Three years ago, I wrote about personal attacks. I described the experiences that leaders have when confronted by people who seek to destroy those leaders for personal gain. I’ve watched that phenomenon over the years and am appalled and saddened at how pervasive it is. Organizations lose many wonderful leaders because those people tire of the relentless struggle it takes to lead while fending off the attacks.
As I explained in that essay three years ago, these attacks are ruthless efforts to damage someone in a zero-sum game that intends to diminish the attacked and elevate the attacker. The behavior is sickening to watch, yet it’s so common that I continue to talk with leaders regularly who experience these attacks. These ongoing conversations have me thinking: How are these attacks so successful? What I’ve come to realize is that for attackers to be successful, others have to stay silent. Within that silence, people become partners with evil because their silence allows attackers to continue.
This isn’t a Republican, Democrat, liberal, or conservative issue. It’s no different within any organization in business, education, health care, local government – any place where personal attack becomes normative and is allowed to fester unchallenged by silence. You probably don’t have to work too long in a career to see it. In some organizations, it’s become the common model for showing any dissent to the organization’s direction. There’s no obligation to work out solutions or to talk openly and honestly about concerns. The attack becomes a substitute for solutions, and attackers continue to attack because no one will say anything.
I’m always taken aback when I ask group members to explain their silence in these circumstances. They typically acknowledge that what they see happening is wrong. “I’ve seen [the attacker] do that before,” they’ll explain in a private discussion. Or “It’s really awful what’s happening,” they’ll quietly whisper. Or they’ll express remorse at seeing the outcome of losing a leader because, “I really liked her/him.” They seem to believe that because they’re not the one participating in the attack, they’re absolved of complicity. But, in fact, they’re silent partners with the attacker. They’re partners because their silence emboldens the attacker and, thus, aids in the attack. It’s what Elie Wiesel warned about when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1986: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Silence affects more than the leader, though. It fosters unhealthy organizations that live in cycles of dysfunction. I’ve seen that there’s a direct correlation between silence and the rise of organizational pathologies like distrust and dishonesty. People who stay silent as they see someone unfairly attacked also stay silent when they see other kinds of wrongdoing. The silence fosters a culture of looking the other way about everything, no matter how egregious. Enron, the financial collapse of 2008, the Wells Fargo Bank counterfeit accounts disaster – they all began with complicit silence that eventually led to an escalating cascade of unethical acts.
The opposite of silence is action. Action is really the only antidote to the pathology of attacks. It’s really a simple formula: The passivity of silence allows attack; being an active problem solver prevents them. I understand that some people in an organization are marginalized and feel powerless to speak. I also understand that, in some organizations, the ones who feel the power to attack can (and often do) pivot their attack to others. Fear of retribution can come from a fear of colleagues’ actions as much as it can come from a fear of what leaders can do. But here’s the reality: If left to fester and succeed, attackers create a climate of fear and reprisal that permeates all parts of an organization. I’ve seen that climate take hold of organizations and become the common culture that gets passed to succeeding generations of the organization – and last for decades.
I’ve taken a different approach. If I’m part of any group, I take a responsibility to question the group’s behavior. When I see attacks happening, I go to the attacker privately and ask what internal remedies they’ve attempted. Oftentimes in my experiences, they can’t answer that question because attackers aren’t seeking remedies and have tried none. Their point is to destroy, not repair or build. I then ask them, again privately, if they are willing to follow potential remedies. If they’re not willing to do that, my reaction is to publicly call out attacking behavior – note that I didn’t say the attacker, but rather the behavior – and publicly ask people in the group if the behavior is acceptable to them. Having open, frank, and inclusive discussions that address the behavior is, I’ve learned, important.
My starting question is to the group is typically, “I keep hearing personal attacks continue, and I don’t see where these attacks are helping us do what we’re here to do. Is this behavior an example of who we want to be?” I am careful not to further the culture of attack by calling out the person or people, but I do feel responsible to bring light to the attacking behavior. That conversation can allow for the development of new norms where attacking is unacceptable. However, if the group shows by its actions at that point that it wants to stay silent and allow bullying attackers to continue, I reconsider my affiliation with that group. I choose not to affiliate with a group that is willing to allow personal attacks through its silence because, ultimately, that would also be unhealthy for me.