HomeBusiness Ethics

Whistling while you work

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

Let’s clear something up: Submitting a ManagementSpeak to KJR isn’t whistleblowing. What the two have in common: If the manager you’re quoting catches on and figures out you were the source, you might be in for some personal discomfort.

What they don’t have in common: Congress has passed no laws protecting ManagementSpeak submitters from retaliation.

Send in what you hear anyway.

Speaking of whistleblowers, the estimable Randy Cassingham, who also writes and publishes This is Truea weekly compendium of strange happenings from headlines around the world — told of the recently deceased Shuping Wang in his Honorary Unsubscribe.

In the 1990s, Wang discovered that the Chinese government’s methods for managing its blood supply promoted the spread of blood-borne pathogens; her tests showed contamination rates of 83% for Hepatitis C alone.

Wang attempted to bring the problem to the attention of her management, and when that had no impact tried jumping a level, with predictable results: Dr. Wang’s research was stopped and one official bashed both her and her equipment with a club.

If you’re interested in the full story I encourage you to click the link. If you’re interested in how it relates to you and the organization you work in, read on.

In your career, you’ll run across all sorts of, shall we say, opportunities to improve how things get done around here. Not improving how you and your organization do things, but how other managers and their organizations do whatever they do to accomplish whatever they’re supposed to accomplish.

Some of these will be true opportunities. But some might be opportunities in the sense of the drivelous “there’s no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity.”

The problems probably won’t be as dire as actively spreading fatal diseases. So let’s be less dramatic about it and imagine you’ve discovered a data breach. It hasn’t exposed millions of customers’ credit card information yet … just a few thousand thus far … but the risk of larger losses is, in your estimation, quite real.

You figure your employer will want to eliminate this risk, so you send an email to the managers in the company’s org chart most likely to be in a position to do so, explaining the breach, its root cause, and suggestions as to what a solution might look like.

And … nothing happens, other than your receiving a pro forma email thanking you for being so conscientious.

The question: Why do organizations as diverse as the Chinese government and sadly not atypical large corporations do their best to ignore problems like these instead of fixing them?

Start here: Organizations don’t “ignore” problems, any more than they might be “greedy” or “evil.”

Ascribing these behaviors and motivations to the organization means something quite different from ascribing them to, say, human beings of the Homo sapiens persuasion.

Humans might and often do ignore problems and act greedily. Depending on how a person’s attitudes and behavior stack up against your moral code you might run across the occasional evil villain as well.

But an organization isn’t just like a human being only bigger. It’s different. If an organization appears to ignore a problem, what this means is that its systems and practices aren’t designed to accommodate reporting problems and fixing them.

In many cases organizations are inadvertently (?) designed to conceal, compartmentalize, and in some cases cause problems, as when fixing one would cause a manager’s P&L to go negative, creating one would make it shine, and everyone from the top on down manages to the numbers.

Compounding the metaphorical felony is that someone’s name is on the problem and the practices that led to it. If fixing it would be embarrassing and expensive, well, raises, bonuses, and promotions don’t go to managers who own embarrassing and expensive situations, so relying on luck can be quite appealing.

That’s especially true in the many organizations that consider identifying whose name is on a problem and “holding them accountable” (ManagementSpeak for “punishing them”) to be the essence of root cause analysis.

While it might seem logical that the company would want to fix a problem while it’s still small and manageable, companies don’t want anything. What’s good for the organization doesn’t matter unless it’s good for someone important in the organization.

So when something needs fixing, the first step is asking who, if anyone, will benefit from fixing it.

Comments (8)

  • Hi Bob, enjoyed this column as always. I have a suggestion regarding the “Management Speak” portion of each column. When the column is accessed via “https://issurvivor.com/2019/10/07/whistling-while-you-work/” the associated ManagementSpeak is missing, but in the godaddy link “https://gem.godaddy.com/p/eaee6f?pact=440036-154456970-9761188166-6922a26b94d83443405487f2dcf9116028f9dfed” the management speak is retained (as it appears in the email you send). Is there a way for you to conserve the whole column in the issurvivor.com link? Thanks, Kevin

    • I’ve explored this. In the end I had to choose between making the ManagementSpeaks separate entries or tightly coupling them with the main article content. Making them separate entries won. Every attempt to have the best of both worlds just turned out to be too expensive and insufficiently robust.

      Wish I could accommodate this request.

  • possibly the best closing line ever.

    “So when something needs fixing, the first step is asking who, if anyone, will benefit from fixing it.”

  • This is so true. I inadvertently became aware OPM’s IT security weaknesses in 2014. I reported this to IT security professionals thinking they would pass it along to the relevant parties. I also assumed that I might I be missing something in that nobody’s security protocols could be that bad. I was wrong. See details at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Personnel_Management_data_breach.

  • Good column Bob. I have a couple of other angles to this as I run into this daily.

    Not all leaders/managers are engaged in what their areas of responsibility (teams) are doing. More directly said, they haven’t got much of a clue. So when an issue is raised, they have no idea what it is and get defensive. That shuts down the people trying to address it and it dies.

    The second thing I see is the leaking water into the bucket. Different leaders have a different tolerance for what is actually a problem. For some, putting a bucket under a leak is perfectly acceptable. This may run counter to the corporate mission or even customer service, but that leader has their view of the world. In that scenario, there are eventually buckets all over the place until the next leader arrives and starts shaking their heads.

    For me it comes down to leaders that want to roll-up their sleeves when needed. I agree that understand their motivations is key. But I also believe some (OK few) actually have an inherit drive to care and do the right thing for their teams.

  • As an adendum to your closing line:

    The second step is asking who might get in hot water from exposing it.

  • Who benefits if a problem is solved? If no one in the corporation benefits, but consumers or buyers would, then you need the true blowing of a whistle. Organizational processes are designed to minimize problems, not recognize problems.

  • Alternative perspective: organizations have a very limited capacity, particularly for change.

    Addressing a problem (or what might be a problem) means changing something, somewhere. It also means someone has to spend some time thinking through the consequences, explaining the change to a bazillion people, and taking the blame for whatever consequences were overlooked. In other words, it takes energy, and that’s the scarcest resource in an organization. Whatever limited energy actually exists is, presumably, already consumed by performing whatever business processes are expected to be followed.

    So, it’s possible, although not probable, that as an executive I might undertake to fix something that may or may not be broken. If it looks like there’s a big cost savings or I can expect recognition for taking the risk, then I <> take a look, i.e., assess whether I think the problem is real and is fixable, can be fixed with minimum effort and without annoying anyone important, and that engaging in the fixing won’t interfere with anything else I’m doing, such as my weekly golf game, noon exercise program, etc.

    What I’ve learned from way too many years of experience is that young people tend to observe things that need fixing and sometimes even have the skills and energy to do so, which occasionally results in real innovation.

    The reason I hire consultants is that they will itemize for me the things that need fixing and, perhaps, even how to approach fixing them. I already know all this, but I need to be able to blame it on someone else. Once I have the list, I can share it with my boss and ask which, if any, of those items s/he would like me to address. Then I can ask for a budget increase to undertake those tasks. If I get the money, then I’ll hire those same consultants to do the job. They might even succeed, although that doesn’t particularly matter in the greater scheme of things.

Comments are closed.