It Takes A Village to Raise a Whistleblower

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It Takes A Village to Raise a Whistleblower

At the end of July, the National Whistleblower Center hosted a series of speaker and panel discussions celebrating whistleblowers over three days, culminating on National Whistleblower Day, July 30th. Individuals who had reported wrongdoing at public companies, within the military, NGOs, and other government organizations, as well as private sector groups in the U.S. and overseas, all shared their personal and often gut-wrenching stories of life after blowing the whistle.

These brave people stood in the gap, saying and doing something so that ‘evil would not triumph.’ Scholars and academics like to study the motivations of whistleblowers, what makes them tick, why did they act when so many others did nothing?

Catherine A. Sanderson is the Poler Family Professor of Psychology and Chair of Psychology at Amherst College and author of the 2020 trade book, Why We Act, Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels. Much of the book is spent discussing why good people remain silent, including the social cost of speaking up and standing up to bullies. Sanderson is a recognized expert in her field and her book delves into the social and psychological reasons, as well as the physical neurological issues, that form the basic human instinct to stay silent when confronted with bad behavior.

I highly recommend Sanderson’s book, Why We Act. It is very readable and relevant to understanding the difficulty of speaking up, which she describes as moral courage. Physical courage, like that needed to rescue a person from a burning building, is often lauded and praised by others. Sanderson writes, “moral courage entails a willingness to incur social ostracism for doing the right thing.” Her book is written for non-academic audiences, however it is thoroughly researched and the footnotes provide the reader with a host of sources to dig deeper into understanding the mental makeup of those who speak up. Here is but a small list from Sanderson’s Notes:

  1. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, no. I (2008), by B. Monin, P.J. Sawyer, and M.J. Marquez
  2. The Mystery of Courage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), by W.I. Miller
  3. The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil: Inclusive Caring, Moral Courage, Altruism Born of Suffering, Active Bystandership and Heroism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), by E. Staub

Overall, it seems that academic scholars conclude that those who speak up have a few similar traits of high self-esteem, a strong sense of right and wrong demonstrated often as empathy for those who are the victims of the evil behavior, and finally, a lower need to fit in, to be part of the tribe so to speak.

I was honored to be included as Time’s Persons of the Year in 2002, along with Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom and Coleen Rowley of the FBI, in a cover story titled, The Year of the Whistleblower. I still speak around the globe on Enron’s leadership failures and I’m often asked about the three of us on that Time cover. I point out that we are all women (perhaps that motherhood gene is important), but also we are firstborn, people of faith and the primary breadwinners for our families. We have quite a lot in common, including the fact that we were all raised in small towns of less than 10,000 in population. We witnessed adults discussing problems in the community and what they could do to help fix the problems. Something as simple as overhearing a parent suggest a call to the mayor because someone had dumped trash on a vacant lot on Main Street, can instill a sense of optimism in a child that one’s actions matter, and that speaking up can make a difference.

My personal opinion is that our small town upbringing did play a large factor in our optimistic viewpoint that our actions to bring attention to or correct wrongdoing at Enron, WorldCom or the FBI would be fruitful, and hence formed a strong bias towards action.

However, I think a stronger impact results from that small town upbringing; one which works to overrule the very strong social, psychological and neurological influences to stay silent that Sanderson refers to above. It is what some in my group of churchy friends refer to as the “Mean Mommy Prayer” which is a parent’s wish that if, or when, their child does something wrong, they are caught in the act by a neighbor and outed.

I grew up in Tomball, Texas, a small town north of Houston with a population of under 6,000 people. Today it is basically a suburb of Houston but back in the 1960s, it was small town America. I wasn’t aware that we were poor, but my Mother was the primary breadwinner of the family as a high school business teacher and we didn’t have a lot of extras. We lived in a small 1,200 square foot home down the street from my grandmother and around the corner from my aunt and uncle. On a trip to the grocery store I begged my mother for a box of ice cream sandwiches but was told “No.” I went to the freezer section, opened a box of ice cream sandwiches, took a few delicious bites out of one of the sandwiches and then put it all back. All under the watchful eye of a neighbor who promptly informed my mother of my infraction. My mother of course had to buy the box of ice cream sandwiches, and I was in big big trouble.

I learned a number of lessons that day. First, I was offered my choice of punishments, one of which was a spanking. I don’t remember the other options, but I do remember the one I chose, which was to sweep up the grass clippings for the next five Saturdays after my dad mowed the lawn. After the first Saturday, I knew I’d chosen poorly, because that spanking would have been long forgotten by then and now I was facing 4 more Saturdays of hard work. But the most important lesson that day was that I had brought shame and embarrassment to my mother and family by my action. I was young, probably about 5 or 6 years old, but something happened to my psyche which impressed upon me that doing the right thing and avoiding wrongdoing was the only path to take in life. Punishment and discipline are not the same thing, punishment can cause long term problems, particularly physical punishment, where fear and anxiety become the drivers of behavior. However, teaching and discipline connect to our reasoning and problem solving skills, we are learning what makes us feel better or worse, through observation and experience. 

The goal of the “Mean Mommy Prayer” is to influence and impact your child’s psychology towards ethical behavior and away from selfish impulses through teaching and experience. Generations of small town mothers have noted that it wasn’t necessarily their parenting skills alone that produced an ethical child, but the whole village. It wasn’t the punishment that impacted me, it was the act of bringing shame on my family. I had hurt the ones I loved by my actions. That empathy and concern for others was the more impactful driver of ethical behavior for me in the future.

My former boss at MG Trade Finance, in New York, recounted a similar “Mean Mommy Prayer” occurrence in his life, as the reason he was so committed to doing things the right way. As a teenager, he had a summer job at Newark airport in New Jersey as a grounds worker. His father’s friend was a supervisor there and got him the position. Some of the older workers shared with him that they sometimes took naps out between the runways and no one was the wiser. Probably the older workers were better at knowing the lapses in time between incoming planes, or knew which runways were less busy each day. One day he decided to take a nap between two active runways and his ‘body’ was observed by a pilot, who notified the control tower, which resulted in his immediate termination by his father’s good friend. The shame and humiliation stuck with him and formed a strong commitment to ethical behavior. He and I shared the opinion that most people committed to doing the right thing had a childhood moment that placed them firmly on the straight path and not the crooked one so easily taken by others. 

Yale University taught a course in the 1970s titled “The Economics of Corruption” which described corruption or moral hazard as a function of the likely rewards of the corruption v. the likely penalty if caught, with likelihood of success or likelihood of being caught factored into the equation. An important part of the formula was also the relationship of the person’s greed or need to their own personal ethics.

Here is what the function looks like:

The SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, established as a result of the whistleblower protections written into law with the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, has greatly increased the likelihood that white collar fraudsters at public companies will be caught. However, with the overuse of stock options in today’s compensation plans at publicly traded companies, the rewards of financial statement manipulation and therefore the urgency of a person’s greed, have also been enhanced. To combat fraud in today’s businesses and in society in general, we need a focus on personal morality and ethics.

We need a society run by ethical leaders so we can reduce the need for whistleblowers. Speaking truth to power, rejecting unethical orders, going against the grain, being an upstander not a bystander, blowing the whistle – all seem to be laudable actions and the subject of numerous books, blogs and podcasts, urging individuals to be courageous and take action when exposed to wrongdoing. However, those same experts acknowledge that the life of a whistleblower is a lonely life, that the social ostracism is real and comes with a cost. How do we determine if a CEO or politician had a “Mean Mommy Prayer” moment in their life? Perhaps the directors of publicly traded companies (who are responsible for CEO succession planning) should require candidates for the CEO position to explain why they are committed to ethical leadership and look for those candidates who have a compelling personal story as to why they KNOW the ethical path is the only path.

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