State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley unexpectedly resigned Sunday night after criticizing treatment of U.S. Army soldier Bradley Manning, detained on allegations he shared classified files with the WikiLeaks group.
What a debacle.
When P.J. Crowley called Manning's mistreatment "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid," he was just saying what everyone knows: an innocent man - remember, Manning hasn't been tried yet - is subjected to abuse, kept in solitary confinement and stripped naked every night because the military is mad at him.
Crowley and Manning have a lot in common: neither revealed deeply buried secrets. Instead, they simply articulated what everyone was aware of - but chose to turn a blind eye to. For this both are being punished.
Articulating uncomfortable truths is always a risky proposition. But it is also a very important act. Leaders need people who cleave to their values and are prepared to articulate what they know to be true; organizations where this isn't possible - companies like Enron and BP - invariably end up in trouble. The challenge for leaders is to create a culture in which issues can be raised early and often - before they become crises. The challenge for employees of course is knowing how to surface these truths in ways that ensure they are taken seriously and are heard.
Giving Voice to Values
Companies are full of loyal, dedicated employees who, when they see something going wrong, struggle with how to respond. They want what's best for them - and for the business. They want to fix what's going wrong, but they don't want (as Crowley has done) to sacrifice their career. Most of my students can't see beyond two choices: shut up - or pay the price.
But there almost always are more choices. That is the central message of Mary Gentile's Giving Voice to Values curriculum. Gentile argues that when you identify an issue that has to be raised, there are several key steps you should consider:
To the degree that there is malfeasance and it is kept secret," says Gentile, "Lots of people are aware of it. Everything in companies is more public than leaders imagine." So find allies to confirm and discuss your point of view. Make it hard for anyone to turn you into a lone scapegoat.
Select and sequence your audiences
Think about what conversations are best had one-on-one and which in a group. Humiliating your boss in public will ensure that what you want to say won't be heard. When I disagreed with core strategic decisions made by my Chairman, I said so in private. He recognized that I didn't seek to defeat or belittle him - but also that I could be counted on to speak my mind. Ultimately that's how we built trust.
Questions are better than answers
"Instead of giving an impassioned little speech," says Gentile, "position yourself as someone genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of the organization." Most whistleblowers do not start out as dissidents but as loyalists; position yourself as someone who cares passionately for the good of your team.
In my own experience, one reason many people find it hard to do any of this is because they leave their discomfort for too long. Having identified a problem, they let it eat into them, growing progressively more angry and frustrated - precisely because they haven't yet done anything. Sometimes they hope the issue will go away, or someone else will deal with it. But all the time they're silent, the problem grows and tackling it gets tougher. Earlier intervention is always easier.
Silence isn't Golden
The treatment of Manning and the resignation of Crowley both send the worst possible signals: they just tell everyone in the State Department to keep their mouths shut. In all organizations, silence is deadly: an expression of futility or fear. Every leader needs employees who have the tactical competence and the moral courage to stand by their values; without them, we are doomed to lead organizations of slaves.
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