Dialogue@Work

December 2013

The latest thinking on dialogue and its critical influence on organisational performance

When everybody knows… but nobody’s speaking up

Why leaders should welcome whistle-blowers

“Organisations that do not encourage whistle-blowing carry a higher risk of suffering major failure, and both regulators and shareholders should be concerned if the organisations they oversee do not welcome whistle-blowing.”
Law Society Gazette, 11.11.13, Extract from submission to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills about strengthening protection for whistle-blowers

This article questions why many leaders view whistle-blowing as something to fear rather than as a force for good. Whistle-blowers highlight corporate wrongdoing, which is vital to the long-term reputation of any organisation, but more importantly, they are a vital warning sign of organisational failure. They send a clear message to leaders that dialogue in the organisation has broken down. That truth can no longer be spoken to power. And when this happens, what is really going on inside the organisation can be hidden, which can prove very costly indeed.

Shareholders are increasingly concerned about the risks posed by unethical corporate behaviour. Ten major US and European banks have paid out £1.3 billion (yes, that’s £130,000,000,000) in fines and compensation for a wave of scandals since 2008, including Libor-rigging, mis-selling PPI and mortage-backed securities.

“Ninety nine per cent of the tips we got from people inside companies proved correct. People out there knew what was going on in their organisations. We’d get a lot of vociferous denials from management – but the angrier they got about leaks, the more true the leaks turned out to be”
Aaron Krowne, founder of Implode O Meter. Quoted from Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan

The truth is already out there

What is interesting is that the problems highlighted by whistle-blowers are usually open secrets inside organisations. Which means leaders could have become aware of them and acted before they were launched into the public domain. Take a website called Implode-O-Meter that was launched in 2006 to ask hard questions about the sub-prime market. Within months it was receiving information from hundreds of sources working in banks, brokers and ratings agencies across the industry. Information which turned out to be almost entirely true.

And there are countless more examples – the ‘O’ ring in the Space Shuttle that did not work in freezing weather… the fiascos in the Gulf War when the US Army ran countless simulations, and always lost… the known side effects of Thalidomide… the risks of cutting costs at BP in the Gulf… the fraudulent accounting practices at Enron. The list is long and shameful.

In a poll, 65% of employees said they had seen unethical behaviour in the past year
Los Angeles Times headline story, 06.01.12

Whistle-blowers are typically brave and loyal employees

From the playground onwards we are taught that it is wrong to tell, sneak or snitch. We are all under pressure to conform to these norms, and we fear social exclusion. So most of us keep quiet, preferring the security of the status quo and avoiding conflict. Speaking up, asking difficult questions or challenging authority therefore takes courage.

“ Of those who reported misconduct, 83% reported it first to their supervisor or managers”
Ethics Resource Centre, the National Government Ethics Survey, USA

Whistle-blowers are typically highly committed employees. They care about the organisation. This is what motivates them to speak out. If something looks questionable they question it, rather than simply accepting an official explanation. They often speak up for stakeholders who have no voice in decisions – customers, shareholders or patients. They are determined, so they persist, even when they are isolated and victimised.

Most whistle-blowers who end up talking to a journalist or external regulators go to their supervisor or managers first. It is only when they have been ignored, or labelled as a troublemaker, that they go outside.

Buying silence or bullying is not the answer

It seems sensible and obvious to listen to what loyal employees have to say. To assume that their intentions are good rather than subversive. But the opposite seem to be the case. Far from encouraging employees to speak up, the evidence suggests that many organisations try to buy-off, intimidate and silence them. As the number of whistle-blowers has multiplied, the response in most cases has been uncompromising. In the USA the LA Times reports that “Whistle-blowers face more corporate retaliation than ever”. Rather than welcome revelations, many organisations seem hell bent on shooting, or at least gagging, the messenger.

“…Compromise agreements should not be used to prevent people raising issues of public interest, to reward failure, or to avoid management action, disciplinary processes, unwelcome publicity or reputation damage. They should not be used to gag staff… there is a danger that poor performance or working practices can be hidden from view, meaning that lessons are not learned”
Report by the comptroller and Auditor General, 21.06.13

The London Daily Telegraph (17 June 2013) reports that “300 police officers are gagged at cost of up to £250,000 each”, and The Daily Mail (20 June 2013) that the “BBC spends £28m on gagging orders: 500 staff silenced using licence fee money.”

Buying silence seems to be both expensive and misguided. Ultimately, you have to ask why an organisation would pay someone to stay quiet if they have got nothing to hide.

Another way – open dialogue

There is another way. The lesson leaders must learn is that shooting the messenger is always counter-productive. Even if they manage to avoid a few uncomfortable headlines, corporate abuses are usually open secrets. Employees know when there are problems, even if most turn a blind eye and keep quiet. Whenever someone speaks out about a problem and is ignored or silenced, the problem gets worse. Trust and employee engagement fall, and people are more reluctant to offer their views in future.

It may be asking too much for leaders to welcome whistle-blowers, but they should accept that they are a force for good; they should recognise the courage it takes to speak out; and they should understand that a whistle-blower is usually the tip of an iceberg – indicating deeper problems in the organisation.

Whistle-blowers should prompt leaders into action to try and make sure that future issues and concerns are raised and dealt with internally. Questions, challenge and dissent generate debate and yield better decisions; they are good for an organisation. Leaders should encourage people to speak out, and listen to their concerns, learn lessons, hold individuals to account for covering up failure, acknowledge and address problems, so that future mistakes are avoided. Whistle-blowers should not feel forced to speak out externally. In open cultures problems are raised and resolved through routine management dialogue. Anything else is a failure of leadership.

By Dik Veenman, Founder of The Right Conversation, and Graham Hart, Senior Consultant

Classic Texts

Our regular review of seminal works in the field of conversation, dialogue and communications in general this month focusses on “Conversation – How Talk Can Change Our Lives” by Theodore Zeldin, Harvill Press, 2000.
read more →

Number of Licensees growing

The number of independent consultants and organisation licensed to the use our highly-rated diagnostic tool, the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic™ continues to grow – in the last three months the number of licensed practitioners has doubled. If you are interested in finding out more please
click here →

Talking Points

The Right Conversation goes international →
We are delighted that our diagnostic tools and workshops are now being used to address issues around leadership development, team effectiveness and culture change in countries as far afield as the US, Eastern Europe, Bangladesh and Abu Dhabi…

In defence of dialogue→
In today’s changing world leaders constantly need to engage with new stakeholder groups, many of whom are very different from those they are used to dealing with. They can learn from international politics, where it has long seemed counterintuitive to engage in dialogue with violent groups, with radicals and terrorists, and with the states that support them. In this acclaimed TED talk Jonas Gahr Støre, the foreign minister of Norway, makes a compelling case for open dialogue, even when values diverge, in an attempt to build greater security for all. Lessons that apply equally well to leading today’s rapidly changing organisations!

Previous Articles

Dialogue – why leaders need to open it up – taking steps toward greater openness in organisations is much easier than many leaders make out

Reflections on David Bohm’s On Dialogue

Putting conversation at the heart of performance management – A case study

Get your business talking: The value of having the right conversations

Spotlight on Dialogue, The Right Conversation, 2011

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think

Reflections on Theodore Zeldin’s ‘Conversation – How Talk Can Change Our Lives’

“It seems to me that we’ve never talked so much while saying so little,” says the writer and academic Theodore Zeldin, challenging us to think of the last time we had a really good conversation – one that left us thrilled and excited, and that may have changed how we view the world.

Conversation began as a series of talks broadcast on BBC Radio which proved to be such a success that the book followed shortly after. In it Zeldin argues that the 21st century needs a new kind of conversation – “one that you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person”. His vision is a meeting of minds from different classes, age groups and workplaces, all coming together to exchange ideas – a society-wide ‘thinking outside the box’.

“What’s missing from the world is a sense of direction,” he says. “We’re overwhelmed by the problems that surround us, and our inclination is to retreat into our own hermetic universe. We can use conversation to dispel that darkness, create equality, give ourselves courage, open ourselves to strangers, and remake our working world, so we’re no longer isolated by jargon.” His model is the Renaissance, “a time when barriers came down and people gave themselves license to think and talk about everything in a stimulating way”.

Conversation is both a history book and a call to look differently at the future. It explains what kind of talk charmed and excited people in the past, and why we talk differently today. It explores the art and the history of conversation and how it can be the key to a happier, more interesting future. It shows how women have changed the ways lovers speak, how families avoid silence or boredom, how your work can damage or improve the way you converse, and what role there is for the tongue-tied and shy.

This classic text will enable you to see more clearly what you want to talk about, and what conversation can do to your life.

Conversation – How Talk Can Change Our Lives by Theodore Zeldin (Harvill Press, 2000)

by John Higgins, Research Director of The Right Conversation

When everybody knows… but nobody’s speaking up, why leaders should welcome whistle-blowers

This article questions why many leaders view whistle-blowing as something to fear rather than as a force for good.
read more →

Number of Licensees growing

The number of independent consultants and organisation licensed to the use our highly-rated diagnostic tool, the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic™ continues to grow – in the last three months the number of licensed practitioners has doubled. If you are interested in finding out more please
click here →

Talking Points

The Right Conversation goes international →
We are delighted that our diagnostic tools and workshops are now being used to address issues around leadership development, team effectiveness and culture change in countries as far afield as the US, Eastern Europe, Bangladesh and Abu Dhabi…

In defence of dialogue→
In today’s changing world leaders constantly need to engage with new stakeholder groups, many of whom are very different from those they are used to dealing with. They can learn from international politics, where it has long seemed counterintuitive to engage in dialogue with violent groups, with radicals and terrorists, and with the states that support them. In this acclaimed TED talk Jonas Gahr Støre, the foreign minister of Norway, makes a compelling case for open dialogue, even when values diverge, in an attempt to build greater security for all. Lessons that apply equally well to leading today’s rapidly changing organisations!

Previous Articles

Dialogue – why leaders need to open it up – taking steps toward greater openness in organisations is much easier than many leaders make out

Reflections on David Bohm’s ‘On Dialogue’

Putting conversation at the heart of performance management – A case study

Get your business talking: The value of having the right conversations

Spotlight on Dialogue, The Right Conversation, 2011

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think

The Right Conversation goes international

A question we are often asked is whether the models of dialogue we use are inherently ‘Western’ in nature and therefore of limited use in other cultures. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that different cultures have different ways of ‘talking’ (e.g. more or less deference, more or less comfort in speaking to authority figures, more or less politeness etc.), the basic frameworks for analysing patterns of dialogue remain. What changes is the context and therefore the ensuing conversation, but the value remains the same – i.e. helping individuals and organisations to be more mindful of what happens when they talk to each other.

We have always known this to be the case – and we now have a growing international client base who believe the same.

The following are some examples.

The Gulf Region’s largest infrastructure project, Abu Dhabi – leadership development

This organisation recently launched a Leadership and Management Centre, which all new managers will pass through. The programme is run by US-based management development specialists, The River Group (http://www.trgglobal.com). The Right Conversation is running regular workshops on the 5 Super-Skills of Effective Conversation as part of this programme.

SABMIller, Eastern Europe – culture change

SABMIller, the South African-based brewing giant, recently invested in licensing its 15 European HR Directors to use the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic, as part of a culture change programme to change its leadership style to become more empowering. Thus far the diagnostic has been used to help the Polish and Romanian leadership teams reflect on their conversational habits in order that they can become credible role models for the more inclusive style of management they are advocating.

One of the world’s largest NGOs, Bangladesh – Leadership team effectiveness

The 20 most senior leaders of this organisation recently went for their annual retreat in the hills outside Dhaka where they used the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic to reflect on how effectively they talk together when they meet. The outcome? A 2-hour discussion that generated lots of insights and a number of concrete actions that shaped how the remainder of the off-site went.

Diba, USA – Leadership team effectiveness

Diba is a US-based organisation specializing in the development of industrial fluids. It has operations in several different countries and a geographically dispersed management team as a result. It recently used the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic to reflect on how effectively this team communicates – as a result of which a number of fundamental changes were made to make its meetings much more effective.

When everybody knows… but nobody’s speaking up, why leaders should welcome whistle-blowers

This article questions why many leaders view whistle-blowing as something to fear rather than as a force for good.
read more →

Classic Texts

Our regular review of seminal works in the field of conversation, dialogue and communications in general this month focusses on “Conversation – How Talk Can Change Our Lives” by Theodore Zeldin, Harvill Press, 2000.
read more →

Looking for Licensees

The number of independent consultants and organisation licensed to the use our highly-rated diagnostic tool, the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic™ continues to grow – in the last three months the number of licensed practitioners has doubled. If you are interested in finding out more please
click here →

Talking Points

In defence of dialogue→
In today’s changing world leaders constantly need to engage with new stakeholder groups, many of whom are very different from those they are used to dealing with. They can learn from international politics, where it has long seemed counterintuitive to engage in dialogue with violent groups, with radicals and terrorists, and with the states that support them. In this acclaimed TED talk Jonas Gahr Støre, the foreign minister of Norway, makes a compelling case for open dialogue, even when values diverge, in an attempt to build greater security for all. Lessons that apply equally well to leading today’s rapidly changing organisations!

Previous Articles

Dialogue – why leaders need to open it up – taking steps toward greater openness in organisations is much easier than many leaders make out

Reflections on David Bohm’s ‘On Dialogue’

Putting conversation at the heart of performance management – A case study

Get your business talking: The value of having the right conversations

Spotlight on Dialogue, The Right Conversation, 2011

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think