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‘Constructive naysaying’ will save our jobs

March 6, 2009

“This is a time to try men [Generals] of force and vision and not to be exclusively confined to those who are judged thoroughly safe by conventional standards.”

Winston Churchill, early in WWII, frustrated with the poor performance of his Generals.

How can a major car company and most financial institutions be in such deep trouble?  Did these leaders override push back on their decisions, or as was more likely the case, did they not get any constructive criticism along the way?

Churchill also said during this same conversation “We cannot afford to confine Army appointments to persons who have excited no hostile comment in their careers…” Let’s contrast this statement to a posting I read about an hour ago on the CIO Magazine Blog, where one of the leading indicators that someone could be laid off is ‘do you gossip or complain’. Nix the gossip, but isn’t there value in constructive criticism? Did these giant organizations fail because no one dared not to be ‘a team player’? Unfortunately, unless specifically led not to do so, groups of people coalesce around their norm and ostracize the naysayer, even if the naysayer is right. It goes beyond that. If the naysayer wishes to remain employed, they have to give up and rejoin the Team. Remember the Space Shuttle Challenger launch decision regarding if it was too cold for those ‘O’ rings? Remember the outcome of the naysayer’s rejoining the team?

No one wants to deal with an angry raving lunatic at work, but it’s time we change the corporate culture in this country to the point where we should put into every Performance Appraisal form or employment contract a measure of “does this person push back when necessary’. We should encourage and reward ‘constructive naysaying’.

I don’t have an answer other than the obvious, but shouldn’t someone have pushed back over the past 30 years when some of this country’s senior businesses Leadership were making decisions that didn’t seem quite right or shortsighted? If not, the issue is not these senior executives, it’s the corporate culture that creates, promotes and supports them and until that’s fixed, no amount of bailout money or restructuring is going to fix our economy for long.

Successful Generals say “War is not a military activity conducted by soldiers, but rather a social activity that involves entire nations”. Maybe leadership is not conducted by individual executives, but rather is a social activity that involves entire companies, both team players and constructive naysayers.

Rich Eichen is a senior turnaround leader/CRO, Program and Interim Executive  with over 25 years experience reshaping companies and key initiatives as well as operating units of Global organizations.  He’s the founding Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is

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