Opinion by Stephen Balzac

‘Duck and cover’ won’t save your business’ skin

The way some companies handle the problems facing them can seem as likely to work as hiding under a large piece of furniture to escape harm from a nuclear blast

duck and cover, schoolchildren 1950s
Credit: Walter Albertin, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
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I have a fondness for old-time radio podcasts. I love that the iPod created a whole slew of opportunities for those of us who want to listen to such things.

One of my discoveries was The Avengers radio show. I’m not talking Marvel here; this was a ’60s vintage British program adapted from a TV show of the same name. It was a spy thriller about two ultra-sophisticated British agents, John Steed and Emma Peel. Listening to episodes of The Avengers has had me thinking about the Cold War mindset, and that in turn led to an insight about how businesses operate. I’ll get to that, but first let me mention these four very important points that occurred to me while listening to The Avengers:

  1. Russian accents are only the second most villainous-sounding accents. Certain British accents are the most villainous, probably because they always sound as if their speakers have antisocial personality disorder.
  2. Other British accents sound heroic.
  3. Old-time commercials in a British accent sound like something out of Monty Python.
  4. When the word “helpless” is said immediately before the name “Emma Peel,” you know someone is in for a very nasty surprise.

I’m not entirely sure what this means, although the first might reflect my image of Boris Badenov as the quintessential Russian villain. With Vladimir Putin misbehaving in Ukraine, perhaps Russian-accented villains will make a comeback, along with that Cold War mindset. I’ll leave that to James Bond (or Moose and Squirrel).

What has, apparently, made a comeback is a modern “duck and cover.” Remember that? When I was a kid, we had atomic bomb drills and hid under desks or went to a special basement hallway that had yellow atomic stickers. I didn’t really understand why that particular hallway was better than any other. Be that as it may, the idea that hiding under a school desk (or any other piece of furniture) would protect one from a nuclear bomb is just a little, shall we say, quaint.

Quaint, but not dead. Shortly before attending my son’s kindergarten orientation, I’d listened to a Cold War episode of The Avengers. Thus, I nearly choked when the school administration said that they practice lockdowns and that when that happens they “hide under the tables.” At least it’s more likely to be effective against today’s dangers than those of the 1950s.

What I find interesting is that the belief that somehow it’s safer to hide under a table is still around. Cultural memes are persistent, and they come back in the oddest and most unexpected places. Somewhere, at some time, the idea of hiding under large pieces of furniture became associated with safety, and now it emerges as a stress reaction when danger threatens — whether or not it’s the best, or even an effective, response.

By the same token, I often see businesses sticking to behaviors that are believed to be helpful but, in reality, are at best time wasters, at worst actively damaging. Under stressful economic conditions, those behaviors emerge with a vengeance, leading people to spend a great deal of time metaphorically hiding under the tables.

At one manufacturing company, the major concern was cost-cutting. Every manager was ordered to find ways to save money. In the past, the company had dealt with economic challenges by becoming very aggressive in salary negotiations. Taking this to a bit of an extreme, one manager responded by hiring barely qualified candidates with a minimal command of the English language. He was praised for his innovative approach even as the problems caused by having employees who couldn’t understand instructions were mounting. The final cost in lost productivity and customer returns well outweighed any benefit. Oddly enough, even after admitting that, the CEO didn’t want to fire the “cheap” workers.

At another company, challenges from competitors were always handled through strong and direct leadership. In this case, leadership responded to a competing product by closing off all input from non-managers. Employees who happened to be using the competing product were viewed as traitors to the company instead of valuable sources of information. Management gathered together and “solved” the problem. They then spent the next few months variously blaming engineering, marketing and sales when the new and wonderful solution didn’t work. Had they bothered to come out from where they were hiding under the tables, they could have solved their problems quite easily by listening to what their employees were trying to tell them.

I still remember one duck and cover commercial: after the mushroom cloud clears, the building is destroyed but the kid under his desk is unharmed. How will you recognize behaviors at your company that produce a similar degree of safety?

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development and Organizational Psychology for Managers. He is also a contributing author to Volume 1 of Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play. For more information, or to sign up for Steve's monthly newsletter, visit 7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.

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