8 ways the Penn State leadership meltdown could happen in your organization

The Freeh Report is a chilling indictment of the leadership at Penn State. People at the top build, sustain or change organizational culture, and clearly, Penn State’s needed a radical change. It took a tragedy to make people believe it.

Rather than looking upon it like head-shaking witnesses to a horrific train wreck, let’s focus on how situations like this evolve. Because, in truth, a failure of leadership could just as easily happen to any of us, if we’re not vigilant.

Smart, successful people who see themselves as ethical and moral still cultivate a collection of blind spots. In their book, “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It,” authors Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel say we overestimate our ability to act ethically. The respected business ethicists say we succumb to “bounded ethicality,” which they describe as “systematic constraints on our morality that favor our own self-interest at the expense of the interest of others.”

That means we may declare we’re all about doing the right thing and believe it. But when doing the right thing has too many negative consequences for us, we may reframe the situation to favor ourselves.  We find a way to justify our self-serving decisions.

Sounds like Penn State’s leaders, doesn’t it? It’s why this statement from the Freeh Report is so haunting:

Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by them for Sandusky’s victims.

It’s why a former dean of student affairs at Penn State — responsible for administering the school’s code of student conduct — ran afoul of coach Joe Paterno and left the university, discouraged. When athletes got into trouble, Paterno wanted to be the arbiter of their punishment and whether it would be made public, rather than allow the normal university process to prevail.

Leaders define the organization’s values in practice. That means even when the mission statement says we stand for what’s right — even when we have a code of ethics (I’m looking at you, Enron) — we take cues from the actions of the most powerful people in the organization. Their behavior and decisions, along with the operational systems and procedures they develop, influence everyone else.

Again, from “Blind Spots”:

..Aspects of everyday work life — including goals, rewards, compliance systems, and informal pressures — can contribute to ethical fading, a process by which ethical dimensions are eliminated from a decision.

It can be as simple as how we describe the decision. Is this a “business decision” or an “ethical decision”?  Is this about “avoiding bad publicity” or “reforming bad practices”?

We’re all susceptible to blind spots, but because of their power, leaders must be acutely aware of the dangers of bounded ethicality and ethical fading.

Could a Penn State-like leadership meltdown happen to you? It could happen anywhere, under certain conditions. Let me share eight conditions that easily come to mind:

  1. Your organization uses words like “integrity” and “values” in promotional literature, but leaders rarely utter them in the course of daily decisions, much less the toughest ones.
  2. Your organization has decided that Human Resources is a budget luxury and has reduced its function to record-keeping.
  3. Your employee handbook encourages people to confide in the HR department. But yours has developed a reputation as a black hole for employee complaints, existing only to protect management. People believe life will get worse for them if they raise questions or concerns about powerful people. If it’s a myth, no one has dispelled it.
  4. Training is reduced to only those things that show an immediate return on investment, not “touchy-feely” stuff like ethics and values. We all know the rules around here and just use common sense, right?
  5. Managers identify more closely with colleagues under scrutiny rather than their potential victims. It sounds something like this: “Heck, if every boss who made a pass at an intern got fired, you couldn’t run the business. Besides have you seen how some of those kids dress?”
  6. Managers’ hands are just a little bit dirty, not a lot. (“Sure, I’ve taken a few modest gifts, but it’s not enough to be a conflict of interest. Not me.”) When someone with much muddier mitts is uncovered, concern about being tarred with the same brush causes people to downplay the seriousness of the situation.
  7. Managers have made “No Whining” such a pervasive mantra that people hear it as “No Whistleblowing.” They fear bringing bad news to bosses who don’t want to hear it.
  8. Employees are evaluated on metrics alone, not on how they achieved them. Rainmakers and stars are protected, insulated, forgiven — so long as they perform.

I feel so strongly about the obligation of leaders to develop and foster a culture of integrity that it’s a bell I ring throughout my own book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know.”  Here’s my reminder, from the book’s final chapter:

I’ve told you throughout this book that you shouldn’t treat everyone alike — and that you can play favorites.  But let me be clear: That philosophy applies to communication, motivation, assignments, rewards — but never to values. No one is exempt from doing the right thing, legally, ethically, or morally.

…Everyone, including (and especially) the boss, should play by the same rules.

But to make that happen, you have to do what the leaders at Penn State failed to do: Take off your blinders.

I elaborate on leaders and blind spots in the companion podcast to this column:

What are other danger signs have you witnessed in an organization’s culture — or fear you might?

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XUAKJ444BE4A2VB5RXSJZPVHEQ Fred

    “Your organization has decided that Human Resources is a budget luxury and has reduced its function to record-keeping.”

    What about a well-staffed and internally independent Internal Audit department that reports to the board?  HR is important, but a professional IA department is by far the most effective eyes and ears of top management.  You mentioned Enron–the company whose IA function was handled by its *external* auditors–co-conspirators and certainly not the independent internal voice Enron needed.  

    Contrast that to the courageous internal auditor Cynthia Cooper at WorldCom who single-handedly confronted top management there.  How much sooner would the Enron situation have come to light with an effective, ethical internal auditor like her? 

  • Anonymous

    Enjoyed the article and the 8 points. I was diappointed that no mention of the public relations/communication management function as having a role along with HR folks to advise on ethics and  actions during the event. Did the higher-ups not bring in their senior public relations staff or if brought in was their advice ignored? Lessons learned from this crisis could be key to many organizations in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/JillGeisler Jill Geisler

    Thanks, Terry.
    You raise an excellent point about journalists who are self-employed.  Not only are they the boss and the journalist, they may be working with and for multiple other organizations, each of which may present unique pressures or challenges.

  • http://twitter.com/JillGeisler Jill Geisler

    Hi philboyds -
    We’ve modified the reference to Penn, as Julie mentioned. Sorry we disagree on the value of the advice offered in the column.  It’s a subject you apparently care deeply about, as do I.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

     Thanks for the note on “Penn.” I’ve fixed the reference to “Penn” so all references to the school are “Penn State.” –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • http://www.brnseramik.com/ Cam Mozaik

    philboyds is tru says cam mozaik

  • Anonymous

    PLEASE do not shorten the name of he school in these stories to just “Penn”. People associated with the University of Pennsylvania refer to that school as “Penn”. Nobody in this entire area ever says Penn when they mean Penn State.

    I would also oike to add that this was a particularly shallow treatment of the issues that surround compliance with various regulations, safety programs, accounting rules, etc. Since the days of Sarbox, etc have beed upon us for years now, there is a fairly sophisticated body of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. A little research, even if only on the Internet, would have yielded a more insightful piece.

    Sorry I sound like such a snob, I realize, but I am sick of lazy journalism.

  • Anonymous

    PLEASE do not shorten the name of he school in these stories to just “Penn”. People associated with the University of Pennsylvania refer to that school as “Penn”. Nobody in this entire area ever says Penn when they mean Penn State.

    I would also oike to add that this was a particularly shallow treatment of the issues that surround compliance with various regulations, safety programs, accounting rules, etc. Since the days of Sarbox, etc have beed upon us for years now, there is a fairly sophisticated body of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. A little research, even if only on the Internet, would have yielded a more insightful piece.

    Sorry I sound like such a snob, I realize, but I am sick of lazy journalism.

  • http://www.thepomoblog.com Terry Heaton

    Jill, terrific post and especially important today, because journalists are increasingly self-employed and required to live by their own codes. Being the boss AND a journalist can be a very tricky proposition. Thanks for this excellent piece.

  • http://twitter.com/JillGeisler Jill Geisler

    Good thoughts, Mike. That’s what I meant in my last point — the danger when charismatic people or high performers evaluated only by metrics of success.  It’s difficult to be the person who challenges or questions the ethics or morality when a person or organization has a larger-than-life reputation and/or fan base. The former dean of student affairs at Penn State certainly learned that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=584055404 Mike Throop

    Jill: with your kind indulgence, I’d add a 9th point: Look carefully at organizations with “charismatic” leadership. There may be a mindset that “well, they’ve achievewd ‘X-Y-Z’ and the organization is hugely successful.”