Fixing the Common Cultures at GM and the VA

Consider two entirely different organizations: one is our largest automotive producer; the other, a massive federal agency. What General Motors and the Veterans Administration have in common now are acts of malfeasance that not only have created outrage, but tainted their reputations and the public’s trust.
The facts are shocking.  At GM and the VA, people ignored their responsibilities to fix known problems resulting in serious harm and fatalities to their customers, the public or veterans. At the VA, some on staff received reprimands and discharges for speaking up. The news has now dubbed the VA as “an organization having a culture of non-responsiveness” (Investigator Issues Sharp Criticism of V.A. Response to Allegations About Care).
In my view, the fixes for both organizations won’t depend on new policies and processes but rather on building cultures based on their stated values which include commitments to safety and respectful treatment. Had GM and the VA each had welcoming environments, policies then in place at both organizations would probably have been sufficient to limit these disasters.  Similarly, while new laws against retaliation are being considered, my guess is, that if passed, they’ll be of marginal value. We already have scores of prohibitions – too many for most lawyers or compliance officers to readily remember.
In daily business, people worry more about what will happen to them at work if they complain than how laws and policies will protect them retroactively if they speak up and suffer job-related losses. For many who ignore complaints or punish those who raise them, their concern over the impact of adjusting their actions or admitting error is more important than the risk of a distant lawsuit.  What is needed are simple, consistent organization-wide behavioral practices for encouraging people to raise issues and convincing them they will be safe and their concerns welcomed when they do.
At GM and the VA, every leader from the C-suite to entry-level jobs must prove that they want to learn about problems. They frequently need to say to their team members face-to-face and sincerely in their own words: “Bring me problems. I will listen. I mean it.”   And, when problems do surface, they must make time, focus their attention on actively listening, let complainants know how their concerns have been addressed, and follow up on open issues.  This is a simple-sounding solution, which should be driven first by activating long-standing organizational values and translating them into daily actions.  This is a key to enduring cultural change, which both organizations have acknowledged they need.
As a high school senior, I sold women’s shoes. We were given simple pointers on how many pairs of shoes to show customers and to suggest accessories as add-ons to shoe purchases. Our manager taught us that that was how we were to treat our customers.  “Secret shoppers” would come to company stores to see if sales persons were offering the right products and being respectful.  We never knew when a “secret shopper” would arrive, but we followed company practices knowing that a bad evaluation resulting from a poor “secret shopper” experience could have serious consequences. To be more direct, we needed our jobs.
Similar behavioral and monitoring practices should be considered at GM and the VA. If such measures can cause high school teenagers to maintain basic performance standards, and they did, surely similar steps can change how automakers and public servants encourage issues to be brought forward and how they respond when they are.

1 Comment
  • Allan Burby says:

    Dear Stephen,
    Thank you for these cultural insights. A prudent step for organisations who are sincere in correcting or providing environments that encourage voices of dissent to be raised (without fear; maybe favour) is to conduct a culture risk assessment. The picture that emerges as a result, clearly points at muffled or muzzled voices.
    It would be interesting to learn of how many organisations have chosen this pathway to discern the as-is status before planning the plan for improvement, going forward.
    With sincere regards,

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