When the Silence is Deafening: Post-UNSW & EDB Lessons.
Posted by intellisg on May 31, 2007
DO you hear anything? It’s so quiet these days you could even hear the termites feasting on your bed post. Or even hear a pin drop two blocks away. You’re probably thinking, there he goes again being all obscure and opaque again – he can’t possibly be serious this time can he? Except perhaps to tell us all he’s being bitten by a rabid werewolf and slowly morphing into a canine with ultra sensitive hearing. Can he?
Well the reason why I mentioned it’s so silent these days; since UNSW decided to pack up and scoot off like a traveling circus hardly a whimper has emerged from their partners EDB. Neither has the party political machine responded to the fiasco or for that matter anyone else in the real world – that simply bothers me.
Nothing substantive at least, except perhaps Miss Chua’s write up recently in the ST which did quite a decent job of stirring up the tea cup but regrettably it fell short of starting the perfect storm. (good try old girl, pat on a head and well deserved doggie nimble –fetch!)
Let me just tell you all what happened yesterday morning while I was sitting on the great white throne in the toilet as I usually do reading our beloved rag. I came across a “clarification” by Mr Ko Kheng Hwa managing director of EDB in the Forum section May, 30, 2007, entitled, “EDB clarifies involvement with UNSW Asia.” My first reaction can only be described as the sound of music which finally punctuated the silence. No I am not referring to the remnants of the battle of my gut with a dodgy prata. Rather it was my reaction to Mr Ko’s timely clarification. Unfortunately half way through the yarn my initial sense of relief was rapidly replaced by disenchantment.
My main gripe is: Mr Ko’s “clarification” raises more questions than it answers. Yeap folks, I am all obscure again and the silence is deepening even as I tap on my key board; what’s really happening here? Why is it so difficult for these bureaucrats to just answer a simple question? All I really want to know as a regular 6% GST tax payer is; what really went wrong? Aren’t these legitimate questions that deserve an answer?
(1) Why silence and less-is-more is such an appealing damage control strategy.
One possible reason why government bodies like EDB continue to maintain their stoicism in the face of a debacle like UNSW is because silence or adopting a less-is-more strategy serves as a useful statement. By this, I mean leaders who are too quick to provide a public explanation for a debacle are especially vulnerable. They are highly visible and judging from my regular diet of reality shows like “survivor,” that just means it pays to keep a low profile when the shit hits the fan – if they don’t want to be snuffed out. After all, they are expected to appear strong, competent and in control. And whenever they make public statements, their individual and institutional reputations are a stake – real or imagined – though I suspect it has more to do with the latter most of the time.
What most people don’t realize is there is science to all this; I am serious. I spent the whole morning just scribbling out the rough outline on a napkin using game theory and some basic math to make sense of it all. Let me just share with you some of my findings: the general principle that I have derived at goes something like this:
leaders will publicly offer an explanation if and when they calculate the cost of doing so to be lower than the cost of not doing so. More precisely, leader will be more willing to provide a comprehensive account for a debacle if and when they calculate that the cost of staying silent threatens a current and future relationship between them and one or more key partners, stakeholders, or the public.
This leads us to consider should the EDB have come up with a comprehensive clarification following the UNSW fiasco? What’s the long term implications of failing to do so?
(2) Silence is not golden – it just adds to the noise and confuses everyone.
The whole idea managing a fall out by carefully controlling the release of information isn’t new, it’s being around since antiquity, first mentioned by Nicholas tavuchis in the Mea Culpa.
The Soviet Union used to be a par excellence exponent in this sort of damage control and it was best exemplified during the Chernobyl explosion in the mid 80’s when Pravda issued out a press statement 36 hours after the incident describing it as:
“A minor event which was well within control as the soviet nation has a unparallel technological and human resources to handle such a crisis.”
Of course today we all know today. The only thing “unparalleled” about it was the confusion and the ineptitude of the leaders as they ran around like headless chickens when they were confronted with the mother and father of the sum of all our fears. When the neighboring countries of the present defunct USSR started observing that their cattle were either glowing in the dark like light bulbs or were giving birth to two headed calf’s, the truth unraveled like the onion story – the more one peels – the more one weeps – only to end up with nothing.
My point is this; an information black out in any guise and it doesn’t really matter whether it is a financial debacle or taking out your dad’s car when you’re not supposed too may work in the short term by covering the full extent of what one should or shouldn’t have done – but in the long run, its corrosive to trust and good will and only serves to exacerbate the condition it was meant to relieve.
It makes strategic sense to provide a clear and unambiguous account whenever the shit hits the fan! Now if you think, I am just talking about fuzzy wuzzy invisibles like flower power no hello Kitty stuff here like, trust – confidence – and good will. Think again!
Consider the case of Exxon (which incidentally had no choice but to change their name to Exxon-Mobil to regain consumer trust), which was notoriously inept in providing an explanation for the disastrous oil spill along the coast of Alaska in 1989. What was the initial response to the crisis? Silence cum less-is-more (does it sound familiar?). The CEO Lawrence Rawl whose picture incidentally I still pin to my dart board to commemorate the murder of all the penguins and polar bears waited 6 days to speak to the press. By then all the damage had been done. By the time Exxon wised up, their statements were considered too weak, ineffectual and a reflection of their ineptitude.
Result: Customers boycotted Exxon and refused to buy their products and they suffered losses that tabled somewhere in the upper reaches of billions in lost revenues! Exxon’s refusal to acknowledge its role left an indelible stain on its reputation as a responsible and trusted technology provider to this day.
What this case study illustrates is silence isn’t gold, it’s as close to shit as you can possibly get. Besides these days with the internet offering endless pathways for information silence or limiting information “anything” just doesn’t make one molecule of common sense. Constricting the flow of information is simply trouble in the long run. Denying it’s existence is even worse. And continuing as if nothing has happened just reinforces failure.
(3) Silence breeds silence – everything goes underground and runs deep and silent!
In a fall out, attempting to regulate the free flow of information seriously brackets rational discourse by creating systematic gaps and hot spots in the narrative of what actually went wrong.
In the short term this may serve as an effective tool to manage by limited or no information, but in the long term bracketing anything be it sex education or rational religious discourse. Only generates disenchantment and fuels speculation. Taken to extremes it creates the perfect conditions where all sorts of hucksters and charlatans step in and fill in the missing links in the fill-in-the-blanks narrative with their self serving version of the “truth.” That’s how radicalism, fundamentalism and conspiracy theories typically take root. Where disclosure is only partial and lacking in substantive detail it allows opportunities for undesirable elements to confect their own version of what-happened and who-dunnit versions to fester.
The same cannot be said where institutions and bureaucracies choose to address the demand for an explanation, “head on” by providing a comprehensive account that attempts to ameliorate the situation by saying,
“Yes, these are valid concerns and we must really try to address them the best we can.”
In this sort of open setting, schools of thoughts and states of minds are presented winnowed, challenged and tested to continually reject lies leaving only the truth. That restores trust in both the people and institution.
(4) Silence breeds stupidity – it stops the flows of information and cuts off opportunities from learning.
Another reason why the whole idea attempting to institute damage control measures by restricting the flow of information militates against the long term interest of individuals, firms and bureaucracies; is it serves only to constrict the opportunities for learning. One of the most enduring myths of learning remains we are trained or educated to only do what’s correct and right. In reality much more can be gleaned from studying case studies of disasters and where-it-all-went- south scenarios. That’s the reason why prospective MBA students in Harvard University are regularly asked to consider: what would you do, if you were the CEO in Enron? And not how would you run Temasek or Sentosa. The former is said to have valuable learning outcomes, while the latter offers nothing except the staid and unexceptional. The whole idea is to hopefully gather valuable lessons from the mistakes of others – as the cost of learning them the hard way is simply too prohibitively costly.
That’s the problem with “the silence is golden” and “less-is-more” strategy – it adds absolutely zero to the experiential learning curve and instead reduces everything to the realm of black arts alchemy and instead of demystifying. It serves only to perpetuate the mystique of reducing the business process into an incomprehensible black box – where stuff go in one side and regularly comes out the other end, but no one really knows what happens in between! It only serves to widen the gulf between those who run the business and those who remain clueless as to what’s really going on rumor.
Why is cutting off the learning experience from mistakes so corrosive?
For one it promotes sloppy accountability and condones stasis by entrenching the lousy currency at the expense of good: the sclerotic status quo. In short it preserves the same mechanism that was responsible for the failure in the first place!
(5) Summary – Silence: the further distance that separates people.
I am sure this will continue to remain a very contentious issue. Since a large chunk of the calculation requires the possessor to take stock of the bigger picture when considering whether to adopt an open or closed strategy of engaging the public.
Leaders, often feel the need to perpetuate the necessary myth; of their office and their institutions – the ideal that it has made the world a better place and remains competent to do so. If nothing else, it serves to validate their own positions and preserve the notion: progress always comes at a cost; and set backs and failures are part and parcel of the journey upwards – to paraphrase, it even suggest nothing last forever; that if the good in the world outweighs the bad, it’s only by the slimmest of margins. Much of this myth making machine happens at a subconscious level and that’s why the silence is golden and less-is-more damage control strategy remains so compelling – if all fails, it still manages to preserve the myth!
Ameliorating the situation by being open and frank may still be fraught with risk but at least it respects the ideal. The compact between people and state run institutions is worth nourishing, nurturing and preserving. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out; the only reason, why silence continues to have any currency resembling a social or intrinsic value is someone, somewhere at sometime expects to hear your side of the story. But what if they no longer care to even listen? What if they don’t even feel the need to understand? Or to even feel the need to write or read this article? Can we then say if that terminal stage is reached – silence has lost all its value that it simply means leaders and people will eventually find themselves standing so far apart from each other, they might as well be in the furthest poles of this, universe.
As a woman who I once loved and lost once asked me on a rainy day,
“Do you know where is the furthest distance that separates two people?”
To which I remained stoically silent, only for her intone,
“When I am before you and you don’t even see me.”
Is it such a wonder that whenever it rains, I still find myself turning to these words.
(Darkness – Socio / Economics EP 992382-The Brotherhood Press 2007)
Bibliography / Attributions:
1. Harvard Business Review / April 2007
2. Mea Culpa / Nicholas Tavuchis.
3. Harvard University Program on Instrastate Conflict Resolution / Robert Rotberg
4. Harvard Health Policy Review, Spring 2004 – “Towards Candor After Medical Error.”
5. John Nash – Equilibrium theory & Systematic Game Theory in Conflict Management.
6. A course in game theory by M.Osborne and A.Rubinstein – MIT Press.
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