The Kumbaya Syndrome

Photograph of Larry Johnson, Professional Speaker, Author, and Corporate Culture Expert

By Larry Johnson & Bob Phillips
(This blog was adapted from Larry and Bob’s book, Absolute Honesty: Building A Corporate Culture That Values Straight Talk And Rewards Integrity, (AMACOM Books)
While demonstrating a rapid assent procedure for some VIP civilians off the coast of Hawaii, the nuclear submarine USS Greenville collided with the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel. The small boat sank, killing nine people.

A Navy inquiry found that one of the mistakes that lead to the incident was the failure of the fire control technician (FCT) to warn Greenville captain, Commander Scott Waddle, that the sonar display showed there was a ship in the area. According to later testimony, “The fire control technician should have heard Waddle’s assessment of the situation and questioned it…he should clearly have forcibly told the captain and the officer of the deck.”1

Why didn’t the FCT speak up? According to Navy Captain Conrad Donahue, who has commanded two nuclear submarines during his twenty-seven-year career, “On this particular ship, and on a lot of ships in the Navy, the crew has so much trust in the skipper’s abilities that they don’t question him when they should. The FCT had a ship on the display but he saw the captain looking through the periscope. He probably assumed that if the skipper didn’t see it…it wasn’t there.”2

How often does it happen in an organization that, for one reason or another, no one tells the boss what the boss needs to know and, as a result, the company blunders into a disaster? Perhaps an account manager spots serious flaws in a marketing strategy but, because she’s new in the position, feels timid about speaking up. Maybe someone from the management team has a bad feeling about entering into a risky business deal, but says little to oppose it because everyone else is so gung-ho. Or perhaps the employees of a department voice no complaints about an unqualified, non-performing employee in a key position because they are reluctant to question their manager’s hiring choice. “She’s the boss,” they reason, “she must know what she’s doing.” Even worse, they keep silent because they are afraid of retribution for appearing disloyal – and perhaps with good reason: If she has punished other bearers of bad news, why would anyone volunteer to be the next victim?

We call this reticence the “Kumbaya Syndrome.” It was coined by an employee of a medium sized firm we interviewed who told us that at his company, being seen as a team player is always more important than expressing the truth or voicing disagreement. His actual words were, “No matter how stupid or unethical a decision my team or my manager makes, we are all expected to embrace the stupidity, never argue, and start singing ‘Kumbaya.’”

Of course, no manager wants to be in Commander Waddle or Bill’s position. Here are some steps you can take to raise the odds it doesn’t happen to you:

• Clearly state and publish what you want. If you want people to be candid and forthright, let them know it—and remind them often that such behavior is condoned and desired.
• Open your ears and aggressively listen to people. If you want people to express their opinions, ask for them. Nothing will encourage openness and truth telling like a sincere interest in people’s ideas and opinions.
• Take people seriously even if you think they are crazy. The key to encouraging people to speak up and open up is to listen to all opinions with the same sincere interest.
• Create an infrastructure to support open communication, candid expression of opinions, and constructive confrontation. An old saying claims that “the farmer’s shadow makes the best fertilizer,” meaning plants attended to have an advantage over those neglected. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and the same goes for creating a culture of honesty.
Had Commander Waddle taken these steps with his crew, could the sinking of the Ehime Maru been avoided? Had Bill taken these steps with his project team, would they have chosen a better path? In both cases, we will never know. But it’s fair to say that the odds would have improved. We think that makes them steps in the right direction for any manager looking to hear the unvarnished truth.