Are You Creating a Whistleblower?

Last Updated Feb 8, 2011 11:37 AM EST

Anyone knowledgeable about the history of whistleblowing can tell you one thing: it's a frightening, dangerous and final thing to do. Once you've blown the whistle, you can never return to what you remember as a normal life. Like Sherron Watkins of Enron fame, you may be tagged a 'troublemaker'. Or, like Dr. Jeffrey Wigand who rumbled the tobacco companies (and played by Russell Crowe in The Insider) your life may be so disrupted and disturbed for so long and the vindictiveness of your former employee so unstinting that you never want to return to your old life anyway. When he leaked the Pentagon papers, Daniel Ellsberg faced the threat of a 140 year prison sentence; today it's unclear whether Bradley Manning, who leaked U.S. military secrets to Wikileaks, will ever get out of prison.

With the costs of whistleblowing are so high, why does anyone ever do it?

What Really Motivates Whistleblowers
Academics have struggled to find commonalities among whistleblowers. It used to be thought that they were more likely to be women, because, as newcomers to most institutions, they were thought to have less of a stake in the status quo. Turned out not to be true.

Nor are whistleblowers consistently religious, anti-religious, young, old, radical or crazy.

They aren't cynics or rebels either -- in fact, they mostly start off as true believers, hard workers, devoted to the institutions that they serve. What turns them into whistleblowers is disappointment and frustration.

"I'd been so loyal to Enron," Sherron Watkins told me. "I thought Ken Lay's first response would be to want to get to the truth, to know what was going on. I thought if I told him the ship was sinking, he'd man the lifeboats!"

(Instead, as we know, Lay's first instinct was to see if he could get her fired.)

Former Swiss private banker Rudolf Elmer was a successful executive for years who hoped to keep his employers squeaky clean. What finally persuaded him to provide information to Wikileaks was his disappointment that his sense of ethics wasn't shared by his management. He didn't want to bring down the banks but to make them live up to their own high standards.

Similarly Cynthia Thomas who has insisted on drawing attention to the poor mental health provision offered to veterans of the Iraq War. Thomas comes from a military family, her husband and son serve in the military. This is an army family through and through. When she founded the Under the Hood cafe, it was not with a view of challenging soldiers, but to looking after them.

When Maria Garzino was installing pumps in New Orleans, she hoped and believed that, as part of the Army Corps of Engineers, she was helping the people of the ravaged city. When she discovered the pumps were faulty, she wasn't trying to make trouble, she was trying to protect the Army and the people of New Orleans. Only when she failed to get satisfactory answers from anyone, did she turn her questions into a crusade.

There are important lessons we could and should take from whistleblowers the world over.
  • They mostly start with small issues, questions and niggles.
  • They don't want to blow up their organization, they want to protect it.
  • Frustrated by bad answers or no answers, they persist with questions and their frustration becomes a kind of energy. Once started, it can be hard to stop.
What that means for leaders is that awkward questioners and discomfiting facts could be your best allies, if you're prepared to listen early. Every time you silence your critic or ignore information that makes you uncomfortable, it's worth asking yourself: am I creating a whistleblower?
Illustration courtest of Flickr user Stevendepolo C.C.2.0

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  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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