First, although we can argue about what causes certain leaders to cross the line, followers clearly play a role in sustaining that direction. And I think our choice as followers is primarily this: Do we want to know? Yet as we become more and more dependent on an organization — financially and for our sense of achievement — it becomes increasingly difficult to let ourselves see. This is why I think it’s so important to actively maintain our base of independence so we can be courageous when the time comes.
Second, I hope we loosen our assumption that the bad guys are somehow a completely different breed. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson show how, through the natural process of self-justification, we all have the potential to delude ourselves about the ways we may be causing harm. “Whistle-blower” Sherron Watkins has said that “there’s a little Enron in all of us.” It’s only when we recognize this that we’ll create ways to talk to one another and sort out what we might be missing without rushing to judge and accuse.
Finally, I want to point out that although the resulting regulations, penalties, and controls have been cumbersome, I have heard several stories in which they gave people the support they needed to say “no.” For example, a controller who was asked to sign a forecast she did not feel was accurate said, “No, I don’t think so. I’m not going to go to jail for you guys.”
Elizabeth Doty (email@example.com) is an organizational consultant, a 12-year veteran of the hotel industry, a Harvard MBA, and a “recovering reengineer.” Her firm, WorkLore, applies systems thinking, simulation, and storytelling for clients in manufacturing, high tech, financial services, educational testing, and real estate operations. Her Weblog is http://devilsbargain.wordpress.com/.