Sep 27, 2015

Whistleblowing, VW’s Silence, and the Behavioural All Stars

Today’s guest post is by Wendy Addison, Founder and Owner of SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd.

On the 2nd and 3rd of Sept 2015, I attended The International Behavioural Insights Conference in London. Hosted by the UK government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ (Behavioural Insights Team), the event included world-renowned speakers such as Steve Pinker, Dan Ariely, Max Bazerman, Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman.

I attended because in my experience, both as a whistle-blower, and as one who works in the whistleblowing arena, that to deal with whistleblowing only on the level of legislature, process, or within the halls of academia, is superficial. My advocacy has evolved to believe that we need to investigate what it is in the deep structure of the human mind that either drives whistleblowing, or hinders it, and to leverage that research for a fuller understanding of current whistleblowing issues.

To set the tone, Professor Richard Thaler, author of Misbehaving (link here) was asked to talk about the BIG problems within our societies, and I was not surprised to corruption at the top of his list, followed by tax compliance, terrorism, climate change and end of life health care. Here is a two-minute video of Professor Thaler making this point.  Crucially, he identified that the root of all of the big problems is behaviour, which can initiate or mitigate misconduct, with trust being critical to harness lasting change.

With corruption identified at the front and centre of social ills, I was particularly interested in exploring and understanding if social scientists considered whistleblowing as a mitigating behaviour to corruption.  Historically I had shared my own whistle-blower experience with Dan Ariely http://danariely.com/ with the aim of understanding what lessons could be learned from a behavioural framework.  Once again, my desire to understand the behavioural component inspired the question I put forward to Dan on Whistleblowing – Watch the 3 min video here.

Whilst there is much to talk to within Dan’s three-minute response I’m going to focus on three areas:

  • Employee Loyalty and Whistleblowing
  • Altruistic cheating
  • Whistleblowing legislation and 50 Shades of Grey

I’d like to begin with the last thing Dan shares in the video: How do we create loyalty plus something that says there is a higher order?’

Most whistle-blowers, including myself, tell stories of shock and betrayal when we discover we are vociferously condemned as disloyal to our group and organisation, leaving us with feelings of shame and guilt. We all recognise that “Keeping one’s promises,” and honouring agreements are among the highest values we are taught to observe. But how does it come about that individuals in organisations, under certain circumstances, act as if those values are actually absolute, overriding other considerations that would appear to be extremely compelling?

Humans are herd animals. The threat of expulsion from a group on which our well-being and self-concept depend upon, often drives us to participate in or helps us to conceal behaviour we would abhor in the absence of that threat.   Furthermore, we have degrees of irrational acceptance of some unethical behaviours. Read my blog here.

This socialisation in the practice of keeping an organisation’s secrets gradually blinds us to moral ambiguities or conflicts. The consequence is that we may become less and less mindful with what is being demanded, as loyalty to the institution becomes implicitly superior to any other loyalty or obligation, including the interests of outsiders.  History is replete with examples where institutional secrets are kept which have greatly prejudiced the welfare and safety of others.

One only has to look at the current unravelling of the cheating at VW to see how groups value ‘secrets’ over the societal good. In the case of VW, our grasp of the consequences, including the significant costs to our health and the ecosystem, are just beginning to be known as the facts present themselves. In addition, beyond VW, our trust of businesses and brands will be challenged, given VW’s “commitment” to CSR.  It is a dramatic model of what happens to society when ‘those in the know’ remain silent.

Whistleblowing in business is often framed as ‘bad’ because it appears, incorrectly, that we are blowing the whistle on our team.  This is incorrect.  Individuals blow the whistle on a particular practice that is immoral and/or illegal.

Because companies have been able to get its employees to view themselves as part of a team, as in a sports team, it is easier to demand loyalty.  Thus, the rules governing teamwork and team loyalty apply.  But businesses are not games.  Victory in sports, within rules that are enforced by a referee (whistle-blower), is a socially developed convention, taking place within a larger social context that is different from competition in business.  One can lose at sport with few consequences. Losing at business has much greater consequences which permeate into society.

I believe that whistleblowing is not only permissible but ought to be expected when a company is harming society.  The issue is not one of disloyalty to the company but of whether the whistle-blower has an obligation to society, even if blowing the whistle brings them victimisation and retaliation.

I advocate re-framing whistleblowing as an act of a Good Samaritan. Would you condemn a Samaritan interfering in the prevention of a someone doing harm to themselves or someone else? Probably not. Furthermore,  there would be no need to justify such interference.   The same applies to whistleblowing.

Neatly stitched to Employee Loyalty is Altruistic Cheating, to which we are all vulnerable:

When people’s dishonesty benefits others, the others are more likely to view dishonesty as morally acceptable and, therefore, feel less guilty about benefiting from the cheating. Why?

  • Individuals cheat more when others can  benefit from their wrongdoing
  • Cheating increases with the number of  beneficiaries
  • Altruism serves as a moral justification for self-serving cheating
  • When cheating also benefits others, it involves less guilt

Whistleblowing legislation – Fifty shades of Grey

‘We find that every time there’s a grey zone, people abuse that grey zone. But every time we create this we create a danger” -Dan Ariely

The same applies to organisations and governments initiating legislation, both of whom have challenges of how flexible their rules should be. This applies to Whistleblowing in addition to codes of conduct and fiduciary responsibilities – the range of grey zones within them allows misbehaviour.

We often do not like very clear-cut rules because we can rationalise, reason and find the exceptions. However, as Steve Pinker has said, ‘We are not just brains on sticks’. Whilst we understand that we cannot create a good rule, good rules really help us.  Watch 2min here.

Synchronising Whistleblowing legislation and process with behavioural training for Courageous Conversations will help us to figure out for ourselves what is good in a pro-socially effective way. See here for more.

Wendy is a whistleblower who blew the whistle on what’s known as the biggest corporate collapse in South African history. She shares her vision and strategy for encouraging individuals to speak out before whistleblowing, on how to act on analysis and awareness and how to set the stage for transparency thereby avoiding reputational risk. She can be reached via www.speakout-speakup.org  @beyondfreefall   or [email protected]

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2 Comments


  1. Richard,

    Thank you for your blog. Here are my reflections.

    Unfortunately, it will be many years before the legal issues around VW are cleared and academics get to analyse the root causes of this debacle. I have no hard data for my opinion, but based on my real life experience, I would suggest that VW management was successful in aligning the organisation with its business goal of becoming the biggest automobile producer (beating Toyota). However, at the same time it appears that they were less accomplished in embedding the corporate values, which should act as constraints within which the business delivers against its objectives. I have no reason to believe that management suggested dishonesty but the Tone at the Top may not have been strong enough.

    Tone at the Top is an essential but not a sufficient condition. Staff hear what Managers say, but they also observe how managers act and it is this ‘visible learning’ that tends to be stronger than the ‘auditive learning’. I have had multiple discussions with senior managers about how staff observe them: they often feel uncomfortable that this is so, but it is undeniably present. So Tone at the Top should go hand in hand with actions that demonstrate the meaning of those words.

    Another problem in business is indeed that groups are formed around a scorecard and if those scorecards are not adequately aligned with the objectives, this can lead to behaviours that are not to the benefit of the overall organisation and its goals. For instance, I have seen behaviours where group scorecards became so important (if they are linked to remunerations) that decisions were taken to optimise the group result but with identifiable external costs to the company, not adding but actually destructing value. As said, I don’t know enough about VW and the way it is organised and operates variable remuneration systems, to be sure that this was a contributing factor. But I do know that management must be alert to distortions that may be introduced as the result of group scorecards and group competition.

    The combination of ethics that are poorly embedded and affiliation that staff feel with their group (and scorecard) may have been a reason that we did not see a whistleblower emerge. Please also be aware that in former Soviet countries (e.g. East Germany) whistleblowing has a very negative connotation as it was it was a preferred mode of operation of the internal security services!

    I hope this helps inform this important discussion

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