Could Your Company Be the Next Volkswagen? Create a Business Environment Where Leaders and Employees Have Permission to Speak

by Kelly Vandever

While the details of the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal are still pouring out, the results are clear.  Volkswagen has lost millions… in stock price, in dollars to fix the emissions cheat, and in the trust of loyal fans who believed the automaker cared about more than making a buck.

From what we’re hearing so far, you just have to believe that dozens of people along the way had to have made a conscious decision to cheat the emissions systems in the US.  I’m sure it didn’t sound as nefarious as “cheating” when the decisions were being made.  I imagine some involved rationalized their actions to make it “OK.”  But worse, I’m betting there were others who knew it was wrong, but because of fear or expectation of the company culture didn’t question the decision and speak up.  Which leads to the question…

Could Something Like the Emission Cheat Happen in Your Organization?

Before getting too indignant about those lousy Volkswagen leaders and their teams, have you asked yourself if this could happen in your organization?

Do you and your leadership team tend to rationalize your decisions when you know deep down what you’re talking about is just plain wrong?

Do your people feel comfortable saying to your face that you’re wrong?  That the decision you’re making just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do?

When was the last time you got push back from those subordinate to you about the direction of the organization or a decision about an important change?

If you can’t remember hearing objections, why?  Was it because all the information was out on the table through open dialog?

Or do people just not care?  Do they feel their opinions won’t matter?  Do they fear for their jobs if they disagree with the company line?  Will they be called malcontents and told to “be more of a team player”?

Disagreement  Matters

Organizations without dissent are at risk of falling into the same category as Volkswagen.

Make sure your workforce and your leaders are willing to step up a disagree.

Use tools like Gallup’s 12 questions outlined in the book First, Break All the Rules or 360 degree evaluation to take the temperature of your organization.

Sit back at your next staff meeting and watch the body language of the room.  Are you surrounded by “yes men” they waiting for you to talk?  Or are people open about throwing their ideas on the table?

Ask the informal leaders of your organization what they think and what they hear.

If you aren’t getting the kind of answers that indicate your leaders and your staff have permission to speak, start making some serious move today to open up your environment.

Creating an Open Environment

Start with a conversation.

Be clear on your mission and the values that guide you in achieving your mission.

Live up to what you say is important.

Set the example.

Tell stories that support your mission and values.

Reward people who support the mission and values.

Don’t rationalize.  Ask yourself, “Would I be able to look an employee or a customer in the eye and explain myself?”

Do the Work

Don’t fool yourself into thinking a Volkswagen-like scandal could never happen to you.

Honestly assess your organization then do the work to get and keep an open environment where everyone has permission to speak.



Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world.   Connect with Kelly and discover how being professionally human can bring you better business results. 

Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.

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Jim Brewer
5 years ago

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5 years ago

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