Tone in the Trenches


2014-snell-roy-speaking-headshot-200By Roy Snell

Is leadership solely responsible for tone? Shouldn’t everyone have the proper tone when it comes to compliance and ethics? The latest catch phrase is “Tone in the middle.”  It got me to thinking about tone.  I am going to coin a new phrase, “Tone in the trenches.”  It may not catch on but I need it for this article.

I have seen leadership blamed for pretty much everything bad that ever happens in a company.  I see people putting all the responsibility on leadership.  It’s like open season on business leadership.  The thought police will not allow us to discuss any alternative explanation for wrongdoing than, “Its leaderships fault.”  I agree that leadership needs to own everything that goes on in a company.  And leadership has to set the tone.  But I just can’t agree that it’s always “only their fault” and they are the only ones who should have “tone.”

Let me give you an example.  Businesses have goals, quotas, and bonuses that reward the hardest workers.  Not everyone who ever said, “I don’t care what it takes we are going to hit our goals,” meant the people in the trenches should break the law.  In fact, I believe most everyone who ever said that didn’t intend to have people interpret it as, “Go break the law.”  But every time I see someone get caught doing something wrong they blame someone else for their behavior or blame it on quotas, goals, bonuses and leadership.

I get frustrated every time someone at “in the trenches” behaves unethically gets to play the “blame leadership card.”  I think that we ought to have tone in the trenches.  We should expect everyone to have the proper tone.  We expect the mature people in the trenches to be an example for the younger people.  We expect the company veterans in the trenches to be an example for the new employees.  We should expect tone in the trenches.  The more the thought police convince society that leadership is always the problem, the more problems we will have because they are giving everyone an excuse.  We need tone at the top, we need tone in the middle and we need tone in the trenches or none of our efforts to fix ethical and regulatory problems is ever going to work.

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  1. Leadership controls how decisions are made and defines culture. Leadership determines the processes and how resources are used. From this, they create opportunity for bad behavior by the way the detect it and react to it through the layers in the middle. It is proportional to the authoritative decision making power of the agent or stakeholder has within the system/enterprise.

  2. Of course leaders “own” everything, but how can they control, guide or fix that what they do not know about? Ask any Board or C-Suite Member worth their salt what worries them and they will say – what they don’t know.

    The key is to provide better connection and communication among ALL levels and groups of the organization. What this requires in not more formal mechanisms rely on investigative power and legal driven authority.

    What is needed is simply greater connection and human communication that creates an unfiltered flow of information both up and down in the organization, where users are protected from retaliation by both intention and confidentiality.

    The simple solution to the riddle is an organizational ombuds function.

  3. It’s often the corporate equivalent of “I can’t help it. My mother made me this way.”

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