Barrier troops

· November 27, 2015

I’ve been rereading the remarkable ReInventing Organizations by Fredric Laloux. The first chapter, in particular, is captivating as it delves into the evolutionary history of organizations. It astutely highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of each new organizational stage.

While reading about Amber-Conformist organizations (think strict hierarchical, large organizations), I found a train of thought forming, resonating with my experiences over the past two years, where I’ve encountered many such organizations.

My point here is that residues of this behavior persist in modern organizations. Recognizing and addressing them proactively is crucial to prevent potential issues, as we’ll soon see.

As the name suggests, “Amber-Conformist” organizations value compliance and adherence to instructions. Decision-making and authority in these organizations are centralized at the top of the hierarchy. As you move down the hierarchy, less authority, decision-making, and thinking are expected until, at the lowest level, there’s only action.

To scale this model to accommodate many individuals, strict adherence to procedures and expectations is vital. As I’ve written about previously, I’ve often been chastised for deviating from these expectations. My inbox is filled with emails urging me:

Please don't question the process

Initially puzzling and immensely frustrating, this behavior becomes more understandable when we consider the origins and strengths of such organizations. However, I still find the entire scheme dehumanizing and fundamentally flawed.

Mental Imagery and Historical Context

Laloux assigns a metaphor or mental image to each stage of organizational evolution, facilitating easier recollection. The image for Amber-Organizations is that of an Army. In my mind’s eye, I envision a Roman army on the brink of war.

Let’s attempt to comprehend behaviors like “Please don’t question the process” or “Don’t think; we’ve done that for you” within this framework.

Picture an army on the battlefield, the front line comprised of foot soldiers armed with swords and shields. Their sole directive: charge the enemy upon a given signal. The odds of survival for these troops would be exceedingly low, potentially involving the sacrifice of slaves or prisoners.

Now, imagine if these soldiers began to exercise independent thought. The consequences would likely be catastrophic, disrupting the effectiveness of the charge and creating vulnerabilities for the enemy. Success hinges on unwavering adherence to procedure and unquestioning obedience.

I’ve often contemplated how commanders managed to maintain control and prevent panic in such situations. How did they prevent soldiers from fleeing? The answer lies in the concept of Barrier Troops, utilized by armies throughout history, even up to the Second World War.

This concept, though brutal in its simplicity, was remarkably effective. Positioned directly behind the frontline troops—who might be prone to panic and retreat—were units tasked with threatening or killing any soldier attempting to turn back. The mere existence of these troops, known to all frontline soldiers, presented a grim choice: face slim odds of survival upfront or certain death at the hands of Barrier Troops if attempting to retreat.

In either scenario, doom was inevitable.

Modern Manifestations of Barrier Troops

Although unsettling and barbaric, the concept of Barrier Troops persists in contemporary Amber-Conformist organizations. Punishments and rewards serve as modern-day equivalents. In a situation I’ve previously recounted, nurses chose to forgo handwashing because it wasn’t explicitly outlined in the procedure—a decision motivated by fear of pay deductions.

The typical response from Amber-Conformists is to revise procedures, acknowledging their insufficiency (as was initially suggested in the aforementioned case). However, it’s essential to recognize that not everything can be codified. Some degree of autonomy and authority must be delegated to the lowest levels.

In your own context, you’ll likely identify similar examples: being held accountable for estimates you didn’t set, facing deadlines you didn’t establish, or experiencing annual bonuses tied to arbitrary metrics.

Fear’s Role

What connects this behavior to the concept of Barrier Troops? Or, to phrase it differently, why does it work?

Because it does. Many Amber-Conformist organizations have achieved surprising efficiency and scale. Consider traditional banks or global corporations pre-1950—they thrived under such structures.

The common thread binding them is fear. Barrier Troops succeeded because of fear; the modern organizational equivalent, rooted in bonus/punishment systems, operates on the same principle. “If I don’t excel, I’ll miss out on my bonus.”

In some Asian cultures, fear pervades every aspect of life. Individuals refrain from challenging older, higher-ranking, or respected figures—even when they’re clearly mistaken—out of fear of repercussions.

Let me illustrate with two examples—one sobering, the other amusing.


Singapore stands as a testament to remarkable progress and development. Contrast it with Indonesia, and the difference is striking—just a two-hour flight separates chaos from order. However, after spending some time in Singapore, a disquieting realization emerges: the prevalence of prohibitions and warnings.

During New Year’s celebrations in 2015, I encountered a sign (see left) cautioning against rioting. Singapore boasts impeccably clean streets—largely due to hefty fines for littering.

Singapore’s efficiency is undeniable, but its proliferation of prohibitions raises questions. Through what means is order maintained? Fear appears to be the underlying motivator—a sobering realization.

Korean Airlines

Here’s a lighter anecdote, albeit with serious implications. Korean Airlines, notorious for incidents in the 70s and 80s, topped the global incident charts. Their solution? Analyzing every incident, they uncovered a pervasive issue: deference to seniority.

Lower-ranking staff hesitated to challenge seniors due to cultural norms. While respect is commendable, its excessive manifestation can be perilous.

One notable incident involved a co-pilot noticing dangerously low altitude but refraining from alerting the captain directly, opting instead for a non-confrontational remark. A near-catastrophe ensued, narrowly averted by the pilot’s evasive action.

Fear of speaking up stifles quality. In this case, it nearly resulted in a catastrophic crash.

In Conclusion

Fear permeates many aspects of modern organizations, hindering both their potential and the fulfillment of individuals within them.

Scrutinizing and challenging the sources of fear is imperative. It’s unnecessary and counterproductive.

The antidotes to fear? Love and Trust. Simple, yet profound. Let’s embrace them!

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