, and the general tone of angry posters (on both sides of the debate) started to drown out all semblance of rational discourse. One poster suggested that the Supreme Court had been co-opted by an adversary nation and had therefore made the marriage ruling specifically to weaken America’s fighting strength so as to pave the way for an ISIS invasion.  Another poster declared, triumphantly, that ‘love had permanently conquered evil’, and therefore all discrimination against LGBT Americans had ended.  Both posters were caught up the emotion of the moment, and were being a bit… silly. I don’t remember noticing any cataclysms manifest when my sister married her partner a few years back. There were artisanal cupcakes, but no fire, no brimstone, and no angels descending from the firmament to announce a new age of glorious tolerance. Perhaps the terrorists and angels both got lost on the way to the venue. I know that I needed my hire car’s sat-nav to find the building…
The reason I bring this up in an IT-oriented business column isn’t to argue for or against marriage equality. We expect to encounter ridiculous, exaggerated rhetoric on the Internet. Social media is equal parts vicious snark and pearl-clutching melodrama. Trolls and zealots inevitably coopt (and thereby derail) every important discussion, leading to an irreversible signal-to-noise collapse. That’s how our online world works; no one is surprised anymore when a reasonable speaker stops talking sense and starts making outrageously aggressive ad honimem attacks.
We don’t, however, expect a perfectly normal busienssperson to suddenly get violently aggressive with us in the middle of an otherwise banal discussion in the workplace. Such conduct is often startling, frequently frightening, and permanently corrosive to team morale.
For lack of a better phrase, I call it the ‘braying donkey’ tactic. Put simply, it’s what happens when a person has their authority challenged in a public setting and finds that he or she can’t articulate a compelling counterargument. Instead of responding to the contrasting position in a dignified, thoughtful fashion, the challenged party reflexively becomes aggressive in order to stifle any further discussion.
I want to reiterate the key difference between normal (if reprehensible) online conduct and direct, interpersonal conduct. Online, people may directly provoke their targets, but they’re not within punching range. Calling someone rude names indirectly over the Internet isn’t a courageous act unless you’re provoking a target that runs a secret police force, owns a fleet of flying murder drones, or can inspire deranged zealots into committing frenzied acts of violence. Even under those rare conditions, provocation is more foolish than courageous. Online provocateurs thrive because the target of their antics can’t immediately hold them accountable for their antics.
Face-to-face interpersonal discourse therefore tends to be a lot more civil, especially in regulated settings like a modern business. HR and legal tend to frown on employees who get overly aggressive or violent with their co-workers. Punching someone is a criminal offense in most countries, and often constitutes grounds for dismissal in a corporation because people tend not to function efficiently when they’re afraid of suffering physical harm. You’d think, then, that corporate leaders would be paragons of self control, demonstrating Zen-like mastery of emotion no matter how turbulent things get. You’d expect that reason and eloquence would the go-to tools of the successful businessperson. Oddly enough, that’s not always the case.
People are rarely as rational as we’d like them to be. They’re complex, contradictory, and confused beings that react more than they reason, especially when confronted with an unexpected threat. The ‘braying donkey’ tactic occurs when a person’s position is suddenly made vulnerable. Afraid and unprepared, the brayer lashes out directly against his or her adversary at the moment of challenge – not afterwards, and not indirectly the way it’s done on the Internet. This is a fight-or-flight type of reaction, executed before the rational part of the brain can reestablish control. It’s neither cultural nor contextual; it’s driven largely by biology – more nature than nurture.
Here’s why…Picture a generic corporate office suite, where a trio of perfectly normal middle management employees sit around a table. The businesspeople are discussing the launch of a new project. All of the players are approximately the same age, share the same culture, and have comparable educations. You’d expect these three people to have a very easy time achieving consensus on just about anything business-related.
‘I plan to announce that the new product will be fully operational by winter,’ the first manager says.
‘That may be premature,’ the second manager cautions. ‘The [new thing] that this project depends on won’t be ready in time to do [important stuff] before the winter.’
‘The [new thing] will be ready on time,’ the third manager says with conviction. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’
‘Er…’ The second manager, who knows far more about the [new thing] than the other two do, is taken aback. ‘I’ve been working with the team responsible for the [new thing] and they’ve gone on record as saying that it’ll take at least a year before they’re ready to start doing the [important stuff].’
The third manager grows indignant, colour rising in her cheeks, and snarls at the other two managers: ‘It will do all of the [important stuff] because it has to! I don’t want to hear any more negative talk about the [new thing].’
Odds are very good that you’ve found yourself in exactly that situation before. I’ve been in it scads of times, both in the private and the public sectors, and have been almost always surprised by the irrational and counterproductive vehemence that the Manager Three character exhibits. The first time I experienced this, I was a young subaltern in a medical battalion and was shocked into apoplectic silence by the snarling of a self-important and clue-deficient colonel who insisted that the laws of physics were strictly suggestions. 
Every since then, I’ve encountered the ‘braying donkey’ effect pretty much everywhere that I’ve worked. I find that it’s a universal aspect of human behaviour. It happens at all levels of a company, from the loading dock to the corporate board, but it’s more common the higher up you go in the hierarchy. I find that it’s always an impediment to trust, confidence, good order, and discipline… even though it’s meant to accomplish exactly the opposite of that. I suspect that most of the people that I’ve seen bray were trying to project confidence and determination. Imagine it from the brayer’s perspective:
Leader: X will happen!
Subordinate: X might not happen, because reasons.
Leader: [feels shaken, unsure; perceives that his/her authority is being challenged. Decides to double-down] X will happen because I demand that it happen!
Subordinates: [appear cowed; all leave]
Leader: [rationalizes that his/her confidence won the day, and petty upstart minions won’t dare fail to do X, lest they risk the leader’s wrath. Victory!]
Meanwhile that exact same exchange looks very different from the subordinates’ perspective:
Leader: X will happen.
Subordinate: [nervous; knows reasons why X is improbable] X might not happen, because reasons.
Leader: [appears to grow volcanically angry and violently irrational] X will happen because I demand it!
Subordinate: [the leader won’t listen to facts and logic; he/she is being completely irrational and will doom us all. Time to update the CV and start looking for a job with a leader who isn’t insane]
To the shaken leader, an increase in intensity appears to have a calming, stabilizing effect. I’ve heard management coaches teach this as a valuable and practical leadership tactic: demonstrate your confidence in your vision and people will (they say) eagerly fall in line. It certainly seems like this technique works; when employed by someone in a position of power, doubters and naysayers do appear to drop their objections and obey. From the leader’s perspective, their ‘forceful confidence’ gambit did the trick.
In reality, nothing of the sort occurred; the cowed subordinates may have stopped voicing their objections, but they absolutely did not abandon them. If anything, they likely grew more concerned about whatever the underlying problem was, because the leader’s irrational, aggressive and condescending suppression of debate suggested that the leader would neither tolerate nor consider any frank discussion about the problem. That’s an accurate early predictor of a doomed endeavour.
So, if we can agree that the act of angrily lashing out at someone who challenges our position is counterproductive, why then do we all seem so eager to lash out? Especially when the suppression of well-founded dissent could well bite us in the posterior because we refuse to deal with a real problem? It’s because (I argue), we’re not reacting rationally; we’re just reacting the way our ancestors reacted to a sudden rustling in the brush: with loud noise, contorted features, and raw aggression. That’s why I call it the ‘braying donkey’ tactic: I think it’s probably a hard-wired instinct rooted deeply in mammalian physiology. It hearkens back to pre-language vocalization – a way one creature can express to another that it’s becoming aggressive.
Imagine taking your pet donkey on a walk into town. The donkey sees a nice birdbath on the lawn it’s passing, and decides to leave the road to go slake its thirst. You, the human, know that the owner of the birdbath will be vexed that an animal is trespassing on his or her property, and try to force you and your pet to return to the road. The donkey only knows that it needs to drink and can’t comprehend concepts like property lines. It takes umbrage to your objection, so it makes a loud noise. It doesn’t have the ability to explain its reasoning, or to argue intellectually for what it desires. It uses the tools at its disposal to object: it brays, hoping that you’ll give in rather than risk escalating the conflict.
Humans share that primitive instinct, even though we’re supposed to have the ability to communicate complex and nuanced thoughts through language. Logically, we’d never need to growl or hiss or bark to communicate opposition to another human. Realistically, we often resort to primeval tactics when we can’t make language work for us: moans to signal pleasure, screams to signal fear, and roars to suppress a challenge.
That why this sort of conduct is often encountered in people with power, and occurs more often as you travel further up the organizational structure: your average manager, director, CEO, or admiral is an educated, successful adult businessperson. They wield tremendous institutional power in order to accomplish very important, often very difficult objectives. The more power that they hold, the greater the pressure that they feel to achieve results. Unfortunately, the further up the hierarchy they rise, the less then tend to know about how all of the different clockwork mechanisms of the integrated business actually work. They feel the pressure to succeed, but lose the ability to directly control results. They’re dependent on unreliable subordinates to come together to achieve the results that they need. Many senior leaders live their entire working lives in a constant state of anxiety: impatient, distracted, and terribly afraid of being sabotaged by an ambitious subordinate that’s willing to engineer a Klingon promotion. These leaders are frequently surrounded by weasel-y sycophants who assure them that all of their great ideas are The Best Thing Ever™. They slowly lose their ability to comprehend what’s happening, lose their trust in what’s being reported to them, and start growing (quite reasonably) paranoid about hidden threats.
It’s only natural, then, for a leader to experience shock and fear when a peer or a subordinate suggests that a major project could fail, especially if the leader has no comprehension of why or how that assertion might be true. Lacking a rational argument or viable facts, they fall back on their atavistic management skills toolkit – they snarl. They reflexively bray at their challenger, and their challenger backs down. Retreat is mistaken for defeat, silence for acquiescence.
The take-away from this column is that a good leader must be able to endure criticism without falling back on suppressive tactics. There are times that objections need to be overridden due to the totality of circumstances; that’s what a leader is paid to do. That being said, there’s no justifiable reason to quash a team member’s speech simply because their speech is unsettling. As leaders, we have a moral obligation to take counsel from all of our experts and to make informed decisions. We also have a duty to our subordinates to treat them with the respect they deserve when they act in good faith. We may not like what they have to say, but we owe it to them to hear them out. If we don’t understand what they’re saying, then we owe it to the company to suppress our pride and learn. We’re paid to be rational, strategic thinkers – not animals.
The trouble is, we’re all still animals under our bespoke wool suits and hundred-quid haircuts. Millions of years of engrained survival instincts don’t simply go away because they’re no longer relevant to the environment. There aren’t any tigers in a glass-and-steel office park  but our biological programming doesn’t understand that.
The prophylactic for self-sabotage antics like the ‘braying donkey’ tactic is three fold:
- Keep faith in our fellow employees. Embrace dialogue – don’t suppress it
- Accept that you can and will be wrong – seek out opportunities to correct your ignorance
- Struggle to act rather than to react – let your civilised brain respond to challenges, not your primal instincts
These aren’t by any stretch easy goals to achieve. If anything, you’ll spend most of your professional life trying to live up to them. You’ll make mistakes. We all do. What’s important is that we keep up the struggle to be rational, thoughtful, and compassionate leaders – not obnoxious jackasses.
 I can only assume an invasion of wedding caterers.
 I can’t make that grandiose assertion seem defensible no matter how much I abstract it.
 The good colonel wanted to fly a 300-bed hospital over a mountain range. He was a very silly person.
 Unless you’re doing something very, very wrong. Umbrella Corporation, I’m looking at you.
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.