In addition to challenging policies, we may have to challenge behavior that violates our values and undermines the common purpose. Corruption of values doesn’t occur all at once. Usually, a series of small departures from an individual’s values leads to larger departures. The nonprofit director’s use of an organization’s funds for personal items begins with petty expenditures and ends in grand larceny. If we fail to challenge small violations of values it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid the “slippery slope” of accelerating moral decline. When abuse of power becomes a way of life our chances of correcting this, or even surviving an attempt to correct it, greatly diminish.
When we have a very positive image of a leader, we may be too quick to rationalize behavior that doesn’t conform to that image. If a leader proves strategically brilliant, we can get so enamored of this brilliance that we overlook small breeches of values. If we experience discomfort with a leader’s actions, we must allow ourselves to experience it, not push the feelings away because they don’t conform to our images.
It is essential to challenge abuse of power early:
The first time the courageous follower encounters behavior antipathetic to the organization’s values is the most important time to challenge the behavior, before it becomes a habit.
The challenge must be skillful and completely firm; an irresolute challenge will appear to sanction the behavior.
If the follower firmly and appropriately challenges the behavior, her courage and integrity will generate respect and the leader will be prone to listen to her in the future.
If the follower waits too long to challenge the leader’s behavior, both the behavior and justification for it will harden and the follower may be viewed as a nuisance or threat.
When abuse is already entrenched, each new person who enters the leader-follower relationship has an opportunity to change the entrenched condition or be changed by it. The task is harder when abuse is entrenched, in some cases it may be dangerous, but a courageous follower can make a difference if she conveys concern and support in her challenge:
“As the new person here, I’ve been able to see things from an outsider’s perspective. I think it’s important you understand how things look from that perspective.”
“I’ve observed practices that seem to have become accepted but will cause you trouble if not corrected.”
“You brought me in to deal with problems you were having with the organization. In addressing them I’ve discovered deeper issues that may make you uncomfortable but are important for you to hear.”
The road to integrity is paved with speaking up about and acting on small corruptions of principles as we encounter them; left unchecked, these moral potholes can become sinkholes that swallow the common purpose.