Office Politics: Joe Paterno and the Price of Silence

Two years ago a rumor that the CEO was sharing bodily fluids with an intern wafted through the office.  You couldn’t be bothered to yawn.  Six months ago the CEO was ousted.  His political allies mourned his departure.  How could an affair unseat a CEO?  The CEO’s power base was damaged by his poor judgment.  People withdrew support.  You knew something was amiss but you weren’t sure.  You’re now forced into an inconvenient job hunt or wait to go down with the ship.  (This means a complete change in leadership, who may not value you as others did, not the death of the organization per se.)

Most people treat office gossip, as an irritant, a bad joke, or a weapon to be used when useful.  They rarely think through the consequences of not acting, not getting the facts.  To wit:  Did any of the coaches at Penn State, from Joe  down, ask, “What are the possible consequences of saying/doing nothing in the face of overwhelming evidence of wrong doing?”   We could ask Bernie Madoff’s staff the same question.

People who understand the principles of office politics (less than one percent) assess the long-term price of silence.   They understand that problems only grow, more people figure it out, until it obsesses all those who know.  Never mind productivity — down significantly — but the sheer energy needed to contain the problem eats up  hours and days, even years.  All the time that might have gone to advancing the organization’s mission.  Here are some demonstrable truths to consider the next time you hear a rumor.

1.  Everybody knows.  “Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead,” said Charlotte MacLeod.  When you believe you are  the only one who knows anything, think again.  The smart people took the rumor seriously the first time, got facts — usually from the long-term support staff — and  are developing options.

2.  Problems do not solve themselves.  There is no spontaneous healing in the organization.  The longer a critical problem remains unsolved the greater the fallout.

3.  Leaving after the problem goes public means you’ll have to answer the  dreaded question:  “What did you do when you heard the rumor?” “Nothing” is going to be tough to defend

Would you believe that this scenario is repeated endlessly?  Nobody ever learns.  Only the characters and issues change.   If you hear that something is amiss in your organization take it seriously.  If you can’t help fix the problem, and it’s on the magnitude of Joe Pa or Bernie, get out as quickly and quietly as possible.

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Filed under Career Strategies, Office Politics