The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

speaking out: would you?

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Facing up to the truth and admitting mistakes are difficult things to do, especially in the precipitous world of investment banking, as Alicia, Douglas and Aidan have pointed out in previous postings about heroism and counterheroism. They require the kind of courage that is more likely to characterize an unsung hero than a superhero. I want to touch on another, related kind of courage: the courage to challenge accepted behaviour and speak out about things that seem to be morally or ethically wrong.

The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.
Coco Chanel

It’s a topic that’s been on my mind for a while. It lodged there a few weeks ago following an angst-ridden phonecall from an old friend – let’s call her Michelle. She’s a partner at a primary care practice here in the UK. The practice is run by a handful of partners and a simmering situation had just boiled over at a recent meeting.

The reception staff were being less than polite towards the doctors and patients. The senior partner had had enough and called in the practice manager to haul her over the coals in front of his colleagues. She subsequently left the meeting in tears. While she had to take some responsibility for the situation, it wasn’t down just to her. The GPs are often impatient and rude to the reception staff, who (like most people) take their cues from their leaders. The practice manager was and continues to be a convenient scapegoat.

What to do? Michelle doesn’t like the senior partner’s bullying manner but the practice politics mean that if she speaks out she won’t get any support and will achieve little beyond salving her conscience and making her own position difficult if not untenable. Even without the politics, her colleagues wouldn’t thank her for drawing attention to their bad behavior. What to do under such circumstances? Make a scene? Say nothing? Look for a position elsewhere?

Different in scale and impact but also flowing from a dysfunctional corporate culture were the appalling events at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which led to the deaths of over 400 patients. As part of its response, on 26 March the UK government made a commitment to introduce a statutory duty of candour for the NHS – a contractual requirement for service providers to be open and transparent in admitting mistakes. Good idea in theory, tricky in practice.

For one thing, situations are almost never black and white. It’s not easy to judge when someone ‘crosses the line.’ To take a trivial example, lots of people wouldn’t think twice about taking the occasional pencil or pen home from work, nor would they consider confronting or reporting a colleague for doing so. How many pencils and pens would that colleague have to steal before you began to feel uncomfortable about their behaviour? And at what point would you decide to do something about it? It’s all too easy to let things slip…

Then there’s wilful blindness, which is at the heart of the recent spate of healthcare scandals according to Margaret Heffernan. In her article Why Pick on Nurses? she discusses what is known within healthcare circles as the ‘hidden curriculum’, which teaches medical students that your first duty is to obey the people around you and to stick together.

Well, it’s not limited to the healthcare sector. It crops up, for example, in recommendation 30 of Anthony Salz’s Review of Barclays’ Business Practices.

30: Issue escalation

Barclays should foster a culture where employees feel that escalating issues is safe and valued.

Barclays should maintain robust arrangements for raising concerns (“whistle- blowing”) which are perceived to protect those raising them and to lead to actions being taken to address the underlying culture and values issues. There should be regular reports to the Board which are detailed enough for the Board to form insights as to the culture and behaviours within the organisation.

And here’s some of the background:

12.41 There is also evidence from Barclays’ internal Employee Opinion Survey of a cultural unwillingness to escalate issues. A significant proportion of employees in the investment bank, for example, said that they were “reluctant to report problems to management”, and that they did not feel able to “report unethical behaviour without fear of reprisal”. This is not isolated to the investment bank – as our own staff survey showed.

Salz (page 197) also references a study that suggests that cultures that are highly individualistic, verging on narcissistic, create a collective dynamic that reinforces perverse behaviour through the process of turning a blind eye. In effect, people ignore inconvenient truths and interpret other data in ways that suit them. He goes on talk about research into the group dynamics of turning a blind eye and its corrupting influence:

‘I/we know it is wrong but I/we can construct a rationale, logical framework which means that I/we can subvert my/our moral compass.’ No-one in the group speaks out about the concerns of what might be right or wrong for fear of being seen to be disloyal. Rationale and logic is encouraged at the expense of that which we know/feel deep down to be right.


photo | Rob Swatski

This piece of graffiti, somewhere between a referee’s whistle and a (loose) canon neatly captures for me the ambivalence we feel around those who speak up. The term whistle blower comes from the whistle a referee uses to indicate illegal or foul play. According to Wikipedia, US civic activist Ralph Nader coined the phrase in the early 1970s to avoid the negative connotations found in other words such as informer, snitch, blabbermouth and squealer.

On the one hand, we admire whistle blowers for refusing to acquiesce. On the other they make us feel uncomfortable by disrupting the status quo, which we might not have had the courage to do ourselves or may even have been complicit in. What’s more, how can we be sure of their motivation – integrity or something more ambiguous such as corporate politics or personality clashes, as appears to have been the case with Paul Moore, the whistleblower at HBOS. Either way, speaking up is hard to do and requires real moral courage and/or for the individual to be driven to act by an unbearable level of disillusion, frustration and desperation.

Most of us are not going to be whistle blowers, and while it makes sense to foster a culture where it’s OK to speak out, organizations shouldn’t assume that people will come forward. What’s needed is a way of giving everyone a chance to report back anecdotally and anonymously both the day-to-day and the out-of-the-ordinary events that shape their lives at work – a way that enables the leaders to get closer to what’s actually happening on the ground and to spot the patterns and shifts that indicate that the organization or specific groups within it are moving in the right direction or taking a dangerous turn. That is what our ethical auditing scan is designed to do.

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