Speaking up is Costly, but so also is not Speaking up

Published on 7th February 2011, ECONOMIC TIMES

In public and corporate life, there are huge costs of not speaking up or of not listening to those who speak up: the Sathyam scam and the BP oil spill disaster are both telling examples.

Published on 7th February 2011, ECONOMIC TIMES

In public and corporate life, there are huge costs of not speaking up or of not listening to those who speak up: the Sathyam scam and the BP oil spill disaster are both telling examples.

Seven years before the Sathyam episode hit the headlines in 2009, an investigation by a public official recorded that company executives had blocked a probe into financial misdemeanours. The Department of Company Affairs had found several violations of the Companies Act, including non-disclosure of profits of Rs 170 crores. However the matter was suppressed and closed.

At BP, a series of operational disasters under Lord Browne’s watch had occurred, including an explosion at the company’s Texas City oil refinery, as well as a large oil spill in Alaska, leading to over 15 deaths and 170 injuries in Texas and an estimated 267,000 gallons of oil leak from the pipelines in Alaska. The Alaska spill
also led to a criminal investigation which led to the discovery that miles of BP pipeline were dangerously corroded. Lord Browne was tough, cerebral and a workaholic who frightened subordinates with his calm, penetrating assessments of their work. It is said that monthly meetings were sessions during which Browne grilled managers on every aspect of their work. “I wish someone had challenged me and been brave enough to say: ‘We need to ask more disagreeable questions”, Browne is said to have quoted, after the Alaska oil spill.

A great dilemma of public and corporate life is about how a person can express disagreement on substantive issues. Expressing disagreement can be threatening to your existing position or career. You are damned if you speak up and you are damned if you don’t. This is not a modern dilemma and it has always existed: examples abound in mythology, society, corporations and politics. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana was obsessive about destroying the Pandavas because he was jealous of them. Duryodhana schemed to invite the Pandavas to a game of dice. Duryodhana’s very upright uncle, Vidura, expressed his strong disagreement through Duryodhana’s weak father, Dhritharashtra. Vidura’s advice was rejected, setting the ground for the Mahabharata war.

In the Ramayana, when Hanuman was captured and brought to Ravana’s court after creating havoc in the beautiful city of Lanka, everyone bayed for Hanuman’s execution. Vibhishana disagreed, but his dilemma was about how to tell the mighty and egoistic Ravana. Vibhishana decided to praise before criticising. He extolled the virtues of Ravana, his penance and austerity, his wisdom before suggesting that for a person of such high stature, it would be demeaning to break the rule of punishing a messenger rather than executing him. Vibhishana was successful and Hanuman was punished rather than killed.

There is an apocryphal story about Maharajapuram Santhanam, a great Carnatic vocalist, and a younger artiste, B Rajam Iyer, who used to attend some of his performances. On one occasion, Santhanam sang a magnificent mohanam raag, which enthralled him and the audience. Later he sought Rajam’s feedback.

Rajam said it was wonderful. After a while, the question was repeated and so also the cryptic answer. While both sat in Santhanam’s car, the question popped up for the third time. Rajam took courage and said, “You touched the pratimadhyamam in mohanam, which is not quite right. This is acceptable only in the Hindustani bhoop but not in the Carnatic mohanam.” Maharajapuram Santhanam, it seems, asked his driver to stop the car and asked Rajam to get down from the car!!

The combative Scott Sipprelle was a whiz-kid Morgan Stanley banker, who was named managing director at age 32. The legendary and charismatic Phil Purcell- led company called Discover Dean Witter took over Morgan Stanley but the integration was not smooth. The stock price halved after the acquisition. Sipprelle became uncomfortable about governance in the company, so he quit. Thereafter he wrote to the imperious Phil Purcell and emerged as the ring leader in a fierce board room battle, which saw the exit of Phil Purcell. He did what he felt was right, and persisted. He was successful because the company was drifting in performance and the board was perceived as being ‘a bunch of former McKinsey buddies.” Scott Sipprelle is currently campaigning to be the representative in the US Congress because he wants to fight “a broken, entrenched system, which is incapable of solving the US’s problems.”

Disagreeing constructively and agreeably is an art to be learnt because it is at the heart of big-scale change. I dream of the day when an influential and credible group of political leaders declares an internal ‘war’ against corruption in public life and uses public office to strike at the roots of corruption. I sometimes fear
that our political leaders have given up, that they do not explicitly recognise corruption as a serious public issue and have got used to the prevalent situation as did the proverbial frog in the hot water.

It is true that corruption exists elsewhere too, but the Indian form of corruption is widespread, all-pervasive and saps the poorest of the poor. It touches every petty aspect of common life. Hence it is cancerous, and has been so for long. During the critical decades after independence, a number of corruption cases were documented and the Nehru government appointed the K Santhanam Committee to report comprehensively on the subject in 1964. Corruption was the most important issue in the elections to Parliament and State Legislatures in 1989 and 1996.

In recent times, the Commonwealth games and Adarsh building issues were hot subjects in the media. There was a recent Congress party meeting at which the party President gave an address. The question arose in the media as to whether or not she had denounced the scams and whether she had talked about the cancer of corruption in her speech to the party members. Several felt that she was worryingly and mysteriously silent on the subject. Others pointed to some line in a particular paragraph to conclude that she had indeed spoken about the C-word without using the word.

Whoever is right, she obviously did not speak about it explicitly as the most serious disease in our national public life. An important leadership task is to generate the confidence that India is not doomed to live with corruption forever. This requires top political leaders to make a forthright, repetitive and affirmative
statement against corruption, and then follow it up with visible public actions to reduce the level of corruption.

The cost of not doing so has been computed by experts to be about 1-1.5 percent of GDP, a sum of $10 billion or Rs 50,000 to 60,000 crores per year, apart from a huge dent in the national character for many generations ahead.