The Silence of the Workforce

Why does no one tell leaders the truth?

How is it that smart leaders fail to notice what's going on around them? How could Obama not know that employment is the top issue on everyone's mind? How can anyone at BP think that, after a flurry of rhetoric, they're a safe company? Why did Guy Hands pay such a spectacularly stupid price to buy a record company at a time when everyone thought music labels were dead?

It's easy enough to blame the guys in charge. But there's a deeper reason: no one around them speaks up. The stunning silence of the corporate world may be the single biggest problem it faces. It isn't that people working in the White House, or BP's headquarters or the offices of Terra Firma can't see mistakes as they're happening. They can, and do, and regularly go home and tell anyone who will listen. What they don't do is speak up where, and when, it matters.

Why not? Fear in some cases -- fear of being isolated, looking out of step, being punished with ridicule, exclusion or worse. It is, frankly, hard to imagine Guy Hands thanking anyone for a difference of opinion.

But almost always, we exaggerate the danger -- and we minimize (in our own minds) the impact that our intervention might have. And we feel confused about how to intervene in a way that doesn't feel destructive, obstructive or just plain perverse.

But the evidence is that even the slightest intervention can make a difference. Just asking simple questions -- is this the best we can do? Isn't there another way to see this? -- may change the debate. Mary Gentile's work on "Giving Voice to Values" outlines an entire curriculum to teach yourself or your team how to structure debate so that you, and everyone around you, will speak up. The choice, she argues, isn't between silence and exit. You can find a voice.

Philip Zimbardo, with his 'Heroic Imagination Project' is doing the same thing, but with even younger ages. Children, he says, learn silence at school - so that's where they must learn that they can, and must, intervene. You don't have to special to speak up; you just have to practice.

There's no point hiring a smart workforce if no one speaks up. It's the easiest thing in the world to sit back and blame the woes of the world on leaders who fail us. But what about us? Don't we fail them when we zip our lips, saving our critiques for comfy coteries where we can be confident of no impact at all?