Of all the missed opportunities in the Penn State scandal, the most tragic was the first—the one missed in the Penn State locker room that evening in 2002. According to the grand jury report, graduate assistant Mike McQueary says he stumbled upon his former coach Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year old boy right there in the showers. Had he intervened, he’d still have his job, Joe Paterno would still be a hero, one child would have been rescued and who knows how many others would have been spared. Why didn’t he act?
Judging from the outpouring of venom at McQueary, most people are convinced they’d have behaved better. “I’d have broken it up, put a blanket around the boy and said ‘Come with me, son’ “ says a friend who has a son the same age as the boy in the shower. “Then I’d have called the police.” It seems so simple.
But it isn't really. This article by Tracy Clark-Flory in salon.com and this David Brooks editorial in the New York Times both point out that McQueary is hardly the first witness to fail to stop a crime in progress. Psychologists even have a name for what might have frozen him in his tracks: bystander effect (the rationalization that someone else will take care of the problem) or normalcy bias (an inability to grasp, even in the face of evidence, that something awful is happening). Hard as it is to justify McQueary’s inaction, his behavior was, sad to say, unexceptional.
That presents a problem for business leaders. There will be times when you need your employees to overcome their workplace version of bystander effect or normalcy bias and do the right thing, even when it’s uncomfortable or confrontational, or appears to jeopardize their job. The occasion won’t be something as horrific as the crimes alleged at Penn State, thankfully, but it doesn’t have to be that awful to have awful consequences. Think Enron, Lehman Brothers, MF Global—or for that matter, Netflix Quikster or Bank of America debit card fees. Whether the issue was unethical behavior or just a dumb business move, there were witnesses to all those missteps. But no one effectively intervened.
John Baldoni, a leadership consultant and author of Leading with Purpose (see another interview on Inc.com here), says that when employees of an organization fail to step up, it’s generally for one of two reasons: fear over the career consequences, or a misplaced sense of protectiveness towards the company and its reputation. It’s not hard to see the latter come into play with McQueary’s superiors, including the sainted Joe Paterno, who reacted so anemically when McQueary told them what he’d seen.
There’s another part of the equation affecting that night in 2002: Sandusky had been a coach when McQueary played football for Penn State. While he no longer had any power over McQueary, he was still an authority figure. That could have made it all the more difficult for McQueary to process what we was seeing, and all the more hesitant to take action. With varying degrees of seriousness, this happens all the time in business—from direct reports failing to challenge a bad idea to the co-pilots at Korea Air failing to forcefully correct their captain, even when it was clear he was making a potentially fatal error.
How would your employees act if they knew something was going badly wrong--in business or otherwise? Baldoni says the answer starts with culture: You have to make it clear that your company’s mission is paramount--and it overrides short-term goals. And then members of your team have to hold everyone accountable for that mission, even when you’re not around. “Everyone has to be able to speak truth to power,” says Baldoni. “Everyone has to be able to say to you: ‘I know you don’t want to hear this, but let me speak my mind.’”
In the military, this clarity of mission is called “Commander’s Intent.” General Stanley McChrystal defined it to Inc.com’s Christine Lagorio as making sure everyone who works for you understands what winning means, and giving them the authority to vary from the plan.
Most of all, you have to be accountable, too. Says McChrystal: "If you do an Enron and say, 'All's well, I think you should buy stock,' and then you turn around and you're selling stock, then you've got a credibilty gap that communication isn't going to help." You can’t set policy and think you’re done. Policy is often about avoiding confrontation, and remember: McQueary actually followed Penn State policy to the letter by reporting what he saw to his superior. As is now tragically clear, that isn’t always good enough.