Kissing up, kicking down

2005

Carl Ford's appearance at the senate Foreign Relations Committee proceedings were not without personal risk as he described John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for United Nations ambassador, as "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy" whose attempt to intimidate a mid-level analyst raises "real questions about his suitability for high office."

So why did Carl "defender of the little people" Ford, come forward to tell the truth about John "serial abuser" Bolton?

It can't be big P politics because Ford is Republican and conservative so it seems most likely that Ford believes at least two things: that abusing power and authority is wrong and that it is an ineffective style that will damage the objectives of the USA.

Clearly, Ford has an impressive gift for a powerful and damning phrase, but is he correct?

Let's look first at the evidence describing Bolton's style. In 2002 he berated an analyst and sought to have him fired simply because he disagreed with Bolton's assessment that Cuba has a biological weapons program with the consequence that analysts did not feel that they could speak the truth if the truth ran contrary to the opinions of their superiors.

It is also alleged that he tried to get a CIA Latin America analyst fired. According to USA Today, "Rumors of Bolton's temper have swirled around Washington for years", and according to Ford, "he's got a bigger kick and it gets bigger and stronger the further down the bureaucracy he's kicking."

Why was the analyst so intimidated that he couldn't speak the truth to Bolton's face?

Bolton on Monday acknowledged trying to get the analyst reassigned but said it was because he had "gone behind my back", which leaves the obvious question: why was the analyst so intimidated that he couldn't speak the truth to Bolton's face?

Leaders need the truth but Bolton's approach will reduce communication to him to flattery and capitulation. It's something that Machiavelli recognised 500 years ago when he counselled the princes of the Medici family to conduct themselves in such a way that those around them, "realize that the more freely they speak, the more they will please you", "for there is no other way to guard against flattery than by making men understand that by telling you the truth that they will not injure you."

Machiavelli distrusted flattery because it prevented useful information and discordant voices from being considered by those in power. He reasoned that it was better to have the information and choose to ignore it or act counter to it than to act in ignorance.

And so it is today or tomorrow. Or thirty years ago when the 'infectious optimism' of John F. Kennedy's team allied to the 'arrogance' of the CIA team working for him led to the ludicrous night time amphibious invasion of Cuba, the capture of 1,977 Cuban rebels, and the mortifying embarrassment of the US president. The plan was always doomed to failure but no-one would tell the president the truth to his face. Why not?

The Bay of Pigs fiasco was one of the presidential decisions that received analysis from Irving Janis, social psychologist at Yale, who in 1971 described his, very popular, theory of "groupthink" as one where faulty decisions are made because of "a desire for conformity and concurrence within the leadership group at the expense of critical and objective thinking."

The only trouble with it as a theory was that it could only explain the past retrospectively after it was, like Charles and Camilla's apology, too late.

It would be far better to be able to know in advance which groups, teams or regimes are likely to avoid the truth and make stupendously stupid decisions. This is why a team at the University of California at Berkeley has developed something with the unappealing acronym of GDQS, or Group Dynamics Q Sort, that tests groupthink using a set of 100 questions that assess the groups decision-making dynamics (e.g. "The group leader is insulated from criticism" versus "The group is exposed to a wide range of views and arguments").

The team is now assessing governments to see to what extent they are "well-informed and open to alternatives". These include the Bush administration and its ability to shield itself from any information that contradicted its desired course of action.

If being open to alternatives really does improve decision making, as Janis and the Berkley group argue, then what are we to make of the view of a contributor to the Al Franken, Air America radio show, who said, in response to the Bolton situation,

"Wake up call: The vast majority of managers at every level in American business and government are mindless thugs, abusive kiss up kick down morons who have not the ability to lead. Welcome to the culture that is the United States of America!"

Is Bolton just a bad man with a bad haircut, poor impulse control and unruly facial hair? Or is he also symptomatic of a management quality issue?

The response of shareholders and boards of directors when confronted with the bad behaviour of senior, or junior managers, is often very similar to Senator Richard Lugar, the committee chairman, who distanced himself from Bolton's approach saying, "obviously, Secretary Bolton's demeanour is not my style", but still felt that he would vote for Bolton because, "the paramount issue is reform of the U.N. and the confidence President Bush and Secretary of State (Condoleezza) Rice have in this nominee".

Or, in other words, "if the Pres wants a bully who am I to argue?" or "if he gets results then it might be morally distasteful but business is business."

But being too scary or too powerful stops the truth getting to the very people who need it most. (Think Star Wars - No one ever told Darth Vader that he needed an inhaler and no-one seems to tell Lucas about how his CGI obsession is ruining his legacy).

And so we find a situation where the weak – employees - become targets for abuse and stop sharing valuable truth with their managers, while the powerful - boards and senators - act weak because they are willing to ignore means in return for ends.

But if history demonstrates one thing it is that this kowtowing to bullies is both morally and pragmatically wrong, something the pitiful decisions made by the "kiss up, kick down" guys will keep proving again, and again, and again.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

hi i have just been off work for several months only due to a bully in the work place, i have since had a meeting and returned only to find that it is me that is being checked up on ie any emails i send have to be forwarded on to this bully and also keeping a log of when i go out of the office either for client visits or lunch breaks i have nothing to hide and continue to my job in a professional way. this information has come from a very reliable source and to say the least i am just waiting for the knife to enter in between the shoulder blades basically for standing up to this bully. and as you said the bully always wins, i stood up for myself and paying the price, i know there are 2 more people this bully has affected in a really awful way and yet still survives. i have chosen to take a new position with another company as not to be part of this system.

michele lincolnshire

agency workers have had a negative effect on the company i work with it is a us company with great credentials. the changes that the agency workers are demanding have created a rift between my team and theirs.i have a solid crew who are comfortable with the requirements of the business but the agency workers are prodding and testing the requirements all the time.

wilma durham

Weakness and the Bolton story has major assumptions that I don’t accept just because it’s in an article and neither should anyone else reading these things. Bolton could be an aggressive, do everything my way or else, type of boss while the employee could have been just a perfectly normal and well rounded person who felt the need to be heard one way or another. No need to equate all this with weak people and non weak people except to make a point that weak employees should be looked at and treated in a certain way. Or that managers that push their thoughts aside should be viewed in a certain way. Neither is necessarily correct. If you feel you are Truly WEAK (timid and slow to answer or rebut a point, that sort of thing) then frankly you have little change of surviving a competitive, cooperative work environment. You more than likely get on peoples nerves and will generally be ostracized because of it. There should not be articles about how these people are poorly treated, instead there should be articles about what types of jobs would best suit them. This is crass I know but it’s not because I’m without empathy, it’s because I’m a realist. Just like I’m realistic when I know they will laugh at me and ostracize me if I try out for the Denver Broncos… and so I don’t. I try to find an environment that suits my type of personality. I would advice those who are getting bullied around simply get a new job that is void from such bullying and stop crying about it.

Dave Denver