Brought to you courtesy of FOX News: Measure success by how people fail

The Wall Street Journal reported on April 27 that ‘the discovery of private messages in which Mr [Tucker] Carlson showed a disregard for management and colleagues was a major factor [in the decision to fire him].’  Other outlets including Forbes and Rolling Stone have reported the existence of a ‘secret dossier’ that FOX News allegedly has on Mr. Carlson, suggesting it contains material that would be highly embarrassing for the former primetime host if its content comes to light. If any such dossier does exist, this made me reflect on something I often had reason to wonder about: why do people tolerate bad behavior for so long in the workplace and what can sensibly be done to minimize the risk of toxic behavior upending an organization’s reputation?

To be clear, we do not know for sure whether any such dossier exists and FOX News has reportedly denied its existence.   So, this is a hypothetical.  There are other, famous proven examples of people willingly playing along with all manner of misconduct and deceit.  One of my favorites – and one that sheds light on the human forces at work – is what the WSJ’s ‘Bad Bets’ podcast refers to as the “Potemkin Village” at Enron Corporation.  This episode was one of the details that struck me most clearly when the Enron story first broke because of its sheer audacity.   In brief, as Enron was re-marketing itself from being an old-fashioned pipeline company to a trader of financial derivatives, it sought to impress would-be investors by showing them its state-of-the-art trading room.  Only one problem: the trading room – and the traders – weren’t ready.  Rather than postpone the investor visit, Enron had its employees pretend to be operating a trading room, sitting at terminals, taking calls and playing busy.  This was a collective deception that apparently didn’t bother those taking part enough to object.

Periodically throughout my career I’ve dealt with and come across people who suffered terrible abuse in their work environment and yet not only stuck things out for years but wanted to.  Some became whistleblowers when they reached the point where they finally couldn’t stand it and this is often where I became involved.  Others, however, spoke up only reluctantly or in the aftermath of some other event.  Some even vigorously defended their abuser. It is far too simple to put this down to ‘we need a better speak-up program’. In today’s anonymous and highly connected world it is easier than ever to raise the flag and call someone out for toxic behavior.  Yet often, toxicity stays hidden.  Like the people in Enron’s Potemkin Village, there is something deeply human that I believe enables deceit, misconduct and abuse to continue, often in plain view.  What is this and what can organizations do to prevent it?

To understand some of the deep, subliminal forces at work, think no further than your own workplace.  How do you feel when you see your Company perform poorly?  Perhaps we lost an important contract to our biggest competitor or, as was the case one time in my Company, are reported in the press for mass violation of the independence rules.  If you find yourself running to the defense of your Company you would not be alone.  We know we have a much better service than the competitor that beat us in the proposal – they just low-balled the bid.  Or that regulatory breach was a technical issue – after our merger we didn’t divest cross-holdings from our pension plans quickly enough to avoid a technical independence breach.  There was no bad intent and no way that could have affected anything.  Truth is, whatever we think about how well or how poorly our company operates from the inside, if someone from the outside attacks our Company, they are attacking us. It is tribal.  In fact, when we joined our Company, we were proud to be there and we still are.  All the things we see inside that could be better pale when compared to the greater good we’re trying to accomplish.  We believe in it and we want it to succeed because it is a part of us.

This tribal effect works for departments within a Company as well.  As teams compete for power, prestige and privilege, especially in stacked ranked environments, we believe in our team and we are offended when someone attacks our team or someone in it.  Even if our leader has some rough edges, it is our leader. To be fair, the hypothetical posed about the FOX situation, if true, would be well beyond ‘rough edges’, although that ‘team spirit’ might remain an important element. Even if we desperately want our leader to change, or to move, we’re often unwilling to walk away because this is where we believe our calling is. Or our livelihood.  Tomorrow’s success depends on getting a good grade today, so focus on doing that and don’t do anything to mess it up, especially if you feel bad about the economy.  Besides, perhaps I can influence the outcome, change the mindset and the behavior.  Perhaps so many other people will see it that I don’t have to act.  Perhaps it will go away.  All are rational, human responses to conflict that make it difficult for us to change the situation and allow us tolerate it instead.  And after all, if we cannot tolerate any difficulty, we’re unlikely to thrive, so we play the odds, letting the first instance go un-challenged and then it becomes ever harder to address.

So, having agreed not to diminish this to ‘people just need to have courage to speak up’, what else can we do organizationally to reduce the risk that toxicity takes over?  I offer five suggestions:

  1. Don’t ignore.  Your first opportunity is your best opportunity to respond.  If the alleged dossier exists, it would demonstrate this perfectly.  Because, when would you ever have used it until it’s too late?  Responding early also allows you to respond with more options.  Perhaps it is not yet a catastrophe and you can recover.
  2. Be clear as well as consequent.  Don’t hide it.  Let people know how you handle issues and why.  There are ways of doing this without invading people’s privacy but be courageous, not coy.
  3. Move people around.  There’s a reason people who handle cash in Banks are forced to take 2-week vacation breaks.  It’s a control.  Control for this, too.
  4. Hold your contractors, suppliers, customers to the same standard.  They will want to work with you even more and will join you in upholding the standard.
  5. Do not promote anyone who has never failed.  Because it’s just not true.  The ‘never-failers’ are busy building a steel wall around themselves to become untouchable.  Celebrate the humble who know their weaknesses and were smart enough to learn from them.  They will serve you well.

And about that hypothetical.  Well, hypothetically, this would indict the keeper of the dossier just as much as its subject, so maybe neither side wants it to exist.

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