• Dennis Gentilin

Leaders must share the megaphone

Updated: Jan 27, 2018

This article first appeared in the opinion section of the Australian Financial Review on the 8th April 2016. Click here to view the original version.

Leaders, give your people voice – it will pay enormous dividends.

Recently I was a panel member for a discussion on whistleblowing at the ASIC annual forum. For most of us, whistleblowing conjures images of people lifting the lid on big scandals and then suffering immeasurably for their actions.

To be sure, many ethical failures are exposed through the selfless actions of whistleblowers. And yes, unfortunately, there are detrimental consequences associated with these actions for some of these whistleblowers. However this stereotype fails to recognise the true value whistleblowers bring to organisations.

The reality is that when an incident has degraded to the point where it becomes a big scandal, then there were multiple “whistleblowing” moments leading up to the event that leaders either missed or failed to embrace. It is the failure to capitalise on these moments that leads to a scandal.

And this leads us to the overarching challenge for all organisations: How do we embrace these “whistleblowing” moments? More specifically, how do we create environments that not only welcome challenge and feedback, but respect, listen to and appropriately address the concerns of those who do speak up?

Like all topics in the area of ethics and culture, there are no straightforward answers. But there are steps that can be taken.

Firstly, the tone from the top is crucial. But as is always the case the formal messaging, be it the codes, the compliance manuals, or the finely crafted communications are all but redundant if the actions, choices and decisions of the board and executive are not supportive of these artefacts.

As an example, take the recent events at CommInsure. In the exposé on ABC’s 4 Corners program, CBA chief executive Ian Narev stated the following:

…we are emphasising the importance of people speaking up when they see something wrong, but actually also when they’ve got good ideas, because that’s a big part of being in an innovative culture.

These are wise words. But how does one reconcile the above comments with the fate of Chief Medical Officer Dr Koh?

After making numerous attempts to raise the red flag, Dr Koh eventually took his concerns to the CommInsure board in early 2015. Later that year he was dismissed for allegedly sending confidential information to his personal e-mail account.

Decisions like these send a powerful message. They imply that there are other things that are valued more highly at CBA than speaking up.

I am not suggesting that Mr. Narev wasn’t sincere when he spoke about the importance CBA are placing on a speak up culture. However, if future decisions continue to send a message that are incongruent with his public pronouncements, then CBA staff will rightly become cynical. What will then evolve is a culture of silence, the complete antithesis of what I’m sure Mr Narev is hoping to create.

Secondly, organisations can create a culture rich in challenge and feedback by having leaders at all levels of the organisation endorse and promote it. In large organisations, it is not possible for the board and executive to solely dictate the degree to which speaking up is embraced and valued.

Rather, leaders at all levels of the organisation play a role. Through character and humility, they must work hard to create environments in their teams where challenge and feedback is delivered regularly and respectfully. Environments where people feel that they can (and should) speak up and voice their concerns. And environments where the conversations that are considered to be “difficult” become part of the normal discourse.

A third way that organisations can create a culture rich in challenge and feedback is to equip people with the skills to do so. Regardless of our seniority, we all face moments where we must challenge our leaders and speak truth to power. This is no easy task. It is especially challenging in environments where leaders are autocratic and inaccessible.

The work of Mary Gentile is worth mentioning here. After experiencing a “crisis in faith” with traditional approaches to business ethics education, Gentile developed a curriculum called Giving Voice to Values. The aim of the curriculum is to equip people with the tools they need to skilfully and appropriately use their voice when required, and ultimately make speaking up a “default behaviour”.

Which brings me to formal whistleblower programs. These are without question necessary, but are a last line of defence. What’s more, in environments where speaking up is chastised and silenced, people are far less likely to take comfort and seek refuge in a whistleblower program. In these instances they are the proverbial band aid treating a festering wound.

So leaders, share the megaphone. Give your people a platform to speak up and treat them with the respect they deserve when they do so. And if there are leaders in the organisation who don’t buy into the importance of having all voices heard, respond appropriately – your organisations will be richer for it.

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