When whistleblowing goes wrong.
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Whistleblowers are courageous.

Yet whistleblowers can also be wrong.

This week Bradley Manning pleaded guilty to leaking confidential material to Wikileaks.  While we can debate the rightness or not of his actions (and many people already have), there is no doubt that he believed in what he did and now faces not only being thrown out of the military but life imprisonment.

From a US Government perspective, nothing that Manning leaked demonstrated fundamental flaws in process or illegal actions.  Manning himself clearly saw his actions as a moral crusade and mentioned in court that he only sought to spark a public debate about the role of the military and foreign policy in general.

Manning acted in a way that not only was contrary to the ethics of the armed forces and was not supported by the US‘s far reaching whistleblowing laws.  Manning acted outside all of his societies boundaries and in doing so, he embarrassed his government, placed other lives at risk and made minor celebrities out of associates.

Bradley Manning was courageous.

But Bradley Manning was wrong.

So what can organisations do with their own Bradley Manning’s?

Let me be clear – I think that ‘Bradley Manning’s’ are a minority and that most whistleblowers believe that are acting in the best interests of their organisation or society.  But how does an organisation ensure that they don’t face the humiliation that the US Government faced? 

And what about those employees who think they’re doing the right thing for their organisation but senior managers disagree e.g. those employees who don’t agree when their firm is undergoing a significant change in strategic direction?

Organisations can deal with these potential situations by encouraging employees to speak out more.  Although it sounds counter-intuitive, by giving employees the chance to speak out more, a couple of things happen.

1) The employee feels listened too and their opinions heard

2) Articulating their views allows the employee to better rationalise their arguments (and can result in the emotive aspects of their views becoming more considered) 

3) Employees have the opportunity to hear what others think and assess the weight of popular opinion

4) Managers have earlier warning of disagreement and can address it before the employee feels they have no choice but to ‘go public’

By creating opportunities and communication channels, building a culture that encourages debate and developing the courage competency in employees, organisations can avoid their own ‘Bradley Manning’ moment.

And at the same time increase innovation, reduce employee turnover, increase productivity and reduce accidents at work.