Women blow whistle on conflict and cause growth

GREGORY HEISLER FOR TIME THE WHISTLE-BLOWERS: Cynthia Cooper, WorldCom; (left to right), Coleen Rowley, the FBI; and Sherron Watkins, Enron

Sally’s World, January 10, 2003
Did you see that TIME Magazine chose three women as their persons of the year? Sharing the honor are Cynthia Cooper of Worldcom, Coleen Rowley of the FBI and Sherron Watkins of Enron.

On its cover TIME dubbed them “The Whisltleblowers.” In the photo, the three women look at the camera straight on, stern-faced, arms crossed, silhouettes dramatically lit, their hair framing their faces like haloes. They look annoyed, a bit like moms who’ve caught their 10-year olds throwing firecrackers at each other in the basement.

The photo portrait of this triumvirate doesn’t exactly fit the formula of what we think of as “out of the box” thinkers, but that is precisely what they are. To think out of the box is to be truly radical. It’s not simply to zig when you see a sign that says “zag,” but to blaze with a light that signals a whole new direction. It’s a risk and it’s a signal of what’s to come.

And in stepping out of the box, what did these three expose? Conflict, pure and simple. The conflict between what their organizations said they were doing and what they were REALLY doing.

I understand why TIME called them whistleblowers, but the term can be seen as, well, negative. It brings to mind other words like snitch and disgruntled. None of these women went to the press. The press went to them when their internal memos were leaked. None of them had an ax to grind. They all loved their jobs and believed in their organizations. As TIME says in its report, they are more like “the truest of the true believers.”

If not whistleblowers, then what to call them? These three “Persons of the Year” wriggled just as uncomfortably with being called heroes or role models.
Here’s a proposal: Let’s call them a harbinger.

And here’s why. Like the first robins of spring, our “Persons of the Year” are a signal of new growth to come in the cultures of our organizations.

If you read the TIME reports about what they did and why they did it, you will see that they were motivated by a desire to help their organizations to succeed and grow.
If this succeed and grow motivation sounds like a “chick” thing to you, well it has for a long time considered to be so. But since these women are a harbinger, it won’t be a “chick” thing for long.

The fact that they stood up could be a sign of an opening in our business organizations of benefit to all of us – men and women and future generations of employees. If we look beyond the headlines and read the subtext, this story is about how people – men and women alike – are driven to connect with each other in mutually enhancing relationships – inside and outside of organization.

It’s an opening that’s been a long time coming and was effectively advanced by Jean Baker Miller in her book, Toward a New Psychology of Women. Penned in 1976 at a time of dramatic change for women, this work is, in my layperson’s opinion, a work of remarkable clarity and brilliance.

Baker-Miller recognized that, socially, women through their activities carry human essentials that are not valued. Of these, the most important woman’s life activity is participating in growth fostering relationships – the process of acting in relationship with another person so that person can develop and grow.

This is the everyday stuff of rising children, and it is often described as nurturing or mothering. But these are gender-based words that negate the fact that all people – men and women alike -want to participate in growth-fostering relationships. Baker-Miller and her colleagues call this mutual psychological development and they say that it is essential to all of life and functioning.

So where do our whistleblowers/harbingers fit into this?

These three were so driven to foster growth within their organizations that they risked the conflict to make the growth happen.

Because women are usually subordinates, they do not actively engage in conflict with their dominants – their bosses. When the conflict is forced underground, it becomes covert, distorted and saturated with “destructive force.” But conflict doesn’t have to be that way, and by it’s nature it is not.

Conflict is actually good for us. Entered into with integrity, respect, confidence and hope, conflict is the source of all growth. “The infant would never grow if it interacted with a mirror image of itself,” Baker-Miller writes. “Growth requires engagement with difference and with people embodying the difference.”

28 years ago in her book, Baker-Miller called on women to reclaim conflict.

That is exactly what the ladies of the harbinger have done.

Their actions show that we have learned at least that much – that some conflict is necessary if we are to grow. Twenty years ago, these three would have had neither the position nor the means to even ponder a conflict. The fact that they stepped forward is a very good sign.

It’s not the end of the road but a beginning. For a long time, many of us have questioned the values of our institutions. We have looked for evolution to a more responsive organization that is more tolerant of authenticity. There’s been a lot of dissatisfaction but few guideposts to the next destination. Many of us have wondered how we have gotten into this mess and how we will get out of it.

“One adopts measures in keeping with his past training–and the very soundness of this training may lead him to adopt the wrong measures. People may be unfitted by being fit in an unfit fitness,” said the noted theorist of rhetoric, Kenneth Burke, who Baker-Miller quotes in her book.

That’s good for a giggle and it’s also true. Our three harbingers have pushed back against the “unfit fitness.”

With a little luck, they have cleared a path and planted a tiny seed for a new type of organization, one that is geared toward engendering authenticity and relationships of mutual growth.

And one that will allow us to have a good, clean fight when we need to.