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!