A good friend of mine is fond of saying in jest, “What were they thinking?” whenever some person of note, an athlete or an executive, does something dumb — double-deal their team, steal from the treasury or two-time the boss’s daughter. The easy answer, one my mother would say, is they weren’t thinking. Actually I think they were thinking. They simply did not care and they did not think they would be caught.
Arrogance lies at the root of the behaviour. Below the level of arrogance is something more base — stupidity. But since so many executives have been caught, their arrogance does seem pretty stupid.
Nothing is secret
With the proliferation of media of every kind, from e-mail and mobile phones with cameras to 24/7 cable television and the all-encompassing Internet, nothing stays secret for very long, if at all. The prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib is prima facie evidence of this.
In reality, what happened in the prison was not really meant to be a secret. By contrast, the fraud that some C-level executives have perpetrated on shareholders was supposed to be. In both instances, bad things were done, but with all due respect to the maligned Iraqis, what corporate officials did was more devious as well as arrogant. Our misguided military police guards freelanced according to what they wrongly perceived as orders from above. (Shame on their superior officers who were AWOL — absent without leadership!) Our C-level executives freelanced because they could get away with it — without concern for anyone else but themselves.
The counterweight to thievery (as well as arrogance and stupidity) is transparency. Sadly, transparency has become a buzzword and when a word buzzes, it tends to lose impact because it becomes trivialized.
Too bad, because transparency is not an act; it is a process. Even better, it is an outlook or state of mind. An organization that strives for transparency does more than say there is nothing to hide. It is far more open and positive than that. It says we are proud of the way we conduct our business, treat our employees, deal with our customers and enrich our shareholders.
While transparency is often touted as an organizationwide effort, it will never take hold unless employees and managers embrace it. Communication is an operative driver of transparency. Here are some ways to ensure it takes hold in the workplace:
Hire for integrity. The foundation of a business is the integrity of its people. Competency is essential, but ethics rule. You can teach people new skills, but you cannot teach ethics to people who are fundamentally disposed to do you harm. Even worse, such people can sway the weak-willed in your business.
Tyco under Dennis Kozlowski was an example of how greed can become a pyramid game — recruit one person to falsify records and then another and so on. Avoid hiring such folks in the first place. Be clear and upfront in interviews. Watch for visual and verbal cues when job candidates answer questions about their capabilities as well as their credentials. Indirect or evasive answers do not indicate criminality, but may indicate a lack of candour. Transparency cannot penetrate the opacity of those who would deceive.
Insist on honesty. Yes, this is a truism but for one good reason: it works! Most of us do not set out to deceive, but managers must make it acceptable to be honest, especially when mistakes hurt. As Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember.”
If a manager invokes the wrath of the Almighty every time someone screws up, honesty will go by the wayside. People may not cheat or deceive, but they will not give their manager the straight scoop either. As a result, issues may devolve into problems, costly ones that can wreck projects or products. Honesty is not simply a matter of ethics. It is also sound management and it is fundamental to a transparent culture.
Discipline the transgressors. When people cross the ethical lines, either by lying, cheating or stealing — or harassing others — discipline is in order. Not only do such actions violate the law, they hinder performance. There are legal issues as well as legal solutions. Consult with your HR people before you act, but you must act. Your integrity is at stake, too. Also, make certain to publicize the disciplinary action. This sends a strong message that ethical violations are not tolerated. And by extension, this encourages a transparent workplace.
Tell the truth. Honesty does not exist in stasis; it is an active process that begins with being straight with people, not simply about values but also performance. Employees are owed feedback; managers must make time to deliver it and do it constructively. That said, some employees are in the wrong place and part of being honest is to tell them so. This is not simply for their own good, but also for the good of the team. More than one successful entrepreneur or executive has been let go from one company, only to start one or join another more suited to his liking. All that was holding this person back was some honest feedback.
A limit to transparency
Transparency is a laudable aim. But there are limits. Zingerman’s, an internationally renowned thriving food business, practices open-book management. Employees at every level are invited to participate and give input to department and organizational meetings. Financials are wholly revealed. There is an exception: salaries remain private. Staff are curious, of course. But people are also curious about all manner of things: fires, wrecks celebrity tattletales. Some things — compensation, medical records and personal histories — can and should remain private.
There is an old saying that character is what you do when no one is looking. Perhaps we need to proclaim that saying and adapt it to modern management: “Character is managing without anyone around.” Actually, there is such a phrase for this: transparent leadership, the act of putting the needs and concerns of people first so the whole organization prospers.
That ideal is often not possible, but it is something good to strive for. Because when it does occur, no one ever asks, “What were they thinking?”