A Corporate Epidemic: "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" Workers

Last Updated Jul 5, 2011 10:43 AM EDT

Microsoft missed the Internet. Google came years late to social networking. Pepsi didn't notice people drinking bottled water. And Nokia didn't really appreciate the power of software.

Were these companies crammed with stupid people? People who just didn't care? No, of course not. They were crammed with people who saw the opportunities but didn't or couldn't communicate it. This problem is more common than you might imagine.

Think about it: Enron and WorldCom's serious accounting problems were obvious, but few employees spoke up.

Why? It's not because they don't care. They do care, often quite a lot. But in most cases, they're afraid that if they raise a problem, or dare to raise a challenge, they'll be punished or fired.

That's the conclusion drawn from an important study into organizational silence. Most employees have, at one time or another, failed to raise an issue at work because they fear the consequences. (In the U.K., when I conducted a similar study, the results were the same except that British employees weren't so much afraid as they were hopeless; they believed raising an issue would be futile.)

But as a CEO, I know that I was completely dependent on my employees to tell me when something was wrong. I couldn't be everywhere, know everything. How else would I know if no one told me?

As I've gone around the world discussing this problem, I'm struck by several things:

Organizational silence is epidemic.

I've spoken at some of the world's leading organizations, places where I imagined the problem had been confronted and solved. Wrong. Most employees in most companies simply do not believe that their bosses want to know when something's wrong or when a big mistake is being made. You get similar situations when nurses and doctors fail to report incompetent colleagues. (This happens more than you might imagine.)

Most employees see no, or few, options.
Almost everyone I talked to thought they had only 2 choices: to shut up or leave. They had no insight into how they might communicate the problem in a way that ensured it would be heard and would not damage their careers. What that means for organizations is that they either lose people physically - or spiritually. Fear or futiilty both create disengagement.

Everyone wants to help.
Employees who saw problems and opportunities wanted to do something about them. They really did care - and their inability to articulate the problem effectively caused them genuine pain. Even if they worked in an open, supportive company, they didn't believe their contribution would be well received. Often this was because, earlier in their careers, they'd worked in companies where messengers were routinely shot. So it didn't matter that managers kept promising otherwise; experience always counts for more than rhetoric.

In my experience as a leader, the information we need is always out there in the organization somewhere. That isn't the problem. What's hard is to surface that knowledge - which is almost always at the periphery, not at the center. But if you don't train your people to articulate it effectively, you're destined to be kept in the dark.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dale Gillard C.C.2.0

Further Reading

The #1 Leadership Problem
Would You Tell Steve Jobs the Truth?
Why Paying Talent A Lot Doesn't Work

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    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.