Working Wounded Blog: Cindy Sheehan's Lessons for the Workplace

News Flash: Cindy Sheehan, mother of Casey Sheehan who was killed in Iraq, continues to wait to meet with President Bush outside his Texas ranch.

This is not a diatribe against President Bush or the war in Iraq. It is mostly a column about how most of us in business tend to not listen to the very people we could learn the most from. So the premise is simple -- we all have our Cindy Sheehans. And how we handle our Sheehans has a big impact on how effective we'll be at work.

Army Spc. Casey Sheehan was a mechanic who was one of eight soldiers killed in Baghdad on April 4, 2004. His mom met with President Bush shortly after her son's death -- a time when, looking back, she describes herself as being still in shock.

When Bush went to Crawford, Sheehan camped out on the road to his ranch. Her goal was simple: "He said my son died in a noble cause, and I want to ask him what that noble cause is." Even though prominent Republicans, like Sen. George Allen of Virginia, have suggested that the president should meet with her, Bush continues to drive past her vigil.

With two kids, it's hard for me to imagine the loss that Cindy Sheehan is trying to come to terms with. Or the almost 1,900 other troops, and untold number of Iraqis, who have died. My question is that if the president doesn't have time to answer one question from a mother who lost her son, who is more deserving of five minutes of his time?

The problem is that Bush is not alone. Most of us in business tend to look for ways to disregard the messenger when it comes to bad news at work. There were the whistle-blowers within Enron and many of the other companies that now have their CEOs doing perp walks. But these canaries in the coal mines were disregarded in the belief that there would never be any consequence for lying about what was really going on.

And then there is each of us, who in our own way, limits our information to what conforms to our world view. What did you do the last time that someone offered dissenting data in a meeting? Did you give them a chance to explain their rationale for what was happening or did you let them get shouted down and intimidated by the rest of the group? Have you ever heard something negative on the grapevine about you? Did you try to understand it or did you try to find out who was saying it in order to punish them? Finally, have you called someone arrogant because they said something that made you uncomfortable, rather than really listening to what they had to say?

Killing the messenger with bad news unfortunately has become the modus operandi of how we do business today. And the net result is that as our own personal positions may get a temporary boost, our organizations get weaker. Much weaker.

The next time someone has the courage to swim upstream and offer dissent, give them a full hearing. Encourage people to shoot holes in the ideas that you hold the most dear. Listen to the grapevine, or even better, create an environment where people don't have to go behind your back to say what they really feel. Don't limit strategic conversations to just people who have corner offices -- get people on the front lines, customers and vendors, involved. In short, adopt the philosophy that bad news is good, especially when you get it early and often.

If there is one thing that is more American than apple pie, it's dissent. So go ahead, Mr. President, and show us that you can hear someone who disagrees with you. Well beyond Cindy Sheehan, that small act has the potential to teach business a lesson that is essential to its very survival.

Quote of the week:
"The employer generally gets the employee he deserves." -- Sir Walter Gilbey

Weekly book excerpt:
From "Funky Business" by Ridderstrale and Nordstrom (FT, 2000)

"Learning does not happen automatically, it must be managed. And the speed of a company will not be determined not by the fastest and smartest people, but by the slowest and least skilled. Enabling learning is one of the key tasks for any leader. Leaders must ensure the continuous transfer of knowledge across organizational boundaries. The individual parts must be able to reflect the whole. In effect, Funky Inc. must work in a similar way to the human brain."

Working Wounded Mailbag:

"I once had a job steam cleaning Dumpsters. It was even worse than you imagine. I had to climb inside of these dirty Dumpsters with nothing but me and my steam gun. This was before the days of protective clothing. As an aside, many of your readers have no doubt seen corner reflectors hung on sailboats, designed to reflect radar energy back to the source so that the boat will be easily seen. It turns out that directing steam into the interior corners of a Dumpster works pretty much the same way. Everything that was once stuck in the corner of the Dumpster gets blasted out and comes directly back -- to you -- covering you from head to toe in an instant. A sort of putrid tsunami. In the long run, the experience has been a benefit. Whenever I have a challenging day in the office, I just think back to that job, and things no longer look so grim."

Blog Ballot Results

Here are the results from a recent Working Wounded Blog/ABCNEWS.com online ballot:
What is your main source for information about how to survive the workplace?

       The Apprentice, 4.8 percent
       Corporate training programs, 7.3 percent
       Reading business publications, 21.9 percent
       My intuition, 65.8 percent

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, an internationally syndicated columnist, popular speaker and a recent addition to the community of bloggers. He welcomes your comments at bob@workingwounded.com.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

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