What Happens When a Workplace Culture Is Built on Lies?

A friend and I were talking the other day about unethical business practices and why companies get away with them, even when the bad behavior is an open secret among staff, community partners, and Board members.

Well, it’s really not that hard to imagine why — those who would be inclined to speak up are fearful of losing their jobs, many others just don’t care, and still others are only too happy to play along, as they benefit from the questionable deeds.

It’s pretty simple, actually.

The high price when culture is built on lies

And yet, as I talked to my friend, I was nonetheless struck by the tangled web of silence that’s necessary for a culture of deceit to be maintained. I’m talking about:

  • The liars and those who pretend not to hear the lies;
  • The cheats and those who protect the cheats;
  • The incompetents and those who excuse the incompetents.

… and on and on.

You know what also struck me? The high price that organizations pay when its culture is built on lies.

Cognitive dissonance and the dysfunctional workplace

Cognitive dissonance” describes the emotional tension that arises when a person be-comes aware of simultaneously holding two conflicting beliefs, or when the individual detects the existence of a marked lack of consistency between attitudes and behaviors.

And dysfunctional workplaces, often led by those who say one thing while doing another, are hotbeds for the conditions that give rise to those uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance causes stress and confusion. In general, there are three ways people manage the discomfort:

  1. Change their behavior;
  2. Change (justify) their views; and,
  3. Add new cognitions (thoughts and viewpoints).

For example, let’s say that a Director in your organization berates a subordinate at a staff meeting. You know it’s wrong to publicly humiliate someone, but you feel powerless to do anything about it, and you fear that speaking up could cause you to get in trouble somehow.

So, to manage your feelings of dissonance, you tell yourself “Even if I did speak up, nothing would change” (justification of silence), or “Maybe the Director shouldn’t have lost his temper, but Employee X is annoying, and the Director’s job is stressful. I’m sure he didn’t mean any real harm” (add new viewpoints).

And that’s how bad behavior thrives in the workplace. To reference a well-known phrase while giving it a perverse twist — it takes a village.

Peace at any cost?

Unethical leaders are masterful at creating fake peace.

Fake peace is the “peace” that occurs when relationships appear cordial and respectful on the surface, but underneath are anything but. Leaders who refuse to hear bad news get fake peace when their subordinates agree with whatever the leader says, while doing whatever the leader wants, no matter how much the subordinate disagrees with the direction.

There’s a price to pay for fake peace.

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Organizations that trade in cheap, fake peace for genuine, respectful dissent are populated with employees who are:

  • Stressed;
  • Apathetic;
  • Angry;
  • Lazy;
  • Uncommitted.

And these are the decent folks, beaten down into submission or perhaps flying under the radar as a means of self-preservation.

The dirty employees — those participating in the bad behavior — are doing God knows what when no one else is looking. For certain, their shifty behavior is putting the organ-ization at risk in ways that can’t always be contained or predicted, even by those who think they’ve got their dirt under control.

It’s scandalous

Last month, five educators at Cayuga Elementary, a public school in my home town of Philadelphia, were arrested and charged with tampering with public records, forgery, conspiracy, and other crimes. The school’s (former) principal, Evelyn Cortez, was said to have “systematically cheated to increase Cayuga’s test scores by changing student answers, providing test answers to students, and improperly reviewing PSSA test questions prior to administering the test.”

Cortez’s antics weren’t exactly covert. Teachers reported that she “would tell students over the loudspeaker to write test answers on scrap paper and not fill out their exam booklets until teachers gave approval. [Cortez] also used the public address system to tell teachers to walk up and down aisles during tests, helping students with the questions.”

And of course, we’ve all been reading these past few weeks about the atrocities committed by certain Veterans Administration employees, who systematically falsified waiting times on patient records. In some cases, patients are alleged to have died while waiting for treatment, so honestly, I’m not sure it gets any worse than this.

In both cases, leadership received cash bonuses for meeting certain outcomes, which is a reminder, I think, to anyone in the “village” who might be tempted to quell his dissonance with noise about unreasonable demands or the impossibility of following certain rules no matter how willing people might be, etc., etc.

When will the madness end?

In the end, bad behavior often comes down to the filthy lucre.

I won’t naively ask when this madness will end, because I know it won’t. My question is — what’s your role in the village? And, what price are you paying to play it?

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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