The “GM NOD” & Doing Nothing

Posted by jlubans on June 17, 2014

20140617-gm nod pic.jpeg
Caption: "For the want of a nail ...."

After multiple deaths, injuries and millions of dollars in lawsuits – attributable to a faulty ignition switch - the new boss of General Motors hired someone from outside the company – a former Federal prosecutor - to find out what happened. The prosecutor observed what “… what was known as the ‘GM nod,’ in which ‘everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action but then leaves the room and does nothing.’" So, according to the investigator GM had a corporate culture that resulted in and sustained a passive, dependent, and uncritical management.
Since the investigator’s report 15 managers have been fired – a good first step – but just how deep does this GM nod tradition go?
It isn’t just being a benign (for the most part) yes man or a sheepish follower; the GM nodder has elements of collusion, insubordination and sabotage! A tacit decision is taken to do nothing. What causes that to happen in an organization? How can any organization survive that kind of behavior?

Back in 2008 GM was deemed “too big to fail” and was bailed out with billions of tax dollars. I have to wonder if the bailout did not accelerate and immunize the GM nod culture. While economists and politicians claim that GM had to be bailed out, I would have preferred a structured bankruptcy in which GM was forced to re-organize. For me, GM was TOO big NOT to fail. I suspect they would have survived bankruptcy and come out much stronger and more attuned to behaving in responsible corporate ways. Hard times help people make tough decisions. Camaraderie develops and trust blossoms as people survive, pull together, and depend on each other. A bankruptcy helps get rid of wasteful processes, bad habits and incompetent people and policies.

GMs “nodders” remind me of P. G. Wodehouse’s masterful story, “The Nodder*
about Hollywood’s “yes men” during the time (early 1930s)
when Wodehouse was employed as a highly paid but grossly underused screenwriter.
In this comic story*, Wilmot Mulliner - “quiet, respectful, deferential, and obsequious …” is the ideal Nodder, according to the stereotypical studio boss, Mr. Schnellenhammer. But in Wodehouse’s happy conclusion, the worm – in love - turns and Mr. Mulliner confronts and confounds the overbearing boss.
In my career, I’ve encountered a variety of organizational cultures, ones that support an array of followers, including nodders and yes men, and some independent and original thinkers. When I was a manager in the research library field of about 100 very large libraries, I observed vastly different levels of innovation, openness to change, risk-taking, staff empowerment, and propensity for action. It was apparent then, as it is now, that organizational culture defines organizational well-being or not. It took some doing – indeed my skulking around undercover - to find those few libraries I’d term “best practice”. These libraries I discovered had managers who somehow had their staff performing far better than their peers at other institutions. That was the type of culture I was looking to introduce and to emulate where I worked, but oddly enough, the culture was often isolated to the departmental level and not across the organization. It was like finding out that the love of your life comes from a family with a meth lab in its backyard. Worse, the best practice’s department was often internally regarded as subversive to tradition, a sort of Cinderella with more than a few jealous stepsisters.
One Ivy League institution took pride in making known that any new hire arriving starry-eyed and wanting to change the world, would be soon dissuaded. There was a particular trainer (or “cultural enforcer”) in charge of adjusting the newbie’s perspective. At the end of the first year, the new hire was gone or as one with “The Way” of X University. Unfortunately, X University was one of the least productive and most tradition-bound and least innovative among my peer group. X University would have benefited from a Wilmot Mulliner! While not as lethal as GM’s nodders, X University’s nodders (uncritical and unquestioning) certainly stifled that library’s ability to improve and to innovate services for its readers. Perhaps it was a campus wide mind set, but that library’s leader could have taken the lead in promoting and rewarding an independent thinking and action prone staff – just like GMs leaders should have.

*P. G. Wodehouse, “The Nodder”, in his Blandings Castle.
NY: The Overlook Press (original copyright, 1935) 2002, The Overlook Press edition also includes one of Wodehouse’s best short stories: “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend”, a story about leaders and followers.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014
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