In his weekly Guardian column, Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and author, explained how “Dictators like Putin surround themselves with liars and propaganda. That leads to very bad decisions.” He writes, “Trump, Putin, Xi — these men aren’t stupid. But they have no way of eliciting, recognizing, or assessing useful criticism…what’s stupid is their systems for making decisions.” (His emphasis).
These are extreme examples of dictators endangering democracy — and perhaps the world. Unfortunately, their very defective “system for making decisions” is shared on a smaller scale by way of too many bad bosses. As Reich points out, “The higher you rise in any hierarchy, the harder it is to get accurate feedback about your decisions because people are afraid to tell you the truth.”
My only work of fiction, Moose on the Table: A Novel Approach to Communications @ Work, weaves a story around this metaphor of a stifling environment that discourages — or punishes — real discussions of real problems. I call them “courageous conversations.” Like a big moose standing on the meeting room table that everyone tries to ignore, not naming and addressing the issue leads to major problems.
In reading Robert Reich’s column, I was reminded of the Moose on the Table fable I wrote for that book many years ago. Unfortunately, it eerily — and scarily — seems a little too familiar with what we’re seeing on the world stage today:
Years ago, there was a mighty hunter named Maynard. Maynard’s elk instincts, hunting skills, and marksmanship with a longbow were legendary. He could pretty much find and kill elk at will. His hunting success was many times that of any other hunter. So, his party of followers increased, and he became the head of a large and very well-fed band of hunters that roamed through olde England’s great forests, meadows, and glens.
As the years passed, Mighty Maynard spent more and more time lounging in the sun and basking in his own glory. He loved nothing more than the praise of others for his unmatched prowess and legendary feats. He began wearing a set of elaborately decorated elk horns and spent evenings sitting at the fire on a very large and intricately carved oak chair as elk roasted for the evening feast.
As time passed, Maynard’s temper became more volatile. He carried a large and gnarly walking stick to club hunters who dared make a mistake during a hunt or were just unlucky enough to be in the way when Mighty Maynard was in a foul mood. Everyone knew of his temper. They were also aware that he’d killed a few hunters and broken bones in many others. No one talked about that.
Maynard’s second in command was Alvin, a master storyteller. He earned his powerful position because of his ability to dramatize Mighty Maynard’s greatest hunting feats. Maynard never tired of Alvin’s evening entertainment. The rest of the hunters learned to look enthusiastic and cheer in all the right places during Alvin’s repeated re-enactments. The Mighty Maynard had encouraged this participation after he walked over and whacked a few bored-looking hunters with his big stick when Alvin first started telling his tales.
Eventually, Mighty Maynard’s elk horns, huge wooden chair, and Alvin’s growing number of props meant that moving around to track the elk was becoming increasingly difficult. So, when the hunting party found a spot on the edge of a forest with both a river and a large cave in the nearby hills, Mighty Maynard set up a permanent camp. He and his hunters roamed further and further to find elk to feed their growing settlement. Maynard stayed behind more often. He was growing larger and was finding the long hunts tiring. Alvin assured him that participating was beneath a Mighty Hunter of his standing anyway.
One evening, before the dismal rations, three of the best hunters came to Alvin just out of earshot of Mighty Maynard. The elk feasts of old had been reduced to rations of a few occasional bits of meat mixed with roots, berries, and whatever else the hunters could find on their long walks home. They often shot only one or no elk at all.
“We are barely finding elk anymore,” one of them whispered.
“We need to pack up camp and move further inland to find a herd,” another hunter added.
“There’s growing talk among the hunters about forming their own band or joining another one,” the third hunter said.
“What are you whispering about over there,” Mighty Maynard bellowed, pointing his stick at Alvin. The other hunters trembled and slunk back toward a few trees behind them.
“Uh, well, sir … we were, we were, uh, just comparing notes on a big herd that may be in the area. Tomorrow’s hunt promises to be bountiful.”
“That’s good. Glad to hear it. I would hate to have to move camp from this very comfortable spot.” Mighty Maynard settled back in his chair, took another deep drink of his tankard of mead, and sleepily closed his eyes. “Tell us the story of the day I brought down this big buck,” he said, pointing to the enormous set of antlers he was wearing.
The next day the hunters returned home with no elk. They did see signs that another hunting party had shot and butchered two large ones. But they only brought back roots and berries for a meager evening meal. When Maynard asked Alvin about this, Alvin told him that many in their band heard a vegetarian diet was healthier than all that high-cholesterol red meat anyway.
Alvin tried his best to sound casual in telling Mighty Maynard that another band of hunters was in the area. Maynard’s eyes opened wide as he grasped for his big stick. “But not to worry, sir,” Alvin said. “They are probably rabbit or deer eaters.”
“All right, then. No point in our getting excited about that then, is there?” Maynard replied as he closed his eyes and his stick fell to the side. Alvin needed to tell Maynard that a group of their best hunters and families had left the band. But this wasn’t the right time.
Over the following weeks, a depressing pattern emerged as more hunters left and those remaining returned with nothing to share. As he drank more mead to kill the hunger pains and keep his spirits up, Mighty Maynard asked Alvin where his best hunters and their families had gone.
“Oh, that. It’s nothing, sir. Their skills were really slipping, and they’ve lost their hunting instincts. I encouraged them to join bands that eat easier game.”
“Good thinking,” Mighty Maynard replied. “We’re big-game hunters, and we don’t want our standards to slip because a few people can’t cut it anymore.”
“My thoughts exactly, sir!”
It wasn’t too long before there were no elk because all the hunters had left. “What’s going on, Alvin?” Mighty Maynard asked. “Where is everyone?”
Alvin made sure he was well outside the range of the big stick. “They’ve all left us, sir,” he said.
“Left us?” Mighty Maynard started to bellow and rose from his great carved chair. “How could that happen after all that I did for them?” He sank back into his throne.
Alvin shrugged his shoulders.
“I can’t understand it,” Mighty Maynard said. “Everything was going so well.”
Is your team or organization multiplying moose in your meeting rooms and workplaces? Are you “that boss?” Click on Do You Have a Moose Problem? to complete a short quiz to see if you might have a moose mess.