- The “familiar” physician who makes suggestive remarks to patients and staff
- The prominent partner who kisses an associate and makes “friendly” but personal comments about her husband’s ethnicity
- The utility executive known for a frosty demeanor and dismissive gestures in meetings held to review project issues and problems
- The surgeon who yells at colleagues but never uses “illegal” racial, sexual or ethnic language
Over the years, I’ve run into leaders who’ve behaved these ways and seen the disasters caused by their conduct: patient abuse and medical errors, financial collapses, environmental disasters, massive legal risk, safety lapses and the loss of vital and talented team members. When organizations have investigated such traumatic events, they’ve almost always identified patterns of “borderline” episodes like those above. Then they’re seen as “red flags” that could have prevented such disasters had they been reported or properly investigated.
As I’ve written elsewhere, getting people to come forward is not simply a matter of systems, processes, obligatory notices and check-the-box training modules. Even when all the right safeguards are in place, including welcoming leadership and cultures, bedeviling social, cultural and psychological barriers remain causing many either not to speak up about or address improper behavior.
One of the many reasons we don’t act relates to our tendency to minimize the significance of early warnings and our fears of reporting questionable though not necessarily overt or blatant misbehavior. This deals with culture and perhaps how we are “hard wired” to keep quiet and ignore danger. Margaret Hefferan writes about this in her new book, Willful Blindness. Think of Enron, Challenger, Countrywide Finance, Madoff and Deepwater Horizon. In each case, Ms. Heffernan identifies danger signs visible in advance of the disasters they spawned which went either unreported or ignored.
Doctors tell us that chest pains, new lumps or changes in routine habits can be signs of serious health problems. When these symptoms appear, we’re supposed to get a physical or go to the Emergency Room. Often, checkups save lives. But even at the risk of death, many of us procrastinate or ignore these signs entirely. At work, we tend to dismiss the same kinds of analogous “symptoms” identified above because we see them as “grey area” issues meaning they don’t represent overt rule, policy or legal violations.
Once we classify behaviors as “grey areas” our tendency is to consider them of secondary importance, events to file away for later consideration. They don’t suggest urgent problems. In many organizations, raising concerns over a grey area episode risks labeling the complainant a troublemaker. Yet, they are often the only kinds of indicators we’ll get in advance of full blown disasters. For that reason, we need to heighten awareness of “grey area” signs and then encourage individuals to speak up about them. This is a problem of language as well as culture and human nature.
Here are two steps to ease this process. First, every organization needs to identify and find a new name for those key grey area behaviors that need to be reported in their specific workplaces. This should be based on an analysis of the “risky” behaviors that have been observed but ignored in past disasters. Developing new terms is not just a matter of semantics and clever phrasing. Words matter. In past columns I’ve written about the need to find other terms for whistleblowers and soft skills; both have negative connotations and help minimize their significance or the fact that what they represent is desired rather than troublesome behaviors.
Second, individuals must learn to appreciate that such behaviors need to be taken seriously even if they don’t ultimately represent serious violations. In some instances, if concerns are raised, they may prove to be the result of simple “human” mistakes, misunderstandings or subject to ready correction. But the key is not to allow the conduct to go unnoticed.
For the “grey area” signals that may herald greater risk, we need new terms as well. My choices, and I welcome yours, are: warning signals, danger signs or hazard alerts. Taken together, these steps will increase the likelihood that managers, leaders and team members will better recognize their legal and organizational duty to act and prevent more serious problems.
In an upcoming blog, I’ll identify several “grey area” behavioral indicators that need to be brought to others’ attention to avoid the catastrophes they may be forecasting. I’ll also suggest some basic questions to consider when these issues are brought forward.