Yet another article on the leadership and culture mess at Boeing was recently published in The Guardian. The article reports, “Boeing’s largest factory is in ‘panic mode’…with managers accused of hounding staff to keep quiet over quality concerns. …one mechanic at the complex, who has worked for Boeing for more than three decades, has claimed it is ‘full of’ faulty 787 jets that need fixing.”

A six week US Federal Aviation Administration audit of Boeing’s production line following that highly publicized midair blowout of a cabin panel on a new 737, “found multiple failures to comply with manufacturing quality-control requirements.”

After the two 2018 and 2019 fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people, I blogged about the “moose mess” emerging from reports of the company’s dysfunctional culture. Four years later, it looks like the mess hasn’t been cleaned up. The moose are having babies and romping around Boeing factories.

What’s with the Moose?

I started using the Moose-on-the-Table metaphor years ago when helping management teams identify and address issues blocking their effectiveness. Like dysfunctional families, many teams avoid tough conversations. But ignored problems don’t go away on their own. Rather, the moose grow larger, breed, and increase the size of the herd.

I had an idea bubbling in the back of my mind for years of using the fable approach or a fictional story to explore the themes of fear and courageous conversations. But it really kicked into gear as I was writing Growing the Distance and The Leader’s Digest and using fiction in some of the sidebar stories. I created Frank, a fictional character in both books, for the two chapters on Spirit and Meaning to convey the key ideas behind these more ephemeral topics. Click on Let’s Be Frank to read a seven-part series based on those book excepts.

I used Frank’s story to discuss different scenarios through a series of little vignettes. It was my first experience writing any kind of fiction. I really enjoyed using this novel approach.

A few years before that, I picked up the Moose-on-the-Table analogy from a leadership team I was facilitating in a retreat. The image of a moose on a table struck a chord with that group, so I started using this analogy in other retreats. It connected with people all over the world. To add a bit more fun and local flavor, we altered creatures on the table to elephants, camels, kangaroos, and even skunks and rotting salmon, depending on the country or region.

Stories and metaphors are the language of leadership. Management is about facts and figures and business cases with PowerPoint presentations. Leadership deals with issues of the heart. Since pre-historic times conceptual ideas and values have been conveyed through stories.

So, I wrote Moose on the Table: A Novel Approach to Communication at Work as a fun and quirky book woven around real cases and situations from a variety of Clients. I was trying to bring timeless leadership principles to life to reach readers in a way that drier approaches often don’t. Visit our books section if you’d like to check out any of these publications.

Healthy Teams Have Healthy Debates

Moose-infested cultures, as described at Boeing, are often created by managers suffering from optical delusion. They can’t see the moose because people aren’t speaking up, pushing back, or giving honest feedback. Many bosses — especially bully bosses — foster a culture that smothers healthy debate and kills softly with silence. Silence creates blissful ignorance…until big problems seem to pop out of nowhere — like a moose crashing through your car’s windshield as you’re driving through the fog.

A central character in Moose on the Table is Doug — a huge bull moose. A blog contrasting dysfunctional arguments with healthy debates starts with a condensed book excerpt showing Doug shutting down discussions on conflicting priorities during one of his meetings. If you don’t think the scenario is familiar, you might need a look in the mirror — or a healthy dose of unfiltered feedback.

Strong management teams fiercely debate options, challenge each other’s thinking, and find the optimum approaches hidden in the grey area between both sides of tough issues. That takes trust, emotional intelligence, and courage.

Highly effective teams listen respectfully and encourage debates and contrary views to better understand each other’s perspectives and build solutions together. Strong teams leverage the synergy of delivering results and building relationships. Heated debates and honest disagreement are often good signs of progress.

Moose Tracks: Silence Isn’t Golden

In “Is Silence Killing Your Company?” Harvard leadership professor, Leslie Perlow, and research associate, Stephanie Williams, report, “Many times, often with the best of intentions, people at work decide it’s more productive to remain silent about their differences than to air them. But as new research…. shows, silencing doesn’t smooth things over or make people more productive. It merely pushes differences beneath the surface and can set in motion powerfully destructive forces.”

In another book excerpt Doug’s direct reports meet at Rocky and Bullwinkle’s is a restaurant/pub just down the street from the office. Its theme and interior were loosely based on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series. They drown their sorrows and commiserate about how Doug cut off discussion about their growing overload and conflicting priorities problem.

Does Your Culture Induce the Moose?

The Guardian reports that a panel of experts appointed by the FAA “described a ‘disconnect’ between Boeing’s leadership and workforce on safety…”

Most low performing and ineffective organizations have big disconnects between leaders and their teams. They have moose on the table, under the table, and snacking in the lunchroom. It’s time to get their bull shift together. It’s courageous leadership time.

How big or small is your moose mess? Take our short quiz to do some moose hunting.