Times of Crisis

Times of Crisis

But times of crisis are always opportunities for learning, however painful. What is the take-home lesson from the Enron, Andersen and WorldCom messes? In the most dramatic way possible, they underscore the importance of creating a corporate culture of candor. The tragic weakness of most organizations today, whether public or private, is that they are designed to suppress truth and transparency. Most are set up in such a way that everyone in them seems to know the truth, but nobody ever tells it to anyone else.

I first became aware of this phenomenon years ago when I consulted for the State Department. Junior foreign service officers lived by three unwritten but universally practiced rules: Never tell a lie, never tell the whole truth, and never miss a chance to go to the bathroom. The unwillingness to speak the unpleasant truth was not confined to junior officers. It went all the way up the line, with senior diplomats equally loath to pass on what they knew because they feared their superiors didn't want to hear it.

Such cultures are somehow perceived as protecting the interests of the organization, yet they never do. They are inevitably costly, and often enough the cost is human lives. Think of the Challenger disaster, which could so easily have been prevented if NASA had only listened to Roger Boisjoly, the engineer at Morton Thiokol who warned everyone within hearing distance that the spaceship's O-rings were seriously flawed. Innocent people died because this expert's warnings were ignored. Unfortunately, we treasure our whistle-blowers and other truth-tellers more readily in films than in real life. Boisjoly spent the rest of his career giving talks on ethics and dissent, in large part because he was unable to get another job in the aerospace industry as an engineer.

This article was originally published on 08-18-2002
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