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Why Some of the Most Innovative Organizations Foster a Culture of ‘Whistle Blowing’

Corporate Culture, Whistle Blowing, Innovation...

Whenever we hear of a classic case of an employee, or even a media professional, sharing sensitive news from within their organization, we have a negative emotional reaction to their actions.  There is something innately natural about wanting to present positive news or communication, and a significant reluctance (and sometimes fear) to share negative, but equally valuable and constructive information.

Historically in work environments, management and leadership have worked to inspire a sense of loyalty among employees. In the classic workplace model, employees have been taught to excel at their own position, but avoid criticizing or pointing out weakness or flaws within the organization.

In the competitive global business environment today, that cultural model can not only hinder an organization, but it can stifle innovation.  That is why there has been a noticeable shift in management style that emanates from the top down, to develop methods that allow employees to provide professional input, that can save the business time and money.

Organizational Problems Can Be Insulated from Corporate Leadership

It’s not difficult to understand why managers and supervisors would direct employees to be silent about issues within the division, or department where they work.  The bureaucratic structure means that identifying a problem, brings the performance of more than people than the ‘whistle blower’ to question.  Everyone has a vested interest in a positive performance evaluation, including managers who are responsible for the productivity and efficacy of employees that they supervise.

Regardless of the role, each employee and management level professional, is invested in building a reputation for quality work.  But if that performance is not to standard, or if there are breakdowns in the system that are impacting both output and profitability globally within the organization, how eager are most managers to encourage that kind of feedback?  In many business environments, there is a pervasive sense of “don’t ask and don’t tell”, which preserves reputation, avoids scrutiny, and unfortunately, also contributes to silos and communication isolation for top executive leaders.

CEO’s and executives are responsible for making the kind of global and cultural decisions, that steer a business into optimal performance; competitively, and internally within its own ranks.  But if an environment of protectionism is fostered, where employees are fearful of reprisal, and reluctant to point out problems, the issues or weaknesses within the organization can never be addressed.  They simply never show up on the radar as a problem, and can persist.

This is a significant concern for corporate leaders.  How can they make improvements, policy changes and even important cultural shifts to help the company navigate increasing global and domestic competition, if internal problems are not highlighted?   How difficult is it to engage employees to participate in the overall success of the business, if a culture of fear and reprisal, stifle not only the identification of known issues, but actions to correct them?

If CEO’s and other executive leaders, and founders are not made aware in a transparent way, they are powerless to address the problems.   That is why so many executives feel that they are siloed at the top of the leadership ladder, with subordinates and other management professionals who can be very reluctant to self-diagnose issues within their own teams, or departments.

How ‘Whistle Blowing’ Can Be a Positive and Professional Asset

There is a way that some of the world’s most successful organizations have navigated a cultural shift, that encourages employees to report problems.  From a human resource management perspective, it is a complicated cultural shift within the organization, to ensure that the method is professional and unbiased, and free of social or internal political motivations.

The first step is to empower employees, by helping them understand that their honesty is a benefit to the organization.  There is always fear of reprisal in virtually any business environment, where employees fear that constructive feedback that reflects poorly on immediate managers or supervisors, will jeopardize their career within the organization.

The purpose of transparency, and creating an environment that is open to diagnosing issues with efficiencies or productivity, is to improve the overall performance of the business, and not to damage relationships between employees and supervisors.  Before it is implemented within the company, executive leaders must ensure that communication and training is provided to managers and supervisors, to help disarm an emotional or defensive response, to constructive feedback from employers.

It starts from the top-down.  Chief executive offers must train managers to be open and receptive to the feedback, and to look at it as an opportunity for improvement (and not as a personal criticism).  In-house communication training is essential to navigate this shift, in a bureaucratic business model.  Fighting against decades of organizational culture that simply teaches managers to expect subordinates to avoid saying anything that could be construed as a weakness, or problem within the team.   And shifting a very natural, human response to criticism, helping managers realize that constructive feedback is an opportunity for improvement, rather than an attempt to criticize or make the team (or manager) look ineffective.

Employee Reporting Programs and Incentives

Once middle management professionals within the organization are onside with the shift, a message of transparency and program that rewards innovators, can be adopted within the business.  It takes time for employees to feel comfortable enough to share what they have learned or observed. But some of the most successful businesses in the world, have built incentive programs, that not only encourage this important communication, but reward it with incentives that employees value.

For decades, Japanese businesses, particularly the automotive industry, have enjoyed growth and great success, by adopting a culture of transparency.  In many Japanese manufacturing environments, efficiency relies heavily on employees who can diagnose problems, and make improvement suggestions, that can save time and money.

Japanese management styles embrace the idea that the worker has the most valuable knowledge about the process.  Many companies offer cash initiatives, bonus vacation days, and even point systems that employees can use to purchase gifts or merchandise. By making it possible to earn rewards, the model works because it removes any fear of reprisal, and focuses on tapping employees for valuable knowledge and insights, and rewarding them for being an engaged part of the success of the organization.

Steps to Help Your Business Adopt a Healthy Culture of ‘Whistle Blowing’

Any business, large or small, can start to change the way they look at the contribution of employees, and tap into the innovation and expertise of your best problem solvers; your staff.  We share some implementation steps to help your business start the transition:

  1. Provide training to supervisors and middle managers, to communicate the importance of sharing suggestions and identifying problems.
  2. Implement an anonymous suggestion submission method. While antiquated, the suggestion box is still an effective tool within most businesses, because it does offer a sense of security for employees who fear reprisal.
  3. When a problem has been identified, allow the employee to contribute to the solution. If they have gone to the effort to highlight the issue, they are often the best resource for a viable solution and innovative approach to resolve it.
  4. Be transparent about issues that are resolved, thanks to employee contribution. Providing rewards at a general meeting with staff, help to encourage staff, by giving them examples of how valuable their input can be, to the success of the organization.  Providing this recognition also serves to inspire other employees to increase their engagement and feedback.

In terms of efficiency, you can have your executive team ponder prospective issues, or you can have your frontline employees identify where the real problems are.  Organizations that implement this cultural shift, can improve productivity in other ways, including valuable employee engagement. Staff become activated and deeply committed to the success of the business, when they are reassured that their daily experience and innovative ideas, are assets.