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Culture

Can You Really Hear the Whistle?

Anthony O'Reilly | State Street Corporation

December 21,2017

We claim to applaud and support those who are truthful and honest, especially when it comes to calling out wrong-doing.

But at the same time, we can turn on whistleblowers or view them as nuisances. It turns out, you can tell the truth to a certain extent, but there is an unspoken line you're not supposed to cross. We just don't have a positive word for someone who comes forward with an unflattering truth.

As a society, we are conditioned not to "tell" on people. It's impolite. It's not our place. On top of that, many of us have a cultural deference to authority. In some instances, people will put their lives on the line in order to not ruffle feathers. As Malcom Gladwell explained in his book "Outliers," Korean Air wanted to know why they were suffering from greater accident rates than other airlines. They looked at their training program, maintenance logs and age of their airplanes, but could find no conclusive issue. Eventually they studied the cockpit voice recorders. They learned that when the copilot called out the pilot for making a serious error, it wasn't direct or blunt enough to correct the captain. Societally, one is brought up to respect one's elders, so once the copilots voiced their concern and were ignored or overruled, they stayed quiet for the rest of the flight. That deference to authority, plus an unwillingness to keep speaking up, compromised safety.

I believe that if we want more employees to speak up, we have to teach our managers how to listen. If people speak up and managers react poorly, you're conditioning your teams that speaking up will only have negative consequences in real life –— someone will become the scapegoat, the messenger will be "shot," so to speak, or nothing will change. If an issue is uncovered, all our focus tends to be on the who —who was wrong and who told? We start thinking, where’s your motivation? Are you a ‘disgruntled employee’?  We try to rationalize the bad news away on the basis of the person giving it to us.

In reality, we need to look at the what — what happened, what allowed it to happen and what can we do to prevent this in the future.

If we want more employees to speak up, we have to teach our managers how to listen.

Last year, my team was about to release an upgrade of a critical compliance application; it was a very big, important upgrade on a system that gets used by thousands of employees every day. We had gone for months with the help of professional IT folks to make sure it was all in place. We did a huge amount of testing. We were really cautious every step of the way. The week before release someone from the IT team raised their hand. They had just found, at the eleventh hour, a serious problem. Here we were ready to go live and the thought that went through my head was why are we learning about this now?  But I stopped and made myself say something that did not come naturally at the moment. Instead of why, I said, “Thank you. That must have been difficult to put on the table at this moment.”

Really listening when someone speaks up is a habit we have to change. It's when that moment comes, as it did for me, that you can affect the culture of speaking up. If we can have managers practice that kind of response, we have a chance at changing the company culture. If we want our employees to speak up, we as managers need to help them by really listening and being thoughtful in our reactions.

Topics: Talent Management


Anthony O'Reilly | State Street Corporation

Anthony O’Reilly is the Chief Ethics Officer at State Street.