28 November 2016 13:36:03 IST

The menace of malicious obedience

Accepting counsel from your subordinates does not make you any less a leader

“No Master can make me swear blind obedience,” said Quintus Horatius Flaccus. What the Roman poet, better known as Horace to the English, says makes sense even in today’s world. One should not blindly follow orders if behaviour or work expected goes against the grain of ethics or does not make sense.

I recently had dinner with a good friend who is between jobs and was excited about his next assignment. Our conversation veered around to his last assignment — he had quit as he’d been frustrated with the culture of the organisation, a culture characterised by sycophancy and ‘malicious obedience’. I know my friend to be a well-mannered and straightforward person. He certainly would not be able to indulge in sycophancy. But what is this malicious obedience?

Malicious obedience

Have you ever observed an employee emerge out of his boss’ cabin with an evil smirk on his face? One can easily guess that the boss has issued a task which is not going to end well, but the employee who is on ground and knows better, refrains from enlightening the boss as his advice may not be taken well by the boss, or the employee dislikes his boss so intensely that he is eagerly waiting for a situation that would put the big man in trouble.

There’s an old story of an Air Force officer who decided to create work for some of his men. He summoned them to an empty room, and said, “I want you to paint this entire room white.” Annoyed, the men proceeded to do just that: the walls, floor, ceiling, doors, and even the windows were bright, shiny white. Needless to say when the officer returned, he was speechless and horrified!

Malicious obedience is the behaviour of intentionally inflicting harm by strictly following the orders of a superior, knowing that compliance with the orders will not have the intended result. The term usually implies the following of an order in such a way that ignores the order’s intent but follows the order to the letter. It is usually done to injure or harm a superior while maintaining a sense of legitimacy.

In other words, malicious obedience is a treacherous form of corporate sabotage.

What creates this behaviour and who is responsible?

Types of leaders

Strong leaders who feel they know best expect implicit obedience from their people. Such leaders will have meek followers, many who know better than the boss but behave dumb and meek to avoid incurring the boss’ wrath.

Every institution needs strong leaders and several thousands of dollars are spent in building such leadership skills. So it’s ironic that these strong leaders cause the culture of malicious obedience.

Leaders are of many kinds. Leadership styles vary and are a combination of the innate personality of the leader and the choice of competencies the organisation needs. Some leaders are participative, encouraging involvement and leading by contributing, few are collegiate — sharing ideas and responsibilities in a very friendly manner — and then there are the democratic variety too — leaders who seek consensus and buy-in during decision making. There are also leaders who are dictatorial and strong headed.

Smart leaders are able to skilfully adapt their leadership styles to different situations and to different requirements of their team members. They follow the principle of different strokes for different folks. Strong and decisive leadership is required during times of crisis where the team is expecting direction from the leader.

Winston Churchill provided such strong leadership during the World War II and was widely admired by the British people. The same British public rejected him and voted him out of power during the ensuing general election because the need of the hour was a different kind of leadership during peace time.

Team of rivals vs. Shooting the messenger

F Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This attitude is very true of wise leaders. They have the uncanny ability to listen and assimilate different viewpoints and act decisively. They listen carefully and respectfully to their team members and make thoughtful decisions.

Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest US president, assembled a cabinet comprising his former political foes. Three of them ran against him in the preliminaries of the presidential elections. Lincoln’s political genius is well chronicled by the book titled Team of Rivals by Doris Godwin. Barack Obama was inspired by this approach and offered the key position of the Secretary of State to Hillary Clinton, his one-time rival in the democratic election preliminary.

Leaders who are extremely dogmatic either don’t listen, or in the worst case, display behaviour which is equivalent to shooting the messenger. These leaders lose the opportunity to get an alternative viewpoint because their subordinates are either afraid or unwilling to give them a different but valuable perspective.

World history is replete with examples of ruined leaders who refused to listen to the wise counsel of their colleagues. When alternative viewpoints or wise counsel is rejected, it invariably leads to emergence of sycophancy and malicious obedience. Subordinates and followers just tell the boss what he wants to hear rather than present the true picture. Such distortion of reality can be fatal to the enterprise.

This behaviour is seen in all walks of life where there are strong authority figures who display autocratic behaviours and who genuinely believe in their omnipotence and omniscience. We can find these individuals in our homes, in our schools and colleges, in the world of politics and of course, in the corporate world.

Role of the employee/subordinate

There are two sides to every coin. Though the leader/boss plays a major role in creating a malicious obedient culture, there is no denial that at times employees/subordinates play a role either willingly or otherwise. Some of them want to curry a favour with the boss and they try to ingratiate themselves by fawning over the boss. Others are timid and worry about the consequences in differing with the boss.

In my experience I have come across senior executives who are very sensitive to criticism or pushback from their subordinates in large forums and meetings but open and willing when offered the same views in private and in a respectful manner. The need is conviction of one’s idea or opinion with the right mix of confidence. So, employees need to understand the style and preference of these executives and alter their approach accordingly.

Leaders need not feel they are falling in the eye of their subordinates if they seek or accept counsel from lower rungs. In fact, they will rise in respect as a true leader puts the organization ahead of their own interest.

To close, here’s another Horace quote: If a better system is thine, impart it; if not, make use of mine.