“This is ****ing bull****,” Dave said.
“What’s going on, guys?” I said.
“They kicked us out of our office.”
“What? Who?” I knew that Dave and Chris, along with a Turkish lieutenant colonel, shared an office around the corner from me. They had occupied that space for quite some time, and it made sense given that they all advised the Afghans on the same topic.
Let’s back up.
During the year I spent working in Afghanistan, I had the pleasure of working with numerous types of people from different countries and different organizations—both military and civilian. Sometimes, conflict arose between groups, and sometimes, like in this situation, people attempted to assert their power and authority.
“That new colonel,” said Dave. “We showed up this morning and he and another officer were sitting at our desks. They told us that we needed to find a new place to work. They kicked us out, along with the Turk.”
“Isn’t he home on leave right now?” I asked, referring to their Turkish lieutenant colonel coworker.
“Yep. So he’s going to come back and find out he doesn’t have a place to sit anymore.”
“Did they tell you anything about this before today?”
“Nope, we just showed up and found them sitting there.”
Dave and Chris were both civilian contractors. They were former law enforcement professionals who had become experts in the logistics systems used by Afghan National Police. They had both been in Afghanistan for a few years. I’m not using Dave’s or Chris’ real names, but the story itself is—unfortunately—true.
This particular conversation that I had with Dave and Chris was during the summer of 2013. Neither of them worked directly with me, but we knew each other. During the more than six months I had spent in Afghanistan to this point I had—I think—developed a decent reputation for being respectful and fair in my dealings with the contractors. We had a good working relationship with a regular flow of communication.
Apparently such a relationship between the contractors and military officers was more of an exception than a norm.
During the next few minutes of conversation, it became clear what happened. The desk-appropriating officer in question—whose nationality I’m choosing to not reveal, but he wasn’t American—had only been part of our team for a week or two. He had created a reputation for himself during that short time as someone who thought of himself as knowledgeable enough to not require input or expertise from others. He told people to do things and expected that they would do them.
Such an approach isn’t uncommon in the military, and one could argue that it’s an approach that’s entirely appropriate in many situations. When you’re the person with authority and you know exactly what needs to be done, tell other people what to do and accomplish the mission. When talking with civilians, I’ve often realized that’s how many of them view the military in general—people ordering other people around to get things done immediately.
But the task before us involved building a government organization in Afghanistan. With the Afghan National Police, that meant an organization of 157,000 people dealing with large numbers quitting or getting killed every day, internal power struggles and continual external pressure from any number of international groups who were there to “help.” This was a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment that demanded nuanced understanding of situations, not snap judgments made without input from subject-matter experts.
In these types of VUCA situations, it even makes good sense to push decision-making authority down as far as possible in the organizational hierarchy, relying on those with the most expertise to help make decisions (see Weick and Sutcliffe’s book Managing the Unexpected, for example). Those people or at least their insights should be actively included in strategic planning, operations and tactics.
But this officer—the one who unceremoniously claimed the office formerly inhabited by Dave and Chris—didn’t operate that way. And by kicking Dave and Chris out of their office, he hadn’t just rearranged the seating and workplace design of the group. He hadn’t simply reallocated resources to better support the team’s effectiveness.
Instead, he created a rift. He had broken his team. Through his actions, he had violated the sense of dignity and respect that we all seek from those around us. He had executed the motivation, the information flow and the creativity of some of the most knowledgeable people around him.
By claiming that desk, he may have acquired a more comfortable piece of office real estate. He may have asserted his authority. But any personal productivity gains he may have enjoyed as a result couldn’t possibly outweigh the losses in team performance and insight that he created through his abrupt, emotionally ignorant actions. Furthermore, he had contributed to a negative reputation for the military component in terms of its working relationship with the contractors. He had played right into the stereotype that existed among the contractors about what people in the military were like and how they acted.
To make it worse, Dave and Chris were already telling their contractor friends about what had happened, influencing their assumptions and the working relationships they had with their military counterparts as well.
One moral of this story, I think, is that by asserting our authority we can unintentionally—yet dramatically—undermine it. Even if you win small battles of influence in this way, you’re likely to be losing the larger war of earning respect and inspiring people to exert effort together.
In other words, if you have to tell people, “I’m the leader,” you probably aren’t. Real influence flows from competence and respect—not from petty displays of authority.
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.