From what we have learned from their lawyers’ recently released report, executives and other leaders at General Motors apparently perfected their own non-verbal communication styles with an effectiveness which would have made Don Corleone proud. As candidly confirmed by CEO Mary Barra, leaders developed a cultural practice of tacitly agreeing not to pursue business problems with a “nod” while declaiming responsibility with an arms folded “salute.” In the case of the Cobalt disaster, this workplace messaging may have helped deflect responsibility and action, which could have addressed a serious part defect, presumably before later injuries, and deaths resulted.
A few weeks ago I wrote Legal Poisons at Work addressing non-verbal behaviors that quash dissent and safety alarms. Let me add GM’s nod and salute to those examples. My guess is that GM’s silent communication system started with senior leaders becoming so pervasive that people understood these gestures as clearly as if they had heard them out loud and began adopting their leaders’ non-verbal language themselves. That is how cultural practices develop.
The unusually blunt report identifies a number of organizational flaws, which need to be addressed to prevent future Cobalt-type disasters. Among other recommendations, it emphasizes leadership actions and communications, clearly stated policies, redesigned safety systems and training. No doubt the Company’s intentions are serious. Fifteen executives have already been discharged, lawsuits and a Congressional inquiry are pending, a maximum $35 million federal fine has been levied and GM’s brand and reputation have been seriously damaged.
But will GM succeed? Last week the New York Times released a powerful 20-minute video on the causes of the 1986 Challenger explosion. As with the Cobalt switch failure, that catastrophe involved many of the same organizational failings including multiple unheeded safety warnings, which doomed the spacecraft. Public hearings and other inquiries followed that tragedy, too. The results: leadership changes, new processes and a commitment to enduring cultural and communications changes and training intended to welcome, rather than spurn, safety concerns.
Yet, in 2003, Columbia, the second of four shuttles, exploded on re-entry. That tragedy involved a different mechanical flaw, but a similar people flaw. Overall, NASA’s systems and processes were not enough to change organizational patterns which, due to lethargy or inattention, returned like an unwanted, but hardy weed.
It’s relatively easy to teach people the words to use or not to use which GM also attempted to do in a presentation designed to purge legally damaging remarks from emails, conversations and other documents. In support of its initiatives, I assume GM will teach leaders and team members the right words to raise and respond to concerns. However, sending long–standing, non-verbal expressions to the junk heap won’t be easy.
Addressing the nod and salute and whatever other non-verbals are present at GM will take these steps:
- identifying non-verbal cultural cues as specifically as Ms. Barra did, along with their impact;
- getting the commitment of leaders at all levels to monitor their behaviors and point out examples of toxic, silent communication among their peers if they arise;
- giving peers and other team members the tools and organizational support to communicate when they observe such cues in interactions with their leaders and coworkers;
- providing those who are told of their behavior with the tools to stop, reflect, express appreciation for being told of their “cues” and to explain through what they say and what they then do that they actually welcome and appreciate being made aware of what they are communicating.
Everyone must learn another language that eliminates those non-verbals without replacing them with others. Our communication habits, some unconsciously developed, can trump process and policy changes and be more readily ignored than a nod, a salute, or the cold stare passed from one Don Corleone to the next.