Malicious Obedience: The Most Dangerous Virus in any Business

Knowing what it is, identifying it correctly, and dealing with it appropriately. Facing difficult problems is never easy. Dealing with them takes courage, but be warned: it is not blind courage but decisiveness that will lead to honourable, considered, and effective solutions.   Like most people, I much prefer to talk about positive things. But […]

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Knowing what it is, identifying it correctly, and dealing with it appropriately.

Facing difficult problems is never easy. Dealing with them takes courage, but be warned: it is not blind courage but decisiveness that will lead to honourable, considered, and effective solutions.  

Like most people, I much prefer to talk about positive things. But having had the privilege of working across every continent and in key leadership and C-suite roles for the past 25 years, I’m sure you understand that it is not always an easy journey. Thank goodness most of it has been positive, but I have also had to deal with darker matters. Indeed, it is the tumbleweed of both ‘light and dark’ that has allowed me to understand the importance of truth first and foremost in myself and then to seek it in others.

Finally, after many years, I have realised at least one perfection in myself, and that is understanding my imperfections.

One thing I am most wary about in business is “Malicious Obedience.” It is a real and present danger in many institutions and it is happening right now as I speak – who knows, possibly even where you work.

So-what is malicious obedience?

Plainly speaking, it is “yes sir, no sir … – ‘f**k you sir”  syndrome.

When the perpetrator is powerful and also in a position of trust, the fallout to people and businesses can be devastating. These individuals, who I’ll refer to as “Killers,” often create a sort of “Corporate Omerta” – a mafia-like code of silence that threatens people into to tagging along through fear and negative tribalism.

The way of our world suggests that there cannot be winners without losers. And far too many use this as an excuse for how they go about their daily lives.

In the not-too-distant past, I was caught in such a morass myself. It hurt me and even spilt into my private life, upsetting those closest to me.

On taking over a global company, I sensed almost immediately that a real set of Killers, skilled in the dark art of Malicious Obedience, were waiting, sitting like giant trapdoor spiders. They viewed me as the threat. I was there to change things, as the company had begun to flounder badly.

Foolishly, I hoped that the better part of human nature would prevail and things would settle down and become good. But this was not to be, and in hindsight I should have listened to my inner voice as well to others more closely, reaching out in a more timely manner for their consideration. Consequently maybe – just maybe – I could have found more healing solutions.

The very strength of our humanness can be so powerful. And yet, just as medicine can be a poison, so too can poison be a medicine. It is all in the dosage.

As one looks at the general makeup of any institution, there are generally four tribes:

The Disruptors: either they are ‘legacy leaders’ – True Lighthouses – highly strategic, positive and exceptionally important to long-term value and great legacy. And then there are the Immediate Captains – those like big campfires that people will gather around, but only for those immediate moments.

The Followers: there is nothing wrong with being a Follower. Without committed Followers, Disruptors would have no power to their purpose. Indeed, many of us fall into this category. Followers are enormously important; the very water that feeds the roots to all and any purpose. But those who decide to be Followers still have the right to command respect, to have an opinion, to be embraced equally and unequivocally, and to be properly considered on a timely basis.

The Watchers: the standard of their work just gets them by. They certainly like a good fence to sit on. They do no harm, yet often because of their nature pass through like drifters that neither truly care nor wish any harm.

The Killers: they are often very skilled, but are supreme at finding a problem for every solution. If only they weren’t so distracted by their own need for either revenge or selfish gain, they actually would be great assets. But instead, they are relentless as a pyroclastic flow. They perpetuate theft of other people’s ideas, steal recognition and reward, and spawn fear, anger, and attrition.

I am sure we all want to be known as positive Disruptors or generous and engaged Followers. I’m equally sure none of us believe there is the Killer in us, so I remind myself of this little story:

On entering heaven, a person is surrounded by all those he knew for sure were sinners. He can not believe it, for he was sure they were all destined for hell. He turns to God and complains bitterly: how in heaven’s name had all these people gotten through?!

Just then, the gathered people notice him as well. A sudden silence envelopes the place.

God leans in and smiles wryly, “don’t worry,”  he whispers, “they’re all just a little shocked to see you.”

We all instinctively define ourselves as ‘we’ and others as ‘they.’ We are tribal even though most of us have never given much thought to it. We take care of ‘us‘ but not of ‘them’.

We are inclusive and therefore more than capable of exclusion. Our human nature is actually in many parts no different from every other animal on the planet. What makes us the most powerful is the gift of our brains. We, like no other, are able to reflect and deduce.

We have no excuses; we know the difference between creation and destruction. 

We see this play out in society every day as well as in the workplace. The differences are the subtleties: outside of work, for the most part, we become fully who we are. But at work, because we depend upon it for our livelihoods, we take greater care to walk carefully between the congruence of what is right and wrong, what is acceptable and what gets us into trouble.

The Empire of the Workplace and the free fields of private life are separated by a very thin line: the need to survive and the desire to be fully free and carefree.

What you are outside of work, as long as you conform to how society generally expects you to behave, is entirely a matter for you. Hopefully, you live a relatively free life for the most part.

However, when you elect to work for a business or institution you equally agree to work within very clear precepts. A company lives and grows by the authentic commitment of its people – it relies upon its employees to be vital, fluid, purposed and relevant; how they think, how they receive, how they respond to challenges and opportunities matters a great deal.

Great businesses and institutions alike thrive best when people are well-prepared and allowed to debate and counter-argue for the sake of finding essential relevance. Indeed, take any thriving and happy institution and there you will find people willing not to just assert progressive points of view but to reciprocate. They are willing to listen generously and to give with open hearts their commitment.

Unsurprisingly, people in these businesses and institutions that deal with one another in free and uncomplicated ways also tend to do well by each other.

Unfortunately in the middle often wait for the Killers.

So what is to be done?

When a Killer cannot be turned into a Disruptor for the good, there is only one way.

Let them go emphatically. But do it with careful consideration and without tinctures of malice. And then, importantly, explain the matter carefully with those who need to know.

Kindness in any business must be underpinned by strength, decisiveness, and purpose. 

In any business and in life the quest for authenticity need not be a precipice. It is denial that is the force against the cure, but I truly believe there is no power greater than the collective conscience and will of good people. More often than not the ‘seeds of good’ beget the ‘fruits of great’ – and yes – there is greatness waiting in all of us.

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