A handful of controversies have sprung up around the movie Zero Dark Thirty, a fictionalized depiction of the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden. Criticisms range from the argument that it served as pre-election boosterism for the Obama Administration to accusations of leaked sensitive or classified material to arguments that the movie is pro-torture. (Everyone denies everything, by the way.)
But more interesting, at least from the perspective of management, is an article that recently appeared in the Washington Post about the CIA analyst on whom the movie's main character, Maya, was based. (My colleague Dan McGinn brought the article to my attention.) The real-life Maya, it seems, is disgruntled. While she and several others were given the agency's Distinguished Intelligence Medal, she disparaged the "lesser award" given to dozens of others, going so far as to hit "reply all" in response to the announcement of the award to let everyone know exactly what she thought. This is, we all know, rarely a good idea. She was, apparently, not complementary, accusing her fellow officers of being obstructionist. According to the Post story, she thought she deserved greater recognition for her "crucial" efforts. After all, when everyone's super, no one is.
In addition to the medal, the CIA has reportedly given her a cash bonus for her performance. But it has also reportedly passed her over for promotion, and now an inquiry is centered on the question of whether "Maya" went so far as to give the filmmakers inside information in an effort to get back at the Agency.
What's going on here? Some commenters of the Post article (and, yes, I know one should never read comments) see conspiracy, sex bias, just deserts, racial discrimination, among other nefarious points. Maybe.
But what I thought about when reading the story was organizational design. What is the CIA after here? The Agency wants, and needs, team players — at least, that's the signal they're sending to "Maya" and the other analysts paying attention to the story (and we can assume that everyone in the Agency is paying attention). The Agency hires people who are extraordinarily skilled and who could make better money and find public acclamation elsewhere. But they've chosen the CIA for whatever reason (love of country, for instance). The Agency wants them to focus on what's best for the CIA, and not put their individual interests above those of the collective. Violate those norms — by putting down your fellow analysts in a "reply all" email or other self-aggrandizing behavior — and you'll be punished.
This reminded me of the partnering process at Goldman Sachs. Goldman denies partnership to some extraordinarily talented employees who have returned copious amounts of money to the firm and its clients. Why? Because they were judged to have put their own interests above those of the firm, behavior not becoming of a partner. Nor, apparently, is it the behavior of a star performer at the CIA.
Other elements of the recognition at the Agency reinforce this ethos. Officers killed in the line of duty have their names put on the Wall of Honor at the Agency's offices — but not before. The implicit message is that you'll be recognized after years of selfless service, but not before. If this isn't an ethos you are willing to get behind, then you're welcome to get behind.
Organizations must be ruthless in reinforcing these norms, even if it means that they might lose star performers. In the end, you'll have employees who are much more closely aligned with the organization's goals, and that makes for better performance overall. This same logic drives Zappos' "offer," where new employees can take $2000 and just walk away after their training. Zappos is willing to pay to discover those who value cash over the company because it doesn't want them muddying the company's culture.
Part of the challenge for the CIA is that employees have to be really, really into selfless service, and willing to engage in it for a long time. Junior analysts at Goldman Sachs have something to look forward to, a carrot dangling in the distant future. If you put in enough time as a good foot soldier, you increase your chances of a huge payoff at the end of the day. (The same logic applies to drug gangs.) It may be a long shot, but it's there and it's real. The CIA doesn't have that golden carrot at the end of the day, which is part of what is causing the current complications (and also created other complications, like the tendency of some analysts to take cash payouts from the Soviets during the Cold War, for instance).
When someone comes looking for increased recognition at the CIA, when someone wants to rise to the level of a star, they run up against the harsh reality of the CIA's culture. You signed up for selfless service and that's what you get.
The larger question for organizations and managers is whether they're willing to make these kind of hard decisions to reinforce an organization's culture and values. It's not easy, but it can pay off in terms of employee fit and engagement.