Truth tellers
- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - June 25, 2018 - 12:00am

Condoleezza Rice calls them “truth-tellers” in her latest book, Political Risk, which was co-written with academic Amy Zegart. CEOs of organizations from governments to private enterprises need “truth-tellers.” That is because they naturally attract enough ass lickers who flatter them and insulate them from potential dangers and bad news.

In their book Rice and Zegart cited findings of a 2009 survey by Cornell University that “found 53 percent of respondents admitted they never spoke up about an idea or problem. When asked why, many said they thought it would be a waste of time or could hurt their careers.”

In contrast the book cited a case involving an ordinary service man on board an aircraft carrier where there is zero tolerance for mistakes or avoidable failures.

The seaman lost a tool during flight operations. The seaman was concerned the tool could be sucked into a jet engine and cause engine failure. Because looking for it would cause so much disruption, the seaman could have kept quiet, but he didn’t. After all, the Navy repeatedly warns carrier crews about the dangers of “foreign object debris.”

“So when the seaman could not find his tool, he told the air boss. It was a big deal. About a dozen planes in the air had to be diverted to airfields on land. The flight deck had to be shut down. Hundreds of people had to stop what they were doing to ‘walk the deck,’ searching inch by inch until they found the missing tool.

“The next day, a formal ceremony was held. Instead of being punished, the seaman got an award. That’s what we call rewarding courageous acts. It is one thing to tell the crew they should always report foreign object debris. It’s another to show that you mean it.”

“Truth-tellers” are difficult to come by in any organization, public or private. Most people, even some of the higher level executives, are afraid to lose their jobs or damage their careers. In our local context, most members of senior management or the Cabinet don’t want to rock the boat. They want to be seen as “batang klub.”

But truth-tellers are essential. Setting up “processes that encourage truth telling and dissent within the organization can reduce blind spots... it is important to create strong channels for dissenting views, new information, difficult feedback, and unconventional thinking to get to the top.

“Those who use these channels also need to be rewarded: just because you build it does not mean they will come. The dark side of shared understanding is developing a siege mentality where everyone believes the same things, uses the same lenses, and dismisses alternative perspectives... It’s called groupthink.”

That’s the problem with both PNoy and PDutz. In a crunch, they circle the wagons. Based on my private conversations with friends in the highest rungs of government from different administrations, the scarcity of “truth-tellers” is at the root of our government’s inability to get things right. Even Mar Roxas was afraid to stand up to P-Noy.

And today, if President Duterte says Boracay should be subject to land reform, even if there is neither agricultural land nor tenants there, no one is brave enough to tell him he is wrong. Cabinet members just take it all in as they listen to the long perorations of PNoy or PDutz delivering the last word from Mount Olympus.

There are few exceptions I am aware of at the moment and there could be others. Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez did not blindly implement the announced decision of PDutz to accept P3 billion as tax settlement of Mighty Corporation. Sec Sonny stood his ground and eventually got P40 billion. But Sec Sonny and PDutz go way back. No one else has the respect the President has for Sec Sonny.

One other example I can recall is Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. He has often politely corrected public statements of PDutz on matters that included Benham Rise and the value of American military assistance. I think Sec Lorenzana buckled on that navy procurement case, but give him slack to choose his battles.

In managing their department, I am sure some Cabinet members can learn to be less autocratic and be more appreciative of contrary opinions from undersecretaries, specially the career ones.

The DFA is a good example, specially because it has a highly trained corps of diplomats being led by a publicity-hungry politician with absolutely no exposure to foreign relations. This top level isolation was why they had that diplomatic crisis with Kuwait and why up to now, they can’t seem to have a solution to the long festering passport crisis.

In DOTr, I have heard stories of how Art Tugade had been rather autocratic, even if he has little experience in the technical aspects of his job. What he wants, he gets, thinking perhaps he is a Duterte clone. No wonder he lost at least six undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in the short span of two years and is unable to deliver on promises.

“Truth-tellers” are a must in any organization that hopes to manage political and other risks well. Egocentric CEOs take extreme risks in encouraging sycophants to pander to them and keep “truth-tellers” at bay.

Centennial Lady

Last week, I attended an extraordinary birthday party — to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of Pilar Yao, the mother of industrialist steel maker Benjamin Yao. She seems ready for at least 20 years more.

Just as amazing, they had two other guests also celebrating their 100th and 103rd birthdays... all women. It elicited a question from someone in my table, why all of them are women.

Mrs Yao, originally from Lukban, Quezon, got married at 16, had eight children, lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong and still goes to Cubao Farmers market.

I guess you can’t beat genes for long life. But lifestyle and outlook count a lot too.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

POLITICAL RISK RICE AND ZEGART
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