Air University Review, September-October 1967
Lieutenant Colonel E. M. Abramson
Most people think of security as a highly desirable state where one is free from concern and the future is apparently safe from unexpected and unwanted problems. This interpretation is in line with typical definitions of security as “freedom from danger, care or fear” or “feeling of or assurance of safety or certainty; freedom from anxiety or doubt.”
I believe, however, that the desire for security, so prevalent in economic and social thinking today, is leading us into a rut of mediocrity in our industrial and military management. The search for security places a premium on retention of the status quo and induces a fear of change and a desire for anonymity. This passive wish to escape observation, to remain a neutral and undistinguishable cipher, is contributing to an evasion of responsibility, a reduction in creative thinking, and a watering-down of progressive decision-making. This sad condition is prevalent in the military as well as industry and in fact may be found in any organization large enough to provide a haven for the conservative and a refuge for the seeker of security.
In the day of the small company, responsibility was ever present, immediate, and inescapable. When “the boss” made a decision or failed to make a decision (that failure being a decision in itself), the result became apparent shortly. That result was traceable more or less directly and fairly obviously to the decision which preceded it. There was no equivocation about the source of the decision. The small group of people directly concerned either benefited or suffered from the results of the decision. There was no question as to where the security of the decision-maker lay: it was directly tied to the success of his decision-making. Financial and social security depended on a man’s ability to create success for himself and his family by making the right decisions. The drive for security was self-generated and could be self-accomplished, by a man’s own actions. The amount of security achieved was directly proportional to the amount of successful effort expended. Generally speaking, the security of success, in whatever terms evaluated, was directly attributable to the ability to make the right decisions. Accordingly, there was a premium on decision-making.
What was true in the industrial environment was true in the military also.
In the squad, the platoon, the company, decision-making was the key to
successful military action and was easily recognizable, leading to promotion
and the accompanying economic and social rewards. This situation still exists,
although to a lesser degree, in some elements of the military―the
ground forces fighting platoon-size actions in
For the most part, however, times have changed. In terms of the number of people involved, the dollars expended, the impact on the nation’s economic and military posture, it is “big business” that is in the forefront―in industry, in government (civilian and military), in the service field (labor unions, educational institutions, etc.).
In the impersonal atmosphere of the large military headquarters and in the large command posts managing extensive automated systems, it has become possible to avoid the harsh glare of public notice by avoiding the making of significant decisions. The size of the military structure and the growth of a promotion system that ensures consideration based on the accumulation of sufficient years of service has put a premium on anonymity. Despite the popular pastime of bemoaning the low promotion rates, the odds on being promoted simply by staying out of trouble for a sufficiently long period of time remain fairly respectable, at least up to the grade of lieutenant colonel.
As organizations grew in size and more impersonal promotion systems became necessary, there has been a profound change in the approach to personal security. The federal social security package of 1935 may well be considered the first step in this approach. Company-sponsored benefits, union programs, and an amazing growth in personal savings supplemented the government measures. The total result has been to ensure to a large proportion of the population at least minimal long-range security―but a security embedded in the past and no longer totally dependent on the continuation by the individual of progressive and successful decision-making.
The military has not been exempt from this socioeconomic trend. In fact it has often been in the lead in establishing welfare benefits: for example, an excellent and noncontributory retirement plan, full coverage under social security, termination pay for those officers found not suitable for continued retention. The occasional reduction in force, White Charger, “up-or-out” concepts have generally been short-lived, doomed by rapidly changing world politics and the lack of a stable, long-range budgetary plan. Despite the absolute effect on those people personally involved, their impact on the force as a whole, in terms of relative numbers, has not been significant. In order to ensure the security of retention and probable promotion, it has usually been more advantageous for the individual officer to avoid notice of any kind, favorable or unfavorable, than to stand out as a progressive thinker.
Industry and the military alike have used this growing preoccupation with
long-range security to improve employee recruitment and retention. Virtually
every recruiting advertisement describes fringe benefits such as retirement,
medical care, relocation allowances, educational programs (aimed at
guaranteeing still more security), etc. Rarely is the opportunity for increased
responsibility, for the stimulation of decision-making, mentioned as an
inducement. Within the organization a “father image” is fostered to develop a
feeling of identification in the form of a “family” relationship. Speaking at
A paternalistic corporate attitude. . . is directed toward reducing the insecurity of people and thus reducing their anxieties. But anxiety is the very stuff from which the best creative effort springs! . . . Insecurity is one of the many ways of triggering the necessary anxiety.
Although writing in an entirely different context, the noted
I believe that fear, out in the open, is one of the most valuable assets―a sort of key to our reserves, a means to call into action our latent capabilities. We do not, therefore, need to fear fear . . . we need only handle it rightly, knowing that it can reveal our strength.
Contrast this concept with the statement, “The only thing we need fear is fear itself,” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under whose leadership the economic theories of social security first flowered in this country.
The expansion of personal security places a high premium on stability―stability of the society, stability of the total economy, and stability within the corporate or economic structure. (Aren’t we hoping, in fact, that this same popular expansion of security in the U.S.S.R., with its concurrent need for continuing national stability, will be the key to a reduction in the tensions between us?) This need for stability, coupled with a “Don’t rock the boat” approach by the paternalistic corporation, has given rise to what William H. Whyte, Jr., has called “the organization man.” In his book of that title, Mr. Whyte develops at length the theme of the “typical” manager who fits his thinking into the company mold.
Since Mr. Whyte first coined the term, much has been written about the organization man. In a provocative article titled “The Manager―Roadblock to Change?” (The Management Review, April 1961), Ben Miller explores the problem of “ . . . the ‘organization man’ kind of unquestioning acceptance of everything that comes from on high.”
Paul M. Dauten, Jr., in “Current Issues and Emerging Concepts in Management” in 1962 said: “Many modern-day employees work in an environment in which they are expected to be passive and dependent . . . They have neither much opportunity nor much incentive to be creative . . .”
This lack of opportunity and incentive exists to a considerable extent as a by-product of size and is found in the military as well as in the industrial segment. The layering of management levels makes it difficult for the young officer to obtain a hearing on a level at which major or radical suggestions can be approved. The stagnation of progressive decision-making is most prevalent at what is known in industry as “middle management,” which I consider roughly comparable to the major and lieutenant colonel grades.
As a rule, resistance to change is most firmly embedded in the security consciousness of the man who has established a reasonably advanced position. The junior officer has not yet become as firmly entrenched in the existing hierarchy and ordinarily has not yet committed himself completely to a military career. And because of the pyramidal structure of management and the consequent exposure as one approaches the apex, many colonels and most general officers are more ready to accept radical suggestions if they show promise of significant value.
It is my contention, then, that military management in general and the middle grades in particular have become embedded in a system which discourages creative thinking and puts a premium on conformity. Management attempts to secure the continuity of its own position by pursuing a policy of stagnation, to insure to itself the security already earned, a security which is endangered by change and therefore threatened by decisions that would promote change. Typical of this approach is the practice of “second-guessing the boss,” i.e., providing analyses and recommendations deemed to be “acceptable” rather than representative of one’s own honest but perhaps controversial opinions.
Security and the desire to preserve it stifle creative decision-making in another way: through fear of making a mistake. Dr. Harry Levinson, writing in the September-October 1962 issue of the Harvard Business Review, described the problem:
The general results obtained are never good enough in many companies, leading to more pressure from superiors for improvement, rather than help toward growth. This pressure is often viewed as punishment for mistakes, as a result of which the subordinate learns not to make mistakes by not demonstrating initiative.
The fear of making mistakes, together with the corollary desire to avoid having to say “I don’t know” to a superior, has another unfortunate result: the proliferation of reporting requirements levied on subordinates. Reports are requested and data compiled, not to meet a true management need for the information but only to insure an appearance of omniscience by being able to answer any question that might be asked, regardless of its probability, frequency, or importance.
I view the trend toward management by committee (in industry) and by the frequent use of conferences (in the military) as a further manifestation of the aversion to decision-making due to a fear of jeopardizing security. There are advantages to group activity: the exchange of information and the presentation of ideas can stimulate the creative thinking of the participants. At the same time, group or conference action when used in a decision-making role serves as a refuge for the security-conscious manager who seeks to avoid the responsibility for his decisions. Group decision-making requires compromise, and that compromise must be found within the limits of shared knowledge. The inevitable result is mediocrity. Although the probability of major error is admittedly reduced, so is the chance for truly creative action.
Paradoxically, the very search for security itself has led us to the most basic insecurity of all―the fear of losing that which we already have. The search for security can stimulate creative thinking and progressive decision-making when the acquisition of the security we desire results from valid positive action. When our security depends instead on our ability to maintain the existing state of affairs, then creativity is stifled and much of our energy is dissipated in the search for reasons to avoid change and to perpetuate stagnation or at best creeping modification.
Obviously the present emphasis on personal security is not a temporary phenomenon but must be accepted as a permanent and basic fact of our economic life, both in and out of the military. Nor would I suggest or want a return to the seriously dislocated economic structure of years ago. We must, however, find a path out of the forest of mediocrity in which we find ourselves. Complacency and conformity must be forced to retreat in favor of creative thought and action. Junior officers must be encouraged to exercise initiative and imagination, and the middle grades must be prepared to accept and implement valid recommendations or pass them on to top management with active support. We must develop at all levels a concept of managerial growth which will permit us to tolerate and discount the mistakes that will inevitably accompany positive decision-making, in preference to an error-free philosophy that slams the door on creative thinking. Our promotion system must place greater stress on aggressive and creative management, with a corresponding reduction in reward for those who are just “putting in time.”
Otherwise we are doomed to slow strangulation in the quicksands of complacency and conservative mediocrity, managing today’s technology with yesterday’s methods, bogged down in the constantly increasing amounts of paper our automated systems are spewing out, and searching in vain for the sparks of creativity that have long since been smothered in the press of anonymous bodies searching for security.
Lieutenant Colonel Emanuel M. Abramson (M.B.A.,
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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