No one in a leadership position wants to hear bad news, that programs or polices are not working as expected, or that irregularities and deceptive practices are undermining an organization's mission, reputation and bottom line. But smart leaders know they need to hear this.
Two recent events in the corporate and federal worlds, one at General Motors and the other at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), provide extreme examples of leaders being out of touch or deliberately deceived about what was occurring within their organizations.
At GM, an internal investigation found “a pattern of incompetence and neglect” in its decade-long failure to recall millions of defective small cars — an enormous misstep that has been linked to a number of fatal accidents.
“Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch,” said Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive. “If this information had been disclosed, I believe in my heart the company would have dealt with this matter appropriately.”
At the VA, the inspector general found that officials falsified records at health centers to hide the amount of time former service members had to wait for medical appointments. The inspector general said the crisis that arose at a Phoenix hospital is a “systemic problem nationwide.”
The inquiry found a wide use of unofficial wait lists that allowed staff members to meet performance standards and become eligible for employee awards and pay raises. The disclosure led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and created a political firestorm.
Both cases illustrate the need for leaders to have systems in place to help them understand what is happening within the ranks and to confront troubles before they get wildly out of hand. For the VA and GM, having early warning systems, mechanisms for greater accountability or organizational cultures open to receiving the unvarnished truth could have saved lives and a great deal of heartache.
At the VA, the 2013 federal employee survey makes one thing quite clear — leaders up and down the line were not viewed as receptive to hearing about the department’s problems.
According to the survey, only 57 percent of employees believe they can disclose a suspected violation of law or regulation without fear of reprisal. Just 46 percent reported having “a high level of respect” for their senior leaders, and only 37 percent said they are satisfied with the policies and practices of those leaders.
The picture is slightly better government-wide, but not by much.
Leaders across government need to find way to encourage employees not only to share bad news, but to participate in fixing what’s wrong. One way to do that is to make sure that employees who identify what’s not working are rewarded publicly. And any employee who covers up problems or a manager who discourages a subordinate from raising problems needs to be held accountable.
This will require leaders to find ways to hear directly from the rank and file, both at headquarters and in the field, and to set up other systems to receive honest feedback — mechanisms for information to flow upward without being diluted in the process.
At GM, 15 employees were fired for incompetence and neglect. At the VA, the secretary is gone and others are likely to be shown the door. Now the VA needs to provide support for the vast majority of employees who strive every day to provide the best care possible care for our veterans, and encourage them to help identify and fix anything that interferes with that mission.
Across government, leaders also should take a closer look at their own agencies, examine employee survey results, and consider whether they are susceptible to the same types of vulnerabilities as the managers and GM and the VA have been.
If so, it's time to start asking tough questions and figuring out ways to be constantly in the loop.
Please share your thoughts on why leadership can be out of touch with what is occurring within their agencies, and how they get better insights to deal with the problems. You can post a comment below or send me an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.