March 26, 2014

KP, Adolf, and the art of being honest

Why clear-the-air meetings don't work if everyone doesn't agree to not be honest

"No, it's certainly not too orange. More an attractive sort of deep pink" © AFP

It was early March 1945. Results on the battlefield hadn't been going the Germans' way, and having put a line through "Rocket Bombs", "More Rocket Bombs", "Cunning Disguises" and "Time-travelling Robots" on his list of Things That Are Certain to Win the War, Adolf Hitler was down to Plan Z: a clear-the-air team meeting.

So he invited Goebbels, Eva, and his remaining followers: the librarian who transcribed and filed his rants by subject from "Aberdeen" to "zucchini"; the three-fingered dentist responsible for his pet dog Kaiser's dental hygiene; his crack SS moustache-maintenance team; and Gustav, the pharmacist who filled out his daily prescription, to gather in Bunker Conference Room 1 for a brainstorming session.

Adolf himself opened proceedings with a brief seven-and-a-half hour presentation entitled "Why Germany Will Win The War, and Even if We Don't it Isn't My Fault, Any of it, Not Even the Silly Flag, Which Was Goring's Idea Anyway". Then he handed the meeting over to Goebbels, explaining that he was going for a lie-down, that in his absence everyone was to speak freely and that anyone who didn't speak freely would be shot.

One at a time they stood up and expressed how confident they were that Germany was going to win the war and how much they were enjoying serving under Adolf. Then it was Gustav's turn. Gustav had never really fit in with life in the bunker; he was an outsider. He suggested that perhaps the war wasn't going that well, that on occasion Adolf had been a little inflexible in his strategy, and that with the benefit of hindsight, his approach to personnel management had been a little counterproductive.

Unfortunately Gustav had completely misunderstood the phrase "speak freely", and he was shot at dawn, after which Adolf gathered his staff in the Don't Panic Room and declared that thanks to their new spirit of camaraderie and honesty, he was sure they would go on to enjoy a thousand years at the top of the world tyranny rankings.

The history of the clear-the-air meeting is littered with such examples, of which the fiasco in Melbourne is just the latest. This week Chris Tremlett revealed that the England players were locked in a hotel room and invited to speak freely, for as long as they liked, on the subject of "Why Are We Suddenly So Rubbish", without deviation, hesitation or repetition. Sadly, KP proved so good at the game, he was later asked to leave.

The reason why the clear-the-air meeting so often goes wrong is that it invites people to break a fundamental rule of civilisation. When asked to say what you really think, you should on no account say what you really think.

And with good reason. If everyone were to go round saying what they really think, riots, looting, anarchy and general Armageddon would surely follow. Consider the phrases below:

"Do you like my new hairstyle?"
"Do you like your birthday present?"
"Do you love me?"
"Are you looking at me, mate?"
"Daddy, would you like to hear me play my new trumpet?"

On the surface, they appear to be invitations to speak freely. But if you value your well-being, there is only one possible answer to each of these questions. The same rule applies when your coach asks you whether you think there's anything he could do differently. The correct answer is:

"Not at all, coach. You are the right man for the job, I have every faith in your methods and I'm sure things will sort themselves out eventually."

See, it really isn't that hard, Kevin.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here