by Michael G. Winston, Ph. D.
It happens every day. A tough, bullying seventh-grader approaches a fifth-grader in a crowded school hallway. The older child, in front of other children, damages the property of the younger. What happens next can determine the course of events for a lifetime.
Often, the bystanders stare and shake their heads, but do not intervene or discourage the bully. This passive response from bystanders is not unusual. That is why they are called bystanders. They stand by and do nothing. Many experts say that bystanders have the power to significantly reduce bullying at schools.
The role of the bystander is crucial in creating an emotionally healthy environment. If the norm at the school is that children who observe bullying behavior in others do nothing about it, then they end up tacitly giving their support to the bully. The bully then continues and eventually escalates the behavior.
Research shows that if a bystander discourages the bully there is a 50% chance that the bully will stop. Most bullies do their bullying because they want to impress people and they like an audience. So if the audience is booing instead of clapping, they realize they're losing their audience. By doing nothing they encourage the bully.
Those who keep their heads down and do nothing are enablers. They are enabling the bully to get away with unacceptable and inappropriate behavior. They should not complain about the behavior unless they are willing to make a concerted effort to let him know that the behavior is wrong. Did you know that over 70% of students report that bullying is a problem at their school? And that about one out of ten middle school kids drop out of or change schools due to bullying? This is serious stuff.
Wikipedia defines bullying as the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively dominate others. Broadly speaking, bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power. This problem does not go away as we get older or our circumstance changes. Bullying shows itself in the workplace and on athletic fields. If not confronted, it only gets worse. The Penn State scandal several years ago speaks volumes about this. Caught up in a culture that worships sports, coaches and winning more than a child’s safety, we were served a stunning wake-up call. One year later we saw the coach of the Rutgers University Basketball team manhandling and abusing the student-athletes. People watched and said nothing. On March 14, 2015 I saw breaking news of a child being bullied in a New York City school and her classmates just looked the other way. They could have helped as help was needed, but none did. Why?
Observers wonder how anyone could ever be aware of such revolting behavior and not report it, as if they know they would have done so if it were them. But would they? I am not so sure. Don't underestimate the power of social conditioning.
Most people go along to get along. This is not necessarily unethical. There is much to be said for teamwork and sticking together. On the other hand, when this means turning a blind eye to major ethical wrongs, then avoiding action is unethical. We need people willing to speak the truth, even to power. The bad actors are betting that your need to belong will be stronger than your concern for ethics. After getting away with wrongdoing over time, they are so convinced you won't speak up, they often double down and do far worse things. In fact, after they double down, in essence, doing even more nasty things, they will count on others around you to affirm their behavior.
This plays out in the corporate world. I saw it first-hand. Recent ethical lapses in the corporate world seem so pervasive and intractable. The number, kind and scope of recent ethical breaches seems unprecedented. In the run-up to the financial crisis, regulators, corporate boards, auditing firms, rating agencies all had easy access to data on clear malfeasance, corruption and/or lawbreaking that they should have noticed and reported. They did not, because it was in their own interests. Also, they counted on not being punished. Thus, no one said or did anything, except a few courageous souls.
A major reason people do not speak out about unethical behavior is fear. People are afraid of losing their jobs. For instance, perhaps they know of a boss's unethical behavior. Others fear confronting someone engaging in unethical behavior. They would rather stay quiet and in their comfort zone. Some people just don't know the right thing to do, so they look the other way. We need to look beyond the conditioning and fear and look to what is right for your company and your community.We read about the awful things that happened to the Countrywide people who stood up against fraud and deceit. I was one of them. However, most people watched, but did nothing. Thus, they were bystanders.
Silence, in the face of wrongdoing, is consent. Consent to a crime, white-collar or otherwise, makes you a possible accessory to that crime. If we don’t say anything, we essentially condone improper behavior and the person responsible for it begins to view his or her actions as acceptable. As with playground bullying, these corporate bullies may even escalate their wrongful actions.What can we do?
- Stand up and speak out to tell the truth, whether in the boardroom to stop fraud or on the playground to stop bullying. There is never a bad time to do a good thing. Step up to counter injustice.
- Enlist support. There is strength in numbers. Involve like-minded colleagues, friends, associates. Have them ostracize the offending party.
- Seek out the most senior officer. Explain the reputational harm that will ensue to their institution from continued malfeasance.
- Step up. Speak out. Have the courage to go against the grain. If you do not, be prepared to find yourself powerless, voiceless, helpless and hopeless.
- Celebrate Whistleblowers. They should be recognized and rewarded. Recognize the people who fight against those who would hurt the many to satisfy their own greed. Fight against those who practice aberrant business, leadership and health and safety practices. Telling the truth is harder than towing the line. DO IT. There is never a bad time to do a good thing. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing. Whistleblowers want to do the right thing. They are conscientious, alert, tenacious and loyal. They do not act out of self-interest at all but, rather, to expose that which could endanger or defraud the public.
In high-performing, healthy companies, challenging the status quo is viewed as an act of loyalty, an act of corporate patriotism. Celebrate it. In fact, Motorola executives used to expect a “minority opinion” to be given on any critical decision. They believed a healthy culture encourages dissenting viewpoints and differing perspectives. Ideas must be evaluated based on the quality of the idea, not the level of the idea-generator. Such a culture might have prevented the dangerous and embarrassing actions of G.M., Toyota, Countrywide and BP.
Best-practice companies enable people to state their views freely, without fear of reprisal. Healthy debate about ideas and alternatives is encouraged. Personal attacks are forbidden. When spirited debate is required, the sound of silence can erode your effectiveness and degrade your business into oblivion. We must take heed of valid action imperatives surfaced by whistleblowers. Ethical behavior by a company or leader will keep customers coming back and draw new customers to you.A moral of this story: Children should not be punished for “tattling” just like whistleblowers should not be punished for coming forward. We should hug them, not mug them.
About the Author
Michael Winston had a career of distinction in executive positions for over three decades in five Fortune 100 companies across three industries. He served in executive positions for Motorola, Merrill Lynch, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed and Countrywide. As global head of leadership and organization strategy, he worked closely with C-Suite Officers to develop business models, craft strategies and structure, create cultures and develop leaders.
As Enterprise Chief Leadership Officer for Countrywide Financial, Winston rebuilt the strategy, leadership and culture and tried to stop the fraud, corruption and deception he observed. His warnings were dismissed and ignored. Winston’s experiences in confronting Countrywide executives about fraud, market manipulation and insider-trading are highlighted in numerous media reports including this New York Times feature. He is a founding member of the Bank Whistleblowers United, and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, a Master’s Degree from the University of Notre Dame and attended executive programs at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.