If you want to be a successful disruptive thinker, I’ll give you a little hint: if you humiliate your supervisors in front of their own bosses, make people cry, and get called behind closed doors for a dressing down, you’ve probably failed.
Yes, it really was that bad.
Let me give some background first. First, I am a hard INTJ in the world of Meyers-Brigs personality types, meaning that I have a compulsive need to improve everything I come in contact with. As you can probably imagine, that is a double-edged sword. Second, before I began Arabic studies at the Defense Language Institute, I had been working as a Flying Safety Officer at my C-17 base. That meant my entire job was dedicated to continual improvement. My colleagues and I were constantly tweaking base processes to ensure maximum safety for aircraft operations. If a mishap occurred, we ran investigations, identified causal findings, and made specific recommendations to reduce the chances of a similar mishap ever occurring again. My entire job consisted of identifying areas for improvement, then making constructive recommendations. Nothing about that, I thought, would be controversial in an organization that valued its own improvement.
When I began at DLI, the Arabic program was a work-in-progress. The school had tripled in size since September 11th, and it had growing pains. My classmates and I were appalled to discover that the pass rate at graduation was only 14%–so low that the DOD had to re-evaluate its Arabic DLPT. Because teachers received merit pay linked to student DLPT scores, the entire school–from the lowest students to the highest administrators–was in a state of constant panic. Methodology seemed to change every week or two. Students were failing out left and right because they couldn’t handle the stress. As for our curriculum, it was an experimental monstrosity of more than ten volumes that had just come out of production and had cost more than a million dollars. It was terrible.
I though the administration might value some feedback, so I did exactly what I’d done as a flying safety officer: typed up a lengthy list of detailed concerns. For each of them I listed specific, actionable recommendations that would mitigate the concern. Nothing about this seemed controversial to me, and I ran it by my classmates before sending it up. We focused our comments specifically on the curriculum, not on particular teachers or administrators. I provided my feedback to our Military Training Leader, an NCO embedded within the mostly Arab, civilian faculty. We all felt pretty good about ourselves for trying to make the organization better.
A few days later, I was stunned when I was called into our head teacher’s office–a wonderful mother-bear of a woman who loved us like her own children, but was as vicious and demanding as a drill sergeant. She was crying. “Yacoub,” she choked, using my Arabic name. “What’s this?” Then she held up a copy of my paper. “I thought you liked us, Yacoub.”
We suffered through a horrible day, as each of our hurt, confused teachers interrogated us about our “complaint.” Later that afternoon, the administrator who supervised our teachers paid his first-ever visit to our class… to berate us for violating our chain of command, and complaining to the higher administration without coming to him first.
Here’s what had happened: the NCO had taken our feedback directly to the Dean, the head of the entire Arabic school. The Dean had then called up his subordinate administrators, wanting to know what this was all about, and they were completely blindsided. The NCO had also left a copy somewhere on the shared drive where, by complete coincidence, my teachers had stumbled across it. Even as the administration was exploding, the teachers were passing around copies of our “secret” complaint. Everybody felt betrayed. Even though our critique was focused on the curriculum, our teachers felt that we were complaining about them. Both they and the junior administrators were humiliated in front of their bosses. Even though we had intended our feedback as an impersonal means of organizational improvement, few of the civilians understood that. This was also my first exposure to how complicated cross-cultural relationships can be. These were teachers from cultural backgrounds in which personal honor was everything, and shame was an unbearable fate.
Damage control took weeks, and some relationships never recovered. None of our recommendations were put into effect, although to her credit, our lead teacher tossed out the curriculum and began working late every night to create her own.
Epic, disruptive failure.
This was one of the most illuminating experiences of my life. The INTJ profile says that we “do not readily grasp… social rituals”, which is extremely harsh but also–just maybe–a little bit true. At the time I dwelled in a world of ideas, and naively thought that good ideas would stand on their own merit. The inevitable response to our constructive critique, I thought, would be gratitude and implementation of our ideas. Not so much. We weren’t dealing with neutral ideas, I realized; we were dealing with people and feelings and careers and pride and shame.
In my SWJ article, the #1 principle for disruptive thinkers is this: “The goal is persuasion.” That flows directly from this experience. My classmates and I were in no position to implement our own recommendations. We needed buy-in from teachers and administrators, so our goal should have been to persuade them. That meant presenting them with good ideas, but it also meant constructing positive, trusting relationships in which we could sell our ideas as win-win opportunities. Our failure to do that (which was largely my failure) led to one of the most awkward situations in my career.
I wish I could tell you I changed forever after that, but I’m not always the fastest learner. In my next post in this series, I’ll share one more story. Then, right around the time I’ve convinced you that I’m a hopeless idiot, I’ll share some of my positive experiences with creating change.