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  • Writer's pictureRichard Bistrong

"My success led to a ‘dangerous silence,’ then to prison"

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

This article initially appeared on The FCPA Blog, here and is reposted with the permission from the editor and publisher.

During my decade as an international sales VP, I conspired with an agent to pass $15,000 to a Dutch police official in return for tender specifications tailored to my former employer’s product. That program was for every police officer in Holland, and it lasted for years, with contract extensions and re-fill orders.

The Holland “win” was one of many for me, and I enjoyed a string of sales successes until my termination for cause a decade later and eventual imprisonment for violating the FCPA, which included the Dutch procurement.

During those ten years of success, I wasn’t calling anyone in my company for help. I felt enormous pressure to achieve my commercial objectives, and hence, my bonus, but that was financial pressure which I internalized. When I pondered, “What does management really want, compliance or sales?” that was also a debate I kept to myself, and I decided on their behalf that it was sales over compliance. I was wrong. And my great mistake was not reaching out to someone to say, “I’m struggling to succeed here, these are very challenging markets, and I need support and guidance.” The only person that prevented me from making that call was me.

And here’s something else. As my sales increased, even in the headwinds of a two year market decline, no one called and asked me to explain my success. No one said, “You’re doing well but frankly we don’t see how. How about flying home and let’s talk about it?”

That’s because a “dangerous silence,” as Amy Edmondson calls it, had descended over me and those I interacted with in my organization. In her 2018 book The Fearless Organization, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth, Edmondson explains how organizational leaders sometimes genuinely believe that “no news” means things are going well.

When I was beating my sales targets every quarter, it’s understandable why no one wanted to uncover anything that might underlie the results. So there was a “dangerous silence” that marked my relationships with both peers and those above me in the chain of command.

Looking back, I can see that if even mildly challenging questions had come my way, my conduct would have started to unravel long before the Department of Justice called. Even innocent questions around my discount structures, success fees, and marketing allowances would likely have sparked deeper questions around why my decision making was so inconsistent. But there was a culture of silence between me and my former employer, and as Amy Edmondson shares, “a culture of silence is a dangerous culture.”

But dangerous silence isn’t inevitable. In the face of failure or success, the greatest antidote to a culture of silence is simply to be observant and concerned, and brave enough to ask questions.

An innovative solution to breaking down these silent barriers comes via Ken Favaro and Manish Jhunjhunwala. Writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review Winter 2019 edition, they recommend addressing the silence through an interactive and real-time dashboard in which top executives and line managers contribute their expectations to a database, and where “every stakeholder feels heard and better aware of other’s viewpoints.”

The authors demonstrate how “it’s common to have the appearance of alignment on a decision, when just below the surface a slew of different and potentially informative views are bubbling away.” As such, the shared dashboard is an engaging application of technology to promote debate and a way to surface and reconcile a variety of opinions.

Whether it’s an “expectations dashboard” or a casual call to a sales person during good times or bad times, lines of communication and the ability to share struggles and challenges should always be encouraged and embraced. But that doesn’t mean leadership has to wait for the phone to ring or a knock on the door. A manager can easily avoid “dangerous silence,” and spark an environment of learning and caring, by asking the rain maker in a far-flung territory how he or she is coping. And don’t forget to add, “We’d enjoy hearing more about how you’re getting it done and what risks you might be encountering. So how about coming home soon to tell us about it.”

P.S. To read my book review on The Fearless Organization, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth, by Amy Edmondson, please click 👉👉🏽👉🏼 here.


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