There is a phrase that fascinates me as a Denver-based Executive Coach. It is when someone in an organization fails to be a good leader or to produce a good product, and the organization issues a statement that says in part, “We are aware of the problem.” Most recently, the phrase has been used to characterize professional athletes or coaches who have committed a serious, off the field violation.
VIM Executive Coaching has worked with many organizations where there has been an ethical breakdown and the key executives want to understand how it could have happened. “Why here?” is a common question, or “How could this have happened to us?”
We then ask a relatively simple question that may or may not require a complex answer: “Were you aware that something was wrong?” Almost without fail, the answer is either “no” or quite tepid, “We thought everything was all right,” or “We had no indication something was amiss.” In other words, “no.”
Never in a Vacuum
When leadership or personnel problems occur in a corporate or entrepreneurial organization, almost always someone, some manager or some department is acutely aware that something is wrong. The deeper issue is not that people within the organization were clueless as to whether a problem existed, but why nothing was done.
There was an ethical scandal a few years back of a major producer of peanut butter, that knowingly released a batch of salmonella containing product that the leadership of the organization as well as their quality control department knew was contaminated. It resulted in the company’s leadership, as well as their quality control managers, having to fines, face legal action and jail sentences (they were put on probation). In a similar type of situation, Volkswagen’s engineering team reported to upper management that the emissions from their new engine models were higher than acceptable. The team was ordered to doctor the test results. It cost the company billions in lawsuits.
When management is generally brought to task to face the consequences, the consequences can almost always be traced back to failures of the leadership to respond to problems in an authentic manner.
It is also seen as a failure for a “local” problem to be properly addressed but allowed to escalate. At VIM Executive Coaching we have had many mid-level managers confide in us that their department was “being bullied” by upper management to produce desired results. In fact, employees have come to us complaining of a bullying culture within the company. The same holds true of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is rarely one person harassing another but may be a much larger pattern across several departments or within the same large department.
The development of leaders is also a study in the cultivation of mindfulness. I don’t know what pressures were on Volkswagen to fake better results than were truly found, but I do know that a lack of awareness of where the consequences would lead were well in place. Had the leadership of the organization authentically looked at its failures, adjustments or delays might have been made. These adjustments could have been painful to the stockholders, but nowhere near as painful as the impact of negative publicity and massive lawsuits.
We once had a mid-level executive come to us (and in shame, I might add), who had made an inappropriate comment to a couple of employees. He was asked to leave the company by mutual agreement. He admitted he was wrong and he was angry at himself for his “stupidity.” Over time, he revealed that many of his fellow employees (both male and female), the Chairman of the Board, board members and even some vendors were inappropriate in their behaviors. The executive I coached was fully aware of what happened and I applauded him for striving to do better. At the same time, the organization needed to understand a pattern that was affecting the entire culture.
Being “aware of the problem,” is really an in-authentic phrase that says, “Because we failed to respond to problems, patterns or challenges, and decided instead to react,” we have created difficulties for ourselves. In fact, the phrase also suggests that the organization really doesn’t know what to do.
Far better to be mindful and to cultivate organizational authenticity than to bear the consequences of inaction and reaction.