Followers With the Most to Lose

Posted by jlubans on January 24, 2012

I collect stories about followers – good and bad – in the business world and on campus. For example, I’m intrigued by the Olympus Corp’s $1.7 billon fraud. My interest is piqued less by the magnitude of the deception and more by the corporation’s firing of the person (the CEO, Michael Woodford – a recent hire) who uncovered the fraud.

And then, there’s the curious case of the celebrated social psychologist Diederik Stapel. He’s the researcher who concluded with certainty that prejudicial thinking (of a certain kind) was not prejudicial. It was on target and he had the evidence! For example, you (a vegan) might believe that eating meat makes the carnivore aggressive. Herr Professor Stapel “proved” it! (And, in the process, confirmed just how insightful you are.) Well, if the proof is in the pudding, Stapel’s dozens of published puddings have been putrid for over a decade. He admits he regularly made up the numbers to fit his desired outcome.

My question is about why Stapel’s peers (his faculty colleagues and other researchers) did not catch the phoni-ness? Instead,

“The (investigating) committee concludes that the six young whistle-blowers (researchers) showed more courage, vigilance, and inquisitiveness than incumbent full professors. ”

Do you find that an astonishing statement? The people who have the most to lose were the ones who caught the scam, who fingered the forger. The “incumbent full professors” who have the least to lose either were clueless or did not want to hinder the agenda, the shared world view. I suspect they also did not want to go up against Stapel and his admirers. The investigating report says “colleagues or students who asked to see raw data were given excuses or even threatened and insulted.” Similarly, Bernard Madoff, we are told, would go on the offensive when confronted with his criminal behavior. If not for the economic downturn, he’d probably still be stepping high, wide and handsome.

So, just like in the King Bidgood story,
the question becomes, how did junior lab members have the courage to question Stapel? (The same question can be asked of the junior researchers who spotted and reported the exalted Marc Hauser’s dubious research.)

When like-minded peers agree with your agenda – they really, really want what you say to be true - they may turn off their stink detectors. Here’s a telling quote from the investigative report: “Among Stapel's colleagues, the description of data as too good to be true "was a heartfelt compliment to his skill and creativity!" (Emphasis added.)

My geese picture suggests that when we surrender our critical thinking to someone’s agenda we become docile; we go along to get along. Sheep-like, we are ineffective followers. Some of us may even go so far as to enable the fraud. And, once we are complicit, we might even punish the people who uncover the fake facts. Academe has several stories about the impaired careers of graduate students who found and reported plagiarism by tenured professors.

Good followers are important to an organization because they do not suspend their disbelief just because they like the messenger or the message. They don’t go along to get along – the people that exposed Stapel did not go along to get along. Effective followers think critically for themselves. An effective follower ascribes to some higher purpose or personal philosophy outside and beyond the immediate work place.

When I talk about types of followers in my Leading from the Middle workshops, I underline why effective followers are different: They tell the truth. (You can see how that might get you in trouble. Effective followers lead proactively, and do not behave like someone in need of direction.)

Leaders empower effective followers. Warren G. Bennis, writing about leadership: “Nothing serves an organization better than leadership that knows what it wants, communicates those intentions accurately, empowers others and knows how to stay on course and when to change.” It comes out in times of “agonizing doubts and paralyzing ambiguities.” It is in times like that when the organization’s effective followers – if the leader has empowered and protected them – avoid suborning values and keep the organization on course.

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Posted by Jerry Campbell on January 24, 2012  •  11:46:54

John, well written, on target, and much appreciated. No stink in your work!

Posted by Evangela Oates on January 24, 2012  •  12:22:39

As a person who has first hand experience with calling a wolf a wolf, I must say that the consequences can be pretty high when dealing with an alliance committed to squashing anyone that disagrees. In my situation, although the consequence was steep, it was worth forgoing my sense of integrity. In this life, we count the cost and make decisions we hope we can live with.

Posted by Evangela Oates on January 24, 2012  •  12:24:01

Correction* NOT forgoing

Posted by jlubans on January 25, 2012  •  05:52:55

Many thanks, Jerry for the encouraging words.
You had me worried for a second there, Evangela! I admire your resolve. JOHN

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