by Laurent Duperval, Duperval Consulting Inc.

In the Western world, World War II is remembered as a victory of the Allied Forces against Germany, Japan, and Italy. That may well be but when reading John Toland’s analysis of the Japanese situation in The Rising Sun, a slightly different picture emerges: Japan was as much to blame (to laud?) for its downfall as were the Allies.

The leaders of the Japanese Army and Navy did not like each other. They fought repeatedly amongst themselves to appropriate precious and scarce resources: men, boats, planes, food. In order to win “The Decisive Battle” and reap the glory, some members of the Japanese high command were actively sabotaging efforts of the other faction, by taking resources which were not theirs and disregarding direct orders.

This infighting caused resources to be allocated incorrectly; it caused many men to die in battle for lack of resources or because battle plans were not followed correctly; it created enough problems within the Japanese military to allow the Allied Forces to eventually crush the Japanese.

Individuals within the military were so focused on their personal glory that they forgot about the real primary objective: To win the war.

Businesses who fall into this same behavioural pattern risk the same fate. When top level executives are openly at odds, it can create an atmosphere that affects employees, business decisions, and the bottom line. Executives must align with the overall objective of the company.

This does not mean, however, that they have to agree all the time. Disagreement is normal, and should be expected of top executives: They did not get to their current positions by being milquetoast. However, once a direction is chosen by the CEO or by the board, as long as individuals remain within the company, they should be helping to achieve that objective and not show dissension publicly, especially in front of employees.

In the case of the Japanese, the fighting was amongst the generals, but nobody-for example, the Japanese Emperor, considered as the Supreme Commander-stepped in to force them to align with the country’s objectives. In businesses, especially smaller ones, it can also be the owners who wreak havoc on the bottom line. One small tech company suffered such a fate.

The owners of the company, one acting as CEO the other as CTO, were at odds with each other. The CEO had lost his faith in his partner, the CTO. The CEO blamed the company’s woes on the poor quality of the product. The CTO blamed the company’s problems on the CEO’s poor management and poor decisions. This caused one to undermine the other, and their direct reports to be stuck in between. Eventually, the company folded.

When it isn’t the owners or the executives, it can be the employees themselves who cause a company to drift. A July 2012 Vanity Fair article chronicles the problems faced by Microsoft in the last decade. One of the problems which severely hampered innovation was something called “stack ranking.” In effect, during semi-annual reviews, no matter how employees performed, 20% would get a good score, 70% would get average scores, and 10% would get bad scores. Managers would meet before the reviews to “negotiate” employees’ scores.

Since reviews affected employees’ salaries, and occurred very frequently, it caused employees to focus on short-term results, and made them try to negatively impact the work of others. This toxic atmosphere has caused Microsoft to stagnate in the marketplace, while being surpassed by more nimble and effective companies such as Facebook, Google, and Apple.

Maintaining harmony isn’t about being nice all the time. Often, it has nothing to do about being nice. Maintaining harmony is about respect among individuals, alignment with the company mission, and focusing on what is best for the company and its employees.

Otherwise, the company might well be committing hara kiri.

© 2012 Laurent Duperval

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