by Lauren Powers, Senior VP, Business Development
As I have been following the recent stories about the problems at Penn State, I have been trying to understand how so many people stepped away from doing the right thing. I found this aspect of the story almost as horrifying as the alleged acts of sexual abuse of a minor.
I am sure that the people who chose not to intervene directly and/or contact the authorities are basically good people, but within this close and somewhat isolated organization, they collectively made some very bad decisions. I know little about football, but I think this is an example of the negative side of an organizational culture at work. We define organizational culture as the “set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterize a company or organization and enable it to achieve its goals.”
What occurred here in relation to the operational norms of this culture? Division I Football is a relatively insular organization. Players and coaches “grow up” in it and there are few outside influences. It is a paternalistic, hierarchal organization led by a commanding leader. Its outcomes are measured in terms of wins and losses which translate to dollars. An athletic program often finds itself in a defensive position, fighting to secure its place in an academic setting in relation to other vested interests. With this organizational pressure, leaders and coaches may feel they are under a microscope and that their success is largely dependent upon how well they can manage others’ perceptions of their good intentions and important accomplishments.Given this cultural norm and the pressures to maintain positive perceptions, it is not surprising that there was a failure to report and follow through on something that would potentially show the organization in a negative light. In fact, doing so might have been seen as taboo. The Paterno mantra was “May No Act of Ours Bring Shame.”
When Mike McQueary witnessed a horrific act allegedly involving a 10-year old, his first response should have been to intervene and stop the abuse of a young boy by one of this culture’s authority figures. (He now claims that he did so.) If he, in fact, did not, he must surely live with much regret. Doing so might have seemed taboo; it would have violated the norms of this culture. By all reports, after seeking the advice of his father, he reported it to the paternalistic leader, Joe Paterno. He trusted that Coach Paterno would know what to do and in fact, Joe Paterno turned around and did the same thing, trusting that others higher in the organizational ladder would know the right way to handle this. It went all the way to the top, ending with President Spanier, who started his career as a family therapist. I might have expected President Spanier to have acted differently, aware from his professional training of the grave consequences for these young boys, but he also failed to intervene and take decisive action. As one of the trustees said in a recent article in the online Chicago Tribune on November 10, “The fact that someone saw something wrong and did not take the time to ask the right questions, that’s the part it all goes back on.” With regard to Paterno, the unnamed trustee added, “Either he knew about it and brushed it under the rug, or he didn’t ask enough questions.”
Why didn’t these responsible men ask the right questions? Perhaps it is because their hierarchical culture of benevolence and compliance does not support questioning behavior. If it did, then the janitor who first reported an episode would not have been discouraged from speaking out about it. McQueary as a young graduate assistant would have known the right thing to do in a heartbeat.
In our work with organizations, we see this dangerous culture of compliance all too frequently. Employees are asked to be and want to be “team players.” This can cause them to avoid taking the risk of asking the right question, taking a challenging position or tackling a hard issue. And, if someone chooses to step out and confront something he or she believes to be wrong by taking it to a superior, but then watches it go nowhere, the person may feel disempowered, as “management” did not choose to take action.
What, then are the alternatives? We can start by challenging others when we disagree, asking tough questions which may not be popular and helping others to reflect on their positions. We can ask the right questions, even if they may be difficult to address, create discomfort, or even expose something negative that could have other ramifications in the organization. We can only be responsible for our own actions; it does no good to hope that someone else will take action. At the end of the day, it is our own responsibility to inquire, challenge, follow through and do the right thing.
I am forever grateful to my dad for one guiding principle he drummed into me throughout my childhood. He implored me to question others and not be afraid to speak up. Perhaps this is why I found working inside of an organization to be hard at times. I do think we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to others, and ultimately to the organizations we work for, to speak up and out. I am sure the folks at Penn State wish they would have acted differently. Seize your opportunity to do the right thing even if it might set off an organizational immune reaction. You can manage such a risk when you know that it was the correct thing to do and if taking the action means that you may lose your job, you should ask yourself if you really want to be compromised by working in that organization.