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HRExaminer Radio

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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Dr. Rob Bogosian, co-author of Breaking Corporate Silence
Episode: 157
Air Date: March 4, 2016

 

 

Dr. Rob Bogosian is founder and principal consultant at RVB Associates, where he links management and leadership development to business strategy for achieving competitive advantage. He works with leaders to minimize operational risk caused by performance gaps at individual, group and enterprise levels. Dr. Rob is co-author of “Breaking Corporate Silence” and currently an adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University in the Executive Education department.

Prior to establishing RVB Associates, Rob was Vice President of Performance Development at Wachovia Corporation, a national financial services company. In that capacity he was responsible for developing consistent leadership practices and organization development initiatives throughout Wachovia’s asset management line of business. In addition, he oversaw the development of the business line’s high performing, high potential talent, and played a pivotal role with executive teams and individuals helping them achieve their performance development goals.

 

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Transcript

 
Begin transcript

John Sumser: Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser. Today, we’re coming to you from beautiful downtown Occidental, California. The sun is finally shining in the mornings these days. Today, we’re going to be talking with Dr. Rob Bogosian, who is the co-author of Breaking Corporate Silence. Good morning, Rob. How are you?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: Good morning. I’m well, how are you?

 

John Sumser: All right. Nice to hear your voice. Why don’t you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: Okay. As you said, I’m Rob Bogosian. I live in Boston, and Naples, Florida. I’ve spent the last 25 years of my working world in the behavioral sciences in organizations. Helping leaders become more successful than they would be otherwise. Most recently, I’ve done extensive research in the area of organizational silence, the phenomenon of silence. My research uncovered some very interesting antecedent conditions that cause silence.

 

We discovered what the most common trigger events are that cause silence, and how to recognize it, and how to change it. We look on a continuum of cultures, and we see on one side cultures of silence, on the other side, cultures of voice. My mission is to eradicate silence from the workplace. We think it’s one of the most risky cultures in organizations today, by its very nature.

 

When I talk about silence in organizations, I mean when employees willfully withhold important work related information that could otherwise more fully inform decision making, problem solving, innovation, and knowledge transfer. Those three things are required for success in organizations today. We see the consequences of organizational silence in the newspaper quite often. Most recently, in the automobile industry with emissions violations, ignition switch defects. In the retail business, data security breaches, in the mortgage industry. The list goes on and on and on.

 

That’s my work. That’s why I decided I wanted to write this book, to start the conversation with leaders today in the US and around the world, to say, “It’s time to wake up. It’s time to pay attention to this phenomenon. It’s time to add this to your vernacular. It’s important.”

 

John Sumser: How did you end up working in this area? How did you get here?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: It’s been a long road. When I think back of the first job that I had in the working world out of undergraduate school, I worked in the financial services industry. My first job was essentially counting securities, or asset bonds actually, to make sure that they were all there. What the bank and the institutions said where present were actually present. My first business trip, I can remember being so excited about it. We pulled up to Wall Street in a taxi, we had flown out from Boston. I thought we were going to take the elevator up, we actually took the elevator four floors down under Wall Street, in a dingy room with a light bulb over our head, counting bonds. I thought, “Oh my God, this is what I went to four years of undergraduate school, to sit in the sub-sub-sub-basement at a table counting bonds.” It got a little better after that.

 

Then I got in to the behavioral sciences in graduate school. I started to look at who were the effective leaders, the ones with influence, and who were the ones that didn’t have any influence. What was the difference between the two? I thought, “Enough of operations. Let’s get into the human side of running an effective organization.” That took me to leadership, and that took me to my doctoral studies, and my research, and then the book. That’s the Headline News version of how I got to where I am today.

 

John Sumser: Still, was there a trigger moment where you saw something, or experienced something that turned you on to this? Because it’s a tough area to tackle.

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: It’s very tough. There were a few, but one that stands out for me is around one of my critical core human values, which is respect and dignity. I can remember working in a group setting in this Boston organization, I won’t say the name. Very well respected firm, and we had a manager who would ring a bell. It was a nice bell, it was a copper, gold toned bell with a long black handle. She established a rule that we could only talk when she rang the bell. When she rang the bell again, that would mean we would have to stop talking.

 

It was so degrading and dehumanizing. At that moment I thought to myself, “If I ever get to the ranks of managing other people, I will never, ever willingly do anything like that, ever,” it was humiliating. As I saw leaders behave in ways that were similar to that bell ringer, I thought, “This is prevalent practice.” There are all kinds of myths about ways to be a good leader, and who is a good leader, and who isn’t a good leader. This mythology around it’s not personal it’s just business, which is utter nonsense, it’s all personal.

 

That’s really how I began to get involved in it, and say, “Wait a minute, there’s got to be a better way.” We have to start to talk to leaders, and help them reframe the way they think about the influence they have on the people who rely on them for support, and hope, and direction. “In the name of results,” I hear that a lot from people. “Yes, but it’s about results.” Of course it’s about results, but if you can’t get results by gaining commitment from your workforce, it’s really an uphill push. It’s really all about obedience is the best you can get.

 

John Sumser: Are you suggesting that the reason we have a problem with people not telling the organization what the organization needs to hear begins with the power dynamic of the boss/subordinate relationship, and that since that’s laced with humiliation, that’s what drives people to withhold critical information?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: It’s laced with problematic interactions. What we know to be true is that leaders come to the table with this belief system, probably from their formative years. Whatever happened in their life shapes who they are today. That belief system plays out in their values. Their values show up in observable behavior.

 

Let’s say we’ve got a leader who is a extreme micro-manager, and we say, “What’s important to you?” “Structure is important to me, and order is important to me. This is what we need in our business today.” Great, where does that come from? If you peel back the onion, you’ll probably get to a root of some belief system in the formative years that said, “If you let go, if you relinquish control, things will fall apart.” Until you get to that belief system, what was happening in your life, who was involved in that, how did you shape that belief system, and rearrange it, or reframe it, the values don’t change, and certainly the observable behavior doesn’t. The leaders have daily interactions with their folks, so they bring that baggage with them. They’re not all bad, there are tons and tons of fabulous leaders. I just don’t think that they’re in the majority, I just don’t. It’s very …

 

John Sumser: Wow. You’re bringing to the world a cure for the Dilbert phenomenon. Is that a way of saying it?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: Perhaps, it’s one way to look at it. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of satire in broken interactions and dysfunctional interactions. Here’s what the research tells us. There’s always a trigger event where the associate says to themselves, “You crossed a line, leader, you crossed a line. The way I stay safe is to shut my mouth.”

 

That could be a number of reasons. There are four primary drivers, types of silence that drive that phenomenon, that actually strengthen it. We know that it’s socially constructive. Let’s say I work for you, and I give you an idea, “I’ve got this solution, John, to this problem X,” and you say, “Great, Rob. What is it?” I tell you, and you stand up at the company meeting, you say, “Everybody, have I got news for you. I solved problem X.”

 

Now, I say to myself, “Great. Thanks, John. You’ve just taken an idea, and not given me any credit for it. That’s the last time you get an idea from me.” I tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and the associate culture talks about what’s happened. It says, “The way that we work in John’s organization is we never ever give him ideas. Never.” How does that manifest itself? John, you come to a group meeting and you ask, “Now we’ve got problem Y. What ideas do you have?” We sit there, and we gave you what I call the bovine stare. That is a red flag. I always ask the leaders, “How many times in the last three months have you had staff meetings, and you got the bovine stare when you wanted feedback or information from your folks?” Eight out of ten managers will raise their hand. That’s a red flag. It says to me you could be operating in a culture of silence.

 

There’s a reason why people don’t have a voice. Leaders typically make assumptions about what that is. They’re not team players, they don’t care, all sorts of naive attributions, but the fact is you may be operating in a culture of silence. That’s one manifestation of a leader’s actions that convert to cultures of silence. It’s all about the associate culture figuring out how to stay safe, and survive and prosper under the leader’s direction.

 

John Sumser: Do you see related to phenomena in the culture of the board of directors?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: I think there’s more collusion at boards of directors than anywhere else in the organization. It’s a small club, and they tend to collude with each other. Only until there’s a crisis, will the board stand up and say, “You better fix this or else.” We’ve seen that happen a number of times. The board picks the chairman. There’s a great little clubby environment. Who’s going to stand up and say, “We picked the wrong person,” because that’s owning the problem. If a board member has enough integrity to say, “You know what? We made a mistake. This is a problem. This is impacting our enterprise. We need to make a change. We made a mistake.” That sort of humility is not always present in my experience.

 

John Sumser: That sounds like a different phenomenon. That’s peer pressure and groupthink as a way of creating the repression of critical ideas, as opposed to the triggering of subordinate groupthink that you’re talking about in the workplace. Are those two different things, or are they the same thing?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: They’re similar, they’re related, they might be cousins, but I don’t think there’s the same dynamic on a board where a member will withhold valuable work information. There’s certainly value in board membership. The membership becomes more important than telling the absolute truth or tolerating the divergent ideas or divergent thinking. That’s not a blanket true for all statement, true for all boards, but I think the membership in the board becomes very, very important. We actually saw it in the Nixon administration during Watergate. Membership in that community, Nixon’s inner circle, was much, much more important to the members than anything else. No divergent idea was ever tolerated or even considered for thought. We see this in boards very often. At the associate level with managers, it’s a different dynamic, it’s more a matter of survival.

 

John Sumser: Got it. You said, I only briefly caught this, that there are four different kinds of … I forget, you said about four different things, and I wanted to follow up on that.

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: Okay. This is described in my book. What the research told me was that the four types of silence, I’ve labeled them offensive, defensive, social silence, and acquiescent social silence, “I’d be quiet on behalf of the company. I would never say anything that would put the company in jeopardy.” Social silence is, “I would never say anything about my peers that would get them in trouble.”

 

The two most risky types of silence are offensive and defensive. Defensive is … One of the stories told [inaudible 00:14:58] a senior level manager, she was reporting to a new person who came from the outside. This new leader, executive, was randomly firing people. Her perception was so that he could bring in his own people. It was scary because you never knew who was going to go next.

 

What’s common is that the defensiveness is a way to stay safe. The discretionary effort shrinks and people in the vernacular they keep their head down and they keep their mouth shut. If this kind of an environment perpetuates for a year, two years, that becomes the primary driver of the defensiveness. No more innovation, no more collaborative problem solving, no more focus on the external. It’s all about, “How do I survive? How do I stay safe in this very threatening environment?” That carries huge risk.

 

Offensive is the story I told before. You’ve done something to me and the way I get back at you, the way I retaliate is simply not to put myself in the position where you could take ideas for me, or go around me, and not give me credit where credit is due. The associate culture won’t tolerate that. The way that they tolerate threat is by shutting down. Both of these type of silence have significant operational, reputational, and conduct risk to organizations. We see it again, and again, and again.

 

For example, an ice cream manufacturer. The line workers try to get the attention of their supervisors. They tried, and tried, and tried, until they finally gave up. Futility enters the picture, where they say, “You know what? We give up, we surrender. That’s it, figure it out on your own.” Lo and behold, there’s a contamination, and the whole place has to temporarily shut down.

 

Going back in history, my research went back to the Titanic, where the engineers tried to get the attention of the senior level management about safety. They knew that first, the boat could sink, and second, that there wouldn’t be enough life rafts for everybody. They were allowed to have 15 minutes in meetings where first class carpet colors were talked about for three hours. Again, it’s a sense of futility. People give up.

 

In my book I say, “Every voice matters.” Until we can talk to leaders about building, and shaping, and sustaining cultures of voice, and use that as a mechanism to reduce or eliminate risk associated with cultures of silence, we’re going to have these crises emerge again, and again, and again.

 

John Sumser: I wonder if there might not be some other explanations for this. What I’m thinking about is it seems to me that it’s common in organizations for one of the functions to be the fair haired child champion function that the company’s reputation is hooked on, while a related but dissimilar function is where all the money’s made. In cars, it’s car design versus spare parts. There’s a fundamental status structure wrapped around the core mission of the operation that separates people into different classes based on the relative status of the function that they operate in. It’s often the case that the people in the lower status, higher margin function have clear and compelling insights about the design that are good for the profitability of the company, and probably the longevity of the product, and things like that.

 

I was reminded of this with the conversation about carpets on the Titanic. In those substandard lower status functions, it’s often the case that people can see things that the higher status function can’t see, but rather than being some sort of emotional injury or response to bad management, the status ground rules, the manners, and customs, and culture over the organization inhibit the flow of communication. Just like if your trash man came to you and said, “I’m noticing in your trash that you have a pattern of eating a lot of fatty foods. You might not want to do that, because it will kill you,” the ease that you could dismiss that feedback because of the status of the source of the feedback is pretty high. I wonder if there isn’t some sort of natural phenomena in organizations to dismiss input that isn’t directly part of the company’s view of itself, and that it’s not an injurious thing.

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: Absolutely. This is why in the book I say, “Every voice matters.” The issue you’re talking about is status and stigma. In the retail industry for example, the merchants, the merchandisers are the rock stars. There are two things here. The high status, low stigma jobs get a hallway pass. They can misbehave, and they’re allowed. We look the other way. In the financial services industry, it’s the asset managers, the portfolio managers. They can do whatever they want, and we look the other way. In the food industry, or the hospitality industry, I’m really not sure. I’m least familiar with that industry, but I believe it’s probably the executive administration, I’m not really sure. My mantra is, “Every voice matters.”

 

Toyota’s really good at this. They have a process called planned perturbation, where they’ll go out on the manufacturing line, and they’ll screw something up, just to stand back and learn what happens when they do this thing. They plan for these scenarios by learning. If a leader believes that he or she has nothing to learn from somebody in a low status, high stigma job, that’s a belief system that needs to be re-framed. Now you’re talking to one’s learning orientation. Am I the judge or am I the consummate learner? The judge says, “I’m a VP, I’m an SVP, I’m an EVP. I know everything. What are you going to tell me that I already know? And by the way, if it was a problem I would know about it.” Those are the myths that many leaders hang on to, and it’s not true, it’s very risky.

 

Some leaders try to get around that, they have skip-level meetings, and I say, “Don’t policy your way out of this, walk around. If you think you can manage your business from behind your desk, you’re full of nonsense. That’s ridiculous, you can’t.” Richard Branson said, “There is no way you can do that.” He said, “I want to fly on the planes, and I want to know from the flight attendants whether or not their shoes are comfortable, because if they’re not comfortable, they’re going to be in pain, and if they’re in pain, they’re not going to have the same level of affect I want them to have serving my customers.” That’s an example of a leader who’s willing to get in touch with every level from top to bottom, to learn about what’s going on in the organization. You’ve hit a hot button there, you’re absolutely right, John.

 

John Sumser: That’s great, I was looking for a hot button. I’m going to grant that you can figure out how to diagnose this in an organization. What’s the process for fixing it?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: We can. First, you have to diagnose it. We know how to do that. We have a diagnostic tool called the silence voice index. The silence voice index is statistically reliable and trustworthy. It actually measures on an enterprise level the strength of silence, and the strength of voice in an organization. It’s 30 items, and they’re valid. From that, our statisticians do regression analysis to determine which of the four types of silence is the most significant driver of the silence index, and what’s the strength of the voice index?

 

From there, we can look at demographics to see what division is this most dominant in? Is there any particular leadership community that has a higher culture of voice versus culture of silence? Then, we can actually train leaders by helping them get to their underlying belief systems that are driving their values and their observable behaviors that are resulting in either the culture of silence or culture of voice.

 

We know exactly how to diagnose it, and we know exactly how to change it, to help leaders move from cultures of silence to cultures of voice. Is it easy? No, but it’s absolutely doable. Our mission is to make cultures of silence a thing of the past, and cultures of voice part of the leadership lexicon and leadership vernacular the same way that engagement scores are. We think silence and voice are actually the root cause, are root determining factors to engagement.

 

John Sumser: What an interesting idea. What an interesting idea. How do you see this evolving? Do you imagine that there will be algorithms that constantly watch behavioral patterns to see the signs of this? Is that part of your vision of the future?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: Yes, we can. We can. If we measure an organization three times in a three year period, we can see patterns in behaviors, and we would want … If there’s a culture of silence for example, and our analysis shows that defensive silence is the strongest driver of the index, we can track that, and we can see where it is moving by line of business over a period of time to see, is there any progress going on here? Is there something else going on? The answer is yes, we can track patterns in organizations by enterprise and by line of business.

 

We can also do this on an individual level. A leader, a head of a particular line of business, for example, in the form of multi-layer assessment can get feedback from superiors, peers, subordinates on the specific practices that either lead to cultures of silence or cultures of voice. We have two diagnostics. The silence voice enterprise and the silence voice index individual. They’re very powerful instruments.

 

John Sumser: We have blown through our allotted time. What an exciting bit of work you’re doing. I’m really delighted that we had the chance to have this conversation. Is there anything that you want to be sure the listeners take away?

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: I want to make sure they take away a sense of self awareness. Self reflect in the moment, and ask yourselves in group settings. Every leader should be able to this, and make it a habit. Just ask two questions, “Am I in the moment? Am I encouraging voice, or am I a eliciting silence?” That’s it, and how. Just ask those two questions.

 

John Sumser: How simple and how useful. Please take a moment to re-introduce yourself and tell people how to get a hold of you.

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: Thank you. I’m Dr. Rob Bogosian. You can reach me through my website, www.rbvassociates.com, or send me an e-mail, rob@rbvassociates.com.

 

John Sumser: Thanks so much for being here, Rob. It was a delightful conversation. I am glad to know that somebody has a method for addressing this pernicious problem in organizations. Thanks for taking the time to be here.

 

Dr Rob Bogosian: Thank you John, my honor. Thank you.

 

John Sumser: Have a great day, everybody. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser, and we’ve been talking to Dr. Rob Bogosian, who is the co-author of Breaking Corporate Silence, and an amazing thinker about how organizations work. Thanks for paying attention today. Bye bye now.

End transcript

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