“Take risks” and “Don’t expose the company to bad press.” So begins a Harvard Business Review article “When Your Boss Gives You Conflicting Messages,” (link here) and “Prevent Conflicting Messages from Confusing Your Team,” (link here) by Len Schlesinger and Charlie Kiefer. As they ask “what if you’re the employee and your manager doesn’t recognize the impossible position he’s put you in?” Thank you Mr. Schlesinger and Kiefer elevating this dynamic. As I have shared before, when front-line international business personnel ponder, “What does management really want?” as they reconcile their bonus structures and forecasts to the messages of anti-bribery compliance, it is peril for all involved. Indeed, when international field personnel take compliance decisions into their own hand at the front lines, it is often due to a “double bind” where they confront conflicting messages from management regarding fiscal success and anti-bribery ethics.
The Authors provide some excellent recommendations which front-line personnel would be well advised to review and consider when they feel tension between anti-bribery compliance and business/bonus goals.
“Don’t pretend this conflict does not exist”
If you see a conflict between the ‘spoken rules of behavior’ as articulated in formal anti-bribery compliance programs and the ‘unspoken rules of behavior’ as in ‘win above all else,’ especially in high-risk areas, don’t “make the problem worse by acting as if the messages are consistent.” Here, I entirely agree with the Authors in their recommendation to call management’s attention to the inconsistency. In other words, stop the action, and articulate that anti-bribery compliance programs and business plans are now in a zero-sum matrix, as both cannot be delivered to the C-Suite. Don’t let management pretend, as the Authors state, “that the messages don’t conflict” which can “preempt any discussion of the matter.” Speak up and remove the element of “undiscussability.”
As the Authors reflect, “the ultimate remedy is to make the organizational habit of undiscussability a topic of investigation and overt discussion on the part of everyone in the system.” While the Authors warn that “going at it very directly early on can get you in deep trouble” and that “it’s best to start with a specific dilemma,” I wouldn’t recommend waiting too long. Even the Authors articulate that when bringing a conflicting message into the open, do so “without any expectation that the original mixed message will change, because it probably won’t, at least in the near future.”
Furthermore, the time to raise your concerns are not when you are in the field, where it is often difficult to think strategically, and where time zones separate you from management; thus, consider raising your objections while you are at the home office. In addition, I agree with the Authors that there is a way to raise your apprehension, which maximizes the possibilities of positive engagement. Approaches such as “can you give me insight or advice on how to pull that off” or “how to balance the two” are good examples. There is no need for hostile confrontation; why not assume that management has the best intentions, and ask for strategic and tactical clarification. But what if?
“Grow up and get over it”
When the response is you ‘figure it out,’ and conflict is left unaddressed, as the Authors state, “you will have confirmed the challenges you face.” While the Authors ask “what, specifically can you do to be effective in this situation,” with respect to bribery and corruption (in fairness to the Authors, I don’t think they were considering illegal conduct when they penned the article), the dilemma leaves you with few options. It might be to continue to elevate the dilemma up the organizational chart with the goal of getting someone “excited about investing in you.”
Perhaps your supervisor’s boss might be aghast at the position you now face, or it might just result in getting more people upset at your elevating the ‘how things get done around here.’ In my opinion, from an organizational perspective, it is doubtful that you are going to get better support as you move up the corporate hierarchy, even though it is an essential step. More likely, your supervisor is now going to be disappointed at your leaping levels in the org chart. Sorry, I didn’t invent that rule.
When one option to reconcile conflicting executive messages is to break the law, and you have asked for clarification in order to “succeed on the agenda,” even up the org chart, then we are back to my “call home” moment. Not to call compliance, it is too late for that. It is to call your family. If breaking the law is the only way to reconcile success and compliance, then no job, bonus, or gain in reputation for success is worth the risk. As the Authors state, when the final response is “make plan, and deliver on all your commitments” you are now confronting great exposure and are putting yourself and others in harms way.
You did the right thing by elevating the dilemma that you confront between personal/corporate success and anti-bribery compliance. Your goal was to “navigate the conflicting messages and possibly bring awareness to the dysfunctional behavior.” But if the response was ‘succeed but keep us off the front page of the Wall Street Journal,’ stop the action. As I will share in future posts, more and more companies are demonstrating business success in high risk areas without bribery. Send your resume to one of those organizations.
As the authors conclude, “in the most severe cases, it may well be a game you simply choose not to play-by leaving.”
*Finally, a quick thank you to all the new readers to my blog and community. There was an overwhelming readership to last week’s guest blog on “Mapping Corruption” by James Cohen. I hope you will continue with me on this real-world journey as I try to elevate issues of compliance and corruption which impact those who operate at the field level, and those tasked with providing them with practical compliance tools in their work.