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Margaret Heffernan

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The Silence of the Corporations

Posted: 04/11/2012 10:38

The leader of any organization in the world must be watching the scandals that rock HSBC, Barclays, the BBC, New Corporation, GlaxiSmithKline, Ameridose, the Metropolitan police, parliament and the Catholic Church and thinking: 'there but for the grace of god go I.'

Because while it would be very comforting to imagine that all of those organizations are uniquely bad, the truth is much harder to contemplate. Every organization has issues and concerns which are known about by many people who choose to remain silent.

What academic research into organizational silence shows is that people silence their fears and concerns either because they are afraid of retribution from bosses or co-workers (this is the chief cause in the U.S.) or they feel that speaking up would be futile because nothing would change (this is the chief cause in Europe.) Fundamentally what this means is that companies go to great lengths to hire smart people - but then abjectly fail to get the best from them.

This is because very few organizations appreciate the extent of the suppressed knowledge or the very real risk which it represents. Many CEOs and leaders think that silence is indeed golden, that consensus is bliss. It is - sometimes. But more often what it signifies is that there are no respected processes for surfacing concerns and dissent.

I've spent the last year talking to CEOs, COOs, heads of HR, compliance and legal about their processes for dealing with complaints and raising concerns. For the most part, they are either non-existent, flimsy or without credibility. Those in powerless positions aren't about to complain about bullying bosses, abusive supervisors or corrupt co-workers. There is no safe way to do so and no process that promises redress. This isn't new, of course. I've seen it all my working life, everywhere from the BBC to private companies and public corporations in the U.S. and the U.K.

Some organizations say this is an HR problem. It isn't. It is a core leadership problem. If you have widescale abuse, corruption, bullying, or criminality in your organization, this isn't a HR problem; it is a leadership problem. You will know that when the public and the press won't want to interview the head of HR. They will go straight to the top -- and they will be right to do so.

The important point here is that every smart organization has got to design and put in place systems and processes that make it easy and safe for any employee to ask questions, raise concerns and blow the whistle. How can any company know if its processes, products, people are safe? Only if everyone is watching and telling the truth. The first part can be assumed; the second cannot.

The central, perennial question in leadership and management which is this: how do you know your organization is healthy? The old answers - stock price, staff turnover, profitability - have been shown to be inadequate. I'd like to propose a new answer: the quality of dissent within an organization shows how well run it is. No dissent, no good.

 
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