Whistleblowing – a test of ethical leadership

Whistleblowing – a test of ethical leadership

03rd February 2020

FETL’s 2018 lecture on the theme of whistleblowing is of lasting relevance to the FE sector, writes Dame Ruth Silver

On 14 March 2018, Mark Stein, Professor of Leadership and Management, School of Business, University of Leicester, gave that year’s FETL lecture on an inspired, but, for some, rather puzzling theme: ‘Whistleblowing – and the loss of the good self’. Whistleblowing is a difficult subject, about which leaders often find it difficult to talk, yet, as I explained at the time in an article in the TES, it is a critical one for further education and it is important that we engage thoughtfully with it.

Professor Stein’s lecture focused on the institutional reaction to whistleblowing and the obligations of ethical leadership in creating a culture in which bad news is not buried or treated as grounds for recrimination, but is instead regarded as a catalyst for positive, constructive change. He gave a detailed, in places distressing, account of the stigmatisation of whistleblowers, arguing that they are vilified not merely because they represent the ‘other’, set up in opposition to the organisation, but also because they represent the ‘lost, good self’ of the organisation. I am delighted to see the research on which the lecture was based now published as ‘The Lost Good Self: Why the whistleblower is hated and stigmatized’, in Organisation Studies. These ideas warrant wide discussion.

The lecture has continued to resonate within the FE sector ever since. It is of enduring relevance. Certainly, the tough financial circumstances that the sector has experienced for over a decade, plus the changing geography in the form of restructures and mergers, represent fertile ground for whistleblowing. Management behaviour has been in the spotlight, as has the culture of critique and accountability in which sector leaders lead. Difficult questions have been asked about the culture in which we work, and this is both important and necessary.

Two things are clear to me. First, we must be aware that whistleblowing is a fact of organisational life. We should not be afraid of it, but find ways of responding to it in a caring, creative way. Whistleblowers should not be vilified. They ought to be given a safe space and protected from the threat of retaliation. And while not every complaint is justified, it is important that leaders deal with criticism in an open, constructive way. There must be procedures in place, of course, and every institution should have and regularly review them, but it should not always be necessary, and leaders must strive to create a culture in which staff can raise concerns freely and safely before matters pass beyond the point of no return.

Second, we need to recognise that leaders are not perfect. Of course, where misdemeanours are committed they should be called out, but creating an excessively punitive operational environment can have major negative consequences. Where the fear of failure is too great, and the costs too high, leaders may be more inclined to bury bad news, to retreat from scrutiny or to vilify or exclude those prepared to put their neck on the line and speak out. Clearly, there is a balance to be achieved here, but, as I have written elsewhere, I do not feel we have got there yet. Leadership in FE can be tough, stressful and demanding, and we need to offer leaders adequate support in dealing with these challenges. The blame game has had its day. We need to take good care of all our people, our staff as well as our students.

I hope the further education sector will continue to engage with these important issues, as FETL has, though a range of different projects. As I have said before, whistleblowing is a touchstone for organisational culture. By and large, whistleblowers are brave, committed people who have simply had enough. How we treat them says a great deal about us and our claims to be ethical leaders and institutions.

Dame Ruth Silver is President of FETL.

Professor Mark Stein’s paper, The Lost Good Self: Why the whistleblower is hated and stigmatized’, published in Organisational Studies, can be read here.