‘Don’t rock the boat’ has to be good advice but not in all circumstances. It depends on what is happening, AND, where the boat is headed. Had a few small icebergs rocked the Titanic, over 1500 lives might have been saved even if that meant the loss of some very interesting movies.
But the advice ‘don’t rock the boat’ also depends on who is giving the advice. Most times it comes from those who are benefiting from the present direction of the boat and from how things are going. The assumption behind the advice is that things are going just fine and let’s not change anything. In today’s world there are many who are panicking and telling us just that but it seems to me that we need to do a lot of rocking of this boat based on where it is headed. I mean in society in general.
Bad Advice and Bad Practice
In the 1950’s and 60’s government officials in the U.S. were given the task of overseeing occupational health and safety in uranium mines. And yet, critical environmental dangers to workers were ignored because certain officials and scientists went along with the general organizational drift of the institutions that paid their salaries. Scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission caved in and kept virtually silent about the effects of radioactivity on workers in mines long after the dangers were known. “We did not want to rock the boat…we had to take the position that we were neutral scientists trying to find out what the facts were, that we were not going to make any public announcements until the results of our scientific study were completed.” One Public Health Service scientist admitted: “By the late 1940’s there was no question in anybody’s mind that radiation in the mines was a real problem… but nobody in the AEC wanted to pay attention.”
Risky Business but Critical Business
Rocking the boat is not easy in organizations for lots of reasons. Even leaving aside the fear of the consequences from rocking the boat, there are enormous pressures on us to conform and, as well, who is to say we are right? We can use this doubt as a cop-out from saying anything or doing any rocking.
Rocking the boat and naming what is happening is not only the right thing to do for society and for everyone but it is also important for the survival and well-being of an Organisation.No company ever failed over night. The signs were there as they were for the Titanic if people were humble and alert. In business institutions, as in all institutions, we build protective walls around us and we work from within these walls, isolated, cut off from what is really going on, believe our own stories and go along with the stories we are being told. Now, of course, very often reality in the form of wake-up crises do stir us out of our complacency and sleep but often this happens too late. Our other potential saviours are the mavericks, the awkward people, those who ask awkward questions,those we accuse of rocking the boat. If you stay awake and alert the boat will not run into trouble or sink and so we need to embrace rather than punish or ignore those who question the status quo and what we are doing, however dear it may be to us as a plan or strategy.
Mavericks and Prophets
There are always a few of these around in every organization and, unpopular as they and their interventions may initially be, they can be our saviours and our heroes. All of the great people in our history have rocked boats and it will be no different in our business world. We need prophets – people who have the insight and courage to question what is happening. We need the ‘fools’ from mythology who were the only ones able to say the truth and to dare to say the king has no clothes. We need mavericks. We need differences and those who differ. Read any of John le Carré’s marvellous novels and you will see the part the boat rockers play and how tough a role that can be. The role is a tough one because in playing it one can lose out or appear to lose out and pay a big price.
In our world of business it is managers who exact that price. Conformity, control, rules, the predictable is what goes and we have all kinds of very subtle and very powerful ways of keeping people in line. Rewards, promotions, opportunities, reviews, group assessments, both formal and informal, are all very powerful tools that will conserve and protect the status quo and us. Very often for ego reasons, out of fear, or because we feel threatened we put these subtle tools into operation and nobody even notices that a voice has been silenced, a prophet lost, a maverick killed, a hero subdued. But in so doing we are damaging the health of the overall Organizations by cutting off vital feedback, feedback on which every Organization depends for its life.
Be Alert and Aware…it pays off
Be alert. Be aware. But, above all, be cautious around expecting and rewarding loyalty. You are probably encouraging compliance and preserving some status quo that might need to be questioned.
Surprises there will be along the way and you will be better off if you are ready for them. Let them rock the boat. Trust the boat and yourself and sometimes changing direction can be a good thing. Ask Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith – no relation!