VA: a culture of fear, silence & misplaced priorities

It was my first six months at the large, well-known, respected organization. I was excited. I was nervous. I was full of passion. I was trying to do a great job – not just a good job. And I had to write an update about a project I was working on – the first of many. I wrote the report, following the guidelines I had been provided. I was clear, concise, and honest. I wanted senior staff that read the report to know what had worked, and to be proud of it, but also, what had not worked, and what needed to happen to address those challenges. I wanted my first report to make a SPLASH, to build trust by others for me. I labored for many, many hours, finished the report, and turned it in.

A few days later, I was called into a meeting with my boss and a member of senior staff. Their phrasing of their initial praise of the report was my first sign that something was wrong – I can always tell statements that are made just to soften the blows coming. I may even have said, after the canned positive comments, “But….” However it happened, they got to the real reason for the meeting: they wanted the problems I had identified excised from the report, because it would be available for our headquarters office.

They talked about how identifying problems could be “misinterpreted” and “could give the wrong impression.” They talked about how other programs would be emphasizing success – and only success – and I needed to do the same, because talking about problems could be used to rank the program below others. They talked about how this report could later be used to question any good performance review on my part.

I was flabbergasted. “But then how will we get the resources for these problems to be addressed? And what if the problems get identified by someone else – won’t HQ wonder why we hadn’t told them earlier? Doesn’t talking openly about these challenges, and how they could be addressed, show that we are on top of this program, that we truly understand it?”

Many “I understand why you think that way” comments followed, more false praise… but assurances that not talking about problems was the way to go, and that we would address these problems privately.

Another time, the entire company was told we had to take a series of online tests for HQ to prove our proficiency regarding Microsoft Office products. I had other priorities, much more important, primarily some dire problems with a web site product we were about to launch, so I put off doing the test. The head of HR visited my office to emphasize the importance of my taking the test at least 48 hours before the stated deadline. Why? Because senior staff wanted to be able to brag that they’d had 100% compliance 48 hours before deadline, to show what great managers they were. Again, I was flabbergasted – management problems were rife at the organization, in dire need of being addressed, but we were going to mask them with a statistic.

This all comes to mind as I watch the Veteran’s Administration fiasco – one that has been going on for YEARS – finally getting mainstream media attention. That culture of hiding problems doesn’t come from hearts prone to evil – it comes from a culture where talking opening about problems is seen as weakness and causes people that report such to be demoted or marginalized. Where meaningless statistics are used to measure management performance, and skew it to look more positive than it might be. Where fear of being seen as weak and being passed over for promotion drives people to hide problems in dire need of being addressed. It’s a culture I abhor. And, therefore, probably why I tend not to last very long in large bureaucracies…

Most managers fear asking their employees: “What are the five biggest challenges this company is facing regarding the quality of our work?” Most managers fear hearing what they have to say. And it’s why situations like what’s happening now regarding the Veterans Administration (VA).

So, what’s the culture like at YOUR organization? Be honest…

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