Reverse Mentoring Gets the Job Done

Recently, I read a remarkable story about how the U.S. military now prohibits its soldiers from using privately purchased body armor in Iraq. I think there is not only an important message here about the troops but also for all who complain that they don't get what they need to do their job.

In the guise of protecting the soldiers, the U.S. military appears to have adopted the stance that being potentially unprotected is safer than the risks from armor that hasn't been certified. The Army put out a directive banning the use of any protective equipment it hasn't issued, saying that buying other equipment is a waste of money because it may not work as well as Army-issued gear.

Veterans groups are hearing a lot of complaints about the policy. Soldiers, still waiting to receive their body armor, clearly believe that potentially substandard armor is better than none at all. USO shows, holiday parties and phone calls are currently part of the military experience, but apparently body armor is still a bridge too far for all the troops.

I could accept it if this conversation was being held two years ago. But the war has been going on for more than three years now, and soldiers still forage for body armor on the Internet. One leader of a veteran's organization quoted in USA Today blames the military for creating this "monster" by not providing soldiers adequate protection. Recently, legislation was introduced in Congress to address this problem.

But the soldiers are not the only ones who must go into battle each day without the tools they need to be successful. Aside from the philosophical problems I have with the Army policy, I couldn't help but notice that U.S. soldiers are dealing with a top-heavy bureaucracy not too different from what many of us face at work every day.

According to a poll by Watson Wyatt, 62 percent of workers say that they lack the information that they need to do their jobs. Granted, not having the data, reports or information that you need to do your job is a far cry from going into battle without protective armor, but to me it's just as confusing. How can organizations be so out of touch with what their work force needs to get the job done?

Let's start with the usual suspects -- executives who are arrogant, pennywise and pound foolish or just seriously out of touch. Whatever you call it, I feel that it's negligent supervision. Executives always seem ready to accept the perks of leadership, but they also need to put their people in a position where they can succeed. And according to this poll, and a steady stream of e-mail in my inbox, this doesn't happen for millions of us.

How can we fix this? I'll offer a simple suggestion. Reverse mentoring. Top executives need to talk to the people on the front lines to find out what challenges they face regularly. My hope is that if execs could see the challenges firsthand they might be more responsive to giving people the tools and resources to get the job done.

Unfortunately, this isn't a magic bullet that will solve all resource problems in the workplace, but it's hoped it would be a start. And speaking of magic bullets, I hope our troops won't have to face many more of them while unprotected.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"Big shots are only little shots who kept shooting." -- Christopher Marley

BOOK EXCERPT OF THE WEEK

From "The Owners Manual for the Brain," by Pierce Howard (Bard, 2006):

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