08/12/2013 08:48 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

When Bad Things Happen at Good Organizations

I used to think that if you simply empower people, give them the tools and make sure that they know what is expected of them, they'll rise to your expectations.

I recently found out just how wrong I was.

I came across a situation -- the details don't matter -- where well-meaning professionals who were faced with a situation they knew was a violation of organizational policies but yet were completely paralyzed into inaction. When I asked the people involved separately I found a universal feeling that "something" had to be done -- and yet each of these professionals was completely flummoxed as to what their individual role should be. Each expressed a sincere desire to fix the situation, yet for months not one had taken the critical step of putting their honest good intentions into action. Perhaps because I was removed from the situation, I was able to look at it dispassionately, reported the incident that had taken place and requested additional training. My actions, I am pleased to say, were met with positive reactions by the individuals and the organization.

But why had a group of well-meaning honorable people found themselves in a situation where they had been unable to act?

My first thought was based on my admittedly superficial understanding of the
"fight-flight-freeze" response (sometimes summarized as fight or flight), which describes these three behaviors as a biological response to stressful and/or threatening situations. People witnessing horrific events describe "being rooted to the spot" and unable to move. (And in the case of things like flying debris, that can be the best way to ensure survival.) The trick is to understand that staying frozen after the immediate threat is past is unhealthy and serves no purpose. Of course, understanding it and learning how to take action are two different things.

If we are serious about corporate responsibility, we need to better understand why good people sometimes respond to things that threaten them (or the status quo) with complete inaction, and what leaders can to do (and stop doing) if they truly want and need employees to respond by standing up and saying something rather than letting things go on.
For the answer I turned to my friend and fellow Huffington Post contributor Douglas LaBier, who is a well-respected and highly sought-after business psychologist.

The first thing Dr. LaBier pointed at that the situation is "larger than the fight/flight/freeze response" and the inaction is "likely triggered by psycho-social dynamics within the organization, such as the management and leadership culture and practices."

Building a culture that not only encourages employee empowerment but makes it clear and comfortable to challenge the status quo, Dr. LaBier points to "the importance of positive, supportive leadership that encourages transparency, openness, putting forth ideas and points of view" and shares his view what when "management encourages and therefore strengthens employees' willingness to 'grow' and express their capacities -- creatively, emotionally, relationally -- which expands them beyond the self-limitations they may have defined themselves as having."

In other words, people who are empowered, encouraged and ultimately rewarded for bold action in the workplace in general are more likely to step up when things need to be said and done. He adds, "In situations such as you've raised, they are more likely to feel clear, strong and comfortable in directly dealing with it, without fear or hesitation or insecurity."

He also points out the role that fear can play, in some situations. Some have a vested interest in maintaining and not losing something they want to hold onto (e.g. power, position, etc.) if they speak out and challenge/confront what was done. In addition, the emphasis on being a 'good team player' may prevent people from challenging things they see.

Despite all these factors and possibilities, if we are truly committed to building responsibility into a company, we must first look at the corporate culture to make sure that employees are working in a healthy culture that empowers them not only with the tools and proper words, but with the psychologically supportive atmosphere and sense of accountability to and for each other as well as for their own actions, such as this example where employees looking out for one another at Lafarge's Medford Quarry is credited for a remarkable 36 years without a single lost time accident.*

After all, in the corporate jungle survival of the fittest depends on creating psychological as well as physically (or fiscally) healthy workplaces.

*In the interest of transparency, I worked at Lafarge from 1995 - 2003 and am pleased to see how the emphasis on safety continues and has grown since my tenure.