Our Organizations Need Jesters. And They Need Them Now.

It’s unlikely that the name Sherron Watkins means anything to you.

Or Cynthia Cooper.

Or Coleen Rowley.

But each woman personifies one of the most critical – and typically least celebrated – roles in corporations today.

Time Magazine Whistleblowers.jpg

They’re whistleblowers and their actions – calling out executives at Enron, WorldCom and the FBI respectively – landed them on the coveted “Time Magazine’s Person of the Year” in 2002.

Of course, Whistleblowers are often incredibly polarizing characters.

Eric Snowden. Traitor or Patriot?

Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo tweet certainly shook many male leaders to their very core and ignited a (long overdue) conversation that is continuing to topple some of the most powerful business leaders on the planet. But she is seen as a hero by legions of women globally.

But, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they provided an incredible service to the organizations, employees and consumers for the actions they took.

They exposed the truth.

The hard, brutal, uncomfortable, unvarnished truth of organizations and the way – far from the polished PR releases and well-packaged corporate statements – those organizations and institutions truly operate.

That’s an immeasurably important service.

Sadly the truth is taking a beating today. Fake News is the common retort from POTUS for unpalatable news reports. Social media algorithms create self-perpetuating filter bubbles where your version of the “truth” is always readily reinforced and if you believe the Earth is flat, we didn’t land on the moon and vaccinations cause autism, you’ll find others enthusiastically drawn to your truth.

(Sidebar but I shudder to think about Reverend Jim Jones and Charles Manson unleashed on Twitter and Facebook)

The reality, as I discussed in an earlier post, is that organizations need to build an environment where the truth flourishes and is actively sought out.

Today’s organizations really do need truth tellers.

 Or better yet, they need court jesters.

Court jesters were a popular artefact of medieval times who, through comedy and satire, were able to broach topics that would ordinarily anger those in power. And in those days you were more likely to face a brutal flogging or death, rather than a pink slip, if you got on the wrong side of leadership.

Again they served an important role. They spoke truth to power. They exposed the folly or stupidity of an idea that a mere mortal couldn’t possibly expose.

Look around your organization.

Are there projects doomed to fail but you still go to the daily Stand Up Status meeting that keep them alive? 

Are there colleagues engaging in behaviour that reduces collaboration and innovation yet no-one calls them on it? 

Are there policies that are truly asinine, that stifle creativity (timesheets anyone?) and are a source of constant frustration but they continue because “that’s just the way we do things around here”

Australian Steve Simpson and South African Stef Du Plessis coined a glorious phrase – Unwritten Ground Rules – that highlight the folly of having behaviours in your culture that people have given up questioning. From the banal – why do our meetings never start on time – to the poisonous – why do we tolerate racist jokes in our department – these are the things that define a culture…and can destroy an organization.

It would be naïve (and possibly dangerous) for me to suggest that creating organizations of absolute truth would be nirvana. Sometimes there are social norms that require a few white lies and half-truths – yes, all new born babies do look beautiful.

However, if we’re not prepared to empower our people to ask “Why” and “Why Not” how are we ever going to grow in new directions?

If someone hasn’t the gumption to say “that sounds silly/dangerous/illegal” to questionable behaviour, how are we going to create workplaces where great thinking can happen efficiently and effectively?

And, perhaps if we had a lot more court jesters in our organizations, we might not ever need to have Whistleblowers.

Wouldn’t that be fun?