If one of your priorities is to help your organization on the way to “Future Business”, you are by definition a change agent. In the course of getting to that change, you will need to make suggestions to people.
- Command – “Strategy X is going to be implemented”
- Team Obligation Statement – “We need to try strategy X”
- Team Suggestion – “Why don’t we try strategy X”
- Query – “Do you think strategy X would help us in this situation?”
- Preference – “Perhaps we should take a look at one of these Y alternatives”
- Hint – “I wonder if we could run into any roadblocks on our current course”
Gladwell brings up the concept in the context of how crews relate to each other in the cockpit of a commercial airliner. The conclusion from analyzing black box recorders is that many accidents are caused by subordinates going closer to 6 even as things got worse and the captain not getting the subtlety until it is too late. Gladwell does not spend much time making generalizations to other business situations. So, I will attempt to do so here.
Which are you making use of and what percent of the time each? Do you think you could be more effective if you changed that spread? Do you think you could relate better to your subordinates if they changed their spread? You should ask yourself these questions in order to reach maximum effectiveness.
The pilots got into trouble because there was too much 5 and 6 going on, but not enough 1 and 2. We can imagine the flip-side of that with a change agent getting into trouble for using too much 1 and 2 with superiors and equals. Only a very strong superior is not going to be threatened by someone that is constantly telling her what to do.
My hypothesis is that your quiver should contain all 6 arrows and you ought to think consciously about using each one. Of course, there will be some organizations/cultures where more 1 and 2 is preferred and others where you better not get above 3 with certain people. However, even if the bull is not in a china shop, there are going to be situations where he should tread a bit lighter.
The perfect mix unfortunately has the age-old consulting answer of “it depends”. It depends on the people around you, the culture of your organization, the aggressiveness of your mission. But, there is no doubt that the most effective people are going to employ a well-rounded mix and not be overly loaded on one side of the spectrum or the other.
If you would like to read more, here is an interesting blog post from a guy contemplating Gladwell in the context of how IT workers relate to each other.