What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You – So here’s how to find out

Play

At Berkeley, as on so many campuses, and in offices, in the NFL, in churches, we’ve been struggling with disturbing cases of sexual harassment. As with the Black Lives Matter case, we’re confronted with damning evidence that just had not been fully seen, accepted and acted upon. My public policy grad students were assessing this executive ignorance, and one comment hit me like a strong man ringing the bell with a mighty swing of a sledge hammer at the county fair. As people were discussing whether the head of an institution knew about extensive allegations of sexual harassment, he said, “It almost doesn’t matter whether he knew, because he had a duty to know. And ‘not knowing’ is in some ways as bad as knowing and not doing anything.” The student compared this ignorance to the massive fraud that Volkswagen perpetrated in falsifying emissions software in millions of cars. The CEO should have known.

His comment scared me for two interconnected reasons. First, Woe, Nellie! There’s a lot to know! It made me think of a thousand things that have escaped my attention, when I have been leading as a boss or a parent or teacher! There’s a lot to be held accountable for. But the second reason it’s so scary is this: People don’t WANT you to know! Students don’t want you to know they can and do cheat. Your kids don’t want you to know they’re depressed or really do hate school this time. Fundraisers and sales people don’t want you to know that they’re cutting little “innocent” deals on the side to make the numbers look good. They’re not just hiding their own behavior either. They’re afraid of “ratting” on their friends and your friends.

When we’re in authority, in the castle at the center of the kingdom, it’s like there are massive waves that push people from getting close to letting us know what’s up. On top of that, it’s SO EASY for us in authority to send messages that tell people: Don’t complicate my life, don’t worry me with “little” things, and perhaps the biggest baddest message: I trust your boss, your boss’ boss, and their boss, and we’ve got it figured out, so don’t you worry your pretty little head or otherwise think we really need you.  The flow of vital information into headquarters is further choked to a trickle by the natural social warning system that tells us, “Danger: They will shoot the messenger.” For instance, if someone has told something troubling to their boss, and the latter sees it as unimportant, what are the odds that someone will risk going to their boss’ boss? You tell me.

The upshot of all this is clear: Authorized leaders have to be PROACTIVE, because information will not come on its own. If you’re in authority — as parent, boss, and especially if you’re up a layer or two – the following may help you know what you are accountable for knowing, because such information will not come to you on its own:

  • Repeatedly speak about the values of total openness.
  • Express confidence that “we can always handle the truth” around here.
  • Gain unfiltered information from a level or two down.
  • Protect and celebrate those who raise controversial issues.
  • Take the focus from “whose” idea it is to “what” ideas are good?
  • Read direct feedback from customers, clients, or employees?
  • Visit clients and ask “what are people saying about us that we don’t know?”
  • Talk to your kids’ friends.
  • Talk to volunteers.
  • Ask people in your organization, “What risks might we be ignoring?”
  • Ask down the chain, “What do you guys do when you learn unpleasant things?”
  • Ask:  “How does your group typically respond when under unusual pressure?”

I hope you can fill in the circles of these bullet points, as you lead with your best self!

10 responses to “What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You – So here’s how to find out

  1. Absolutely on target. Leaders are supposed to know and act forcefully when things get out of hand. Hillary Clinton should have known about the dangers to her staff in Benghazi and done whatever necessary to keep them safe. She did not.

    1. Barry,
      Hilary can speak for herself, as she did for 12 or so hours last week before Congress
      But can we concede that what she was expected to know involved bureaucracies and labyrinths of information whose complexity boggles the mind?
      Yes, I am suggesting she is obligated to know. But for perspective’s sake allow me to share: I spent many distracted moments wondering what my students were so amused with as I spoke today. On the lighter side, I’m pretty sure it was the fact that the stitching in the hem of my pant leg had come out and I looked like a ragdoll. From my rag doll house with many windows I only have compassion (and unsolicited coaching) for Hilary and those who lead in complex organizations. Again, the point for US – largely everyday leaders – is that this is tough stuff and we might have both understanding for “big leaders’ yet also not lose our own vigilance as we lead.
      Dan

  2. Dan,
    Not only great topic and observation but just as superb parables and implementation as well. It is very important for leaders to be aware of what’s going on in there leadership roles. Case in point Rick Patino at Louisville, where he obviously was ingorant and not informed ( or at least that’s what I hope). It goes to show that leadership should not merely reside in boardrooms and C-suite settings. It must go organically deeper though out the organization. Bravo Dan, I’m not surprised at your well thought out context and topics;just again grateful for your insight on leadership.

    Best,
    Big Fella

  3. Not only great topic and observation but just as superb parables and implementation as well. It is very important for leaders to be aware of what’s going on in their leadership roles. Case in point Rick Pitino at Louisville, where he obviously was ingorant and not informed ( or at least that’s what I hope). It goes to show that leadership should not merely reside in boardrooms and C-suite settings. It must go organically deeper though out the organization. Bravo Dan, I’m not surprised at your well thought out context and topics;just again grateful for your insight on leadership.

    Best,
    Big Fella

  4. Is the real issue that upper management didn’t know – or that they failed to apply fair consequences once they did know? All you need to do is look at the HUGE ongoing problem of sexual VIOLENCE on campuses across this nation where perpetrators are only slapped on the wrist. As long as there are no real consequences for actions, the disturbing problems will persist. And yes, I know I didn’t address the contributing problem of victims (whether subordinates or students) not wanting to report either harassment or assault. They have very valid reasons for that so I can offer no suggestions to change that in the future.

    1. An entirely valid point. Some of the same forces that keep problems hidden can also be the ones that conspire to undermine clear and unequivocal consequences.

  5. One of the Challenges of our new “Me” Generation is the belief that everyone else is WRONG! It really doesn’t have to be that way! Criticizing for the sake of criticizing serves no purpose at all.

    What happened to good well rounded discussions where everyone’s ideas were appreciated?

    The TIP Lady

  6. Hi Dan,
    Al Jazeera showed a documentary a couple of days ago about Poverty, Health and infant mortality rates in Cleveland, Ohio which are the highest in the US. When interviewed the director responsible for mothercare & infants in the city’s Dept. of Health was unaware her city was the worst in the US for infant deaths between birth & 1 year old. When asked why she didn’t know this she walked out of the interview. The programme then showed the Ohio state legislature voting to refuse $13.5 billion dollars in Federal Healthcare funding because the majority were republicans and opposed it on Ideological grounds, Despite repeated attempts by the interviewer to ask the majority leader “Why?”. No Republican legislator was willing to meet him.
    These make your point there is culpable ignorance in the 1st case as the Director knew the interview was about infant mortality and hadn’t done her homework and the.second shows anarogant disregard for the needs of those they represent.
    T doubt even Obama knows just how bad the US is shown

  7. Ops clicked the wrong key before I’d finished.
    The last 3 lines should read: “and the 2nd shows an arrogant disregard for the needs of those they represent.
    I doubt even Obama knows just how bad the US is portrayed on the foreign 24hr News Channels and that’s not including Gun Control.

    Keep the faith, Love to the Family hear and far,
    Phil

  8. An interesting new book on what you may not know is Phishing for Phools, The Economics of Manipulation & Deception, by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller. I have seen so many examples of organizations and individuals who do not want you to know what they are doing, and more importantly, they do not want you to know how they are doing it. This makes their lives easier, because they need not be accountable, and need not deal with challenging questions about what they are doing, not feel any friction about what they want to do with the company / organization. The book above I would call only a beginning to this as a new area of separate study and research. I would like to see it applied to job seekers versus employers, with both playing phishing for phools.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *