A few years ago, Wharton School professor John R. Kimberly decided to explore the question, “Why do people with integrity behave differently within an organization than they would on their own?” His interviews led to the following conclusions, all of which underscore the need for unfettered communication within an organization:
- People who know about a problem often have limited information. In that situation, they might question their understanding of the problem, or believe that the problem is minor and will resolve itself.
- People often are afraid that if they speak up they will be ignored or misunderstood — or even punished for questioning authority or being disloyal to the organization.
- Sometimes the system for reporting problems is weak or nonexistent.
- People might know of a problem, but consider it someone else’s responsibility to solve.
- When issues are raised, sometimes blame is assigned too quickly, thwarting the kind of thorough investigation that is needed, and creating resentment.
- Sometimes problems are expressed in such ambiguous language that their true nature is obscured. For example, in an infamous case involving child abuse, one witness testified that he never used explicit terms in reporting the abuse because he did not want to upset the person to whom he was reporting.
- People sometimes fear that confronting a problem will damage the organization, and the people to whom they feel close. Cristina Bicchieri, philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania who also teaches business ethics at Wharton, said, “The cozier and more close-knit the group, the less incentive you have to stir the waters. If you are strongly motivated by the sense of not wanting to ruin the group, you might form a false belief about what happened, especially if the situation is ambiguous.”
- Senior management, consciously or not, sometimes creates the impression that certain topics are taboo. As Los Angeles management consultant Don Rossmore told Professor Kimberly, “When an issue is undiscussable, it cannot be managed rationally.”
It is up to an organization’s management to make sure everyone understands and upholds the organization’s values, and understands that no topic is taboo, even if discussing and exploring it might reveal a failure, a need for improvement, or even a wrongful act on management’s part. The survival of the organization, and the well-being of individuals the organization serves, can be at stake.
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