During my decade as an international sales VP, I conspired with an agent to pass $15,000 to a Dutch police official in return for tender specifications tailored to my former employer’s product. That program was for every police officer in Holland, and it lasted for years, with contract extensions and re-fill orders.
The Holland “win” was one of many for me, and I enjoyed a string of sales successes until my termination for cause a decade later and eventual imprisonment for violating the FCPA, which included the Dutch procurement.
During those ten years of success, I wasn’t calling anyone in my company for help. I felt enormous pressure to achieve my commercial objectives, and hence, my bonus, but that was financial pressure which I internalized. When I pondered, “What does management really want, compliance or sales?” that was also a debate I kept to myself, and I decided on their behalf that it was sales over compliance. I was wrong. And my great mistake was not reaching out to someone to say, “I’m struggling to succeed here, these are very challenging markets, and I need support and guidance.” The only person that prevented me from making that call was me.
And here’s something else. As my sales increased, even in the headwinds of a two year market decline, no one called and asked me to explain my success. No one said, “You’re doing well but frankly we don’t see how. How about flying home and let’s talk about it?”
That’s because a “dangerous silence,” as Amy Edmondson calls it, had descended over me and those I interacted with in my organization. In her 2018 book The Fearless Organization, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth, Edmondson explains how organizational leaders sometimes genuinely believe that “no news” means things are going well.
When I was beating my sales targets every quarter, it’s understandable why no one wanted to uncover anything that might underlie the results. So there was a “dangerous silence” that marked my relationships with both peers and those above me in the chain of command.
Looking back, I can see that if even mildly challenging questions had come my way, my conduct would have started to unravel long before the Department of Justice called. Even innocent questions around my discount structures, success fees, and marketing allowances would likely have sparked deeper questions around why my decision making was so inconsistent. But there was a culture of silence between me and my former employer, and as Amy Edmondson shares, “a culture of silence is a dangerous culture.”
But dangerous silence isn’t inevitable. In the face of failure or success, the greatest antidote to a culture of silence is simply to be observant and concerned, and brave enough to ask questions.
An innovative solution to breaking down these silent barriers comes via Ken Favaro and Manish Jhunjhunwala. Writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review Winter 2019 edition, they recommend addressing the silence through an interactive and real-time dashboard in which top executives and line managers contribute their expectations to a database, and where “every stakeholder feels heard and better aware of other’s viewpoints.”
The authors demonstrate how “it’s common to have the appearance of alignment on a decision, when just below the surface a slew of different and potentially informative views are bubbling away.” As such, the shared dashboard is an engaging application of technology to promote debate and a way to surface and reconcile a variety of opinions.
Whether it’s an “expectations dashboard” or a casual call to a sales person during good times or bad times, lines of communication and the ability to share struggles and challenges should always be encouraged and embraced. But that doesn’t mean leadership has to wait for the phone to ring or a knock on the door. A manager can easily avoid “dangerous silence,” and spark an environment of learning and caring, by asking the rain maker in a far-flung territory how he or she is coping. And don’t forget to add, “We’d enjoy hearing more about how you’re getting it done and what risks you might be encountering. So how about coming home soon to tell us about it.”
Richard Bistrong, pictured above, is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. In 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen and a half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He was named to Compliance Week’s list of Top Minds in 2017 and was one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015. He was named by Thomson Reuters in 2018 as a Top 50 Social Influencer in Risk, Compliance and RegTech.
His award winning compliance training video, Behind the Bribe, produced in cooperation with Mastercard, was released in 2017. To request a demo of the full eleven-minute video or a licensing fee schedule, please click here.
Richard, thank you for having pried open and described an issue that is usually bypassed, and for head-lining it under the enlightening name of "dangerous silence" (a new term to me) . Thank you for this different way of understanding this part of human nature, and for providing the reference to the 2018 book by Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth.
Business leaders that genuinely don't ask questions? No way! They must know how someone does it so well for learned lessons to expand to other colleagues that are not doing so well. Just for this only, business leaders must ask, they must know how things are operating and why. No questions for me means negligence from the leaders and a conscious decision to not to know what is really going on.
My experience: the CEO ordered a key control to be removed. Without that control there was no way to know what was going on in the field. What was the excuse? The control was an administrative burden. What was the result of removing that control? The CEO and senior executives don't know what was going on so, if there was fraud happening they could always say they didn't know. It's difficult to believe the CEO and senior executives were acting genuinely here.
The same reasoning goes for the leaders that don't ask when things (sales, in the case of the article above) go well. Leaders must understand what exactly is making sales go well to ensure they help keep those sales going well, to ensure all areas of the company leverage on what is helping sales go well. That is the diligence of their role. Lack of will to know what is really going on so well, means only (at least to me and in my experience), that they suspect there is a wrongdoing helping sales go well, so by not asking and hence, not knowing about it, leaders can benefit from the profits of good sales on top of the lack of knowledge when things explode. Is that the type of leader investors and shareholders want?
I want a leader that really knows why and how things go well and not so well. This involves an effort to understand the final root causes instead of just smiling at a good sales chart without understanding what caused the good sales.
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