Whistleblowing and why it matters

Whistleblowing and why it matters

06th February 2018

Whistleblowers are vilified not just because they set up 'in opposition' to their organisations but because they focus attention on the often uncomfortable truth of the problems their organisations face, writes Mark Stein

Whistleblowers are frequently hated and scorned by others in their organizations, with many becoming targets of harassment, intimidation and stigmatization. Where whistleblowers raise their heads above the parapet, it is not unusual for a witch-hunting culture to develop, so that an atmosphere of persecution – the ‘smell of Salem’[1] – pervades.

Precisely why whistleblowers are often so hated remains a vital and intriguing question. For some, the answer may appear obvious: by setting up ‘in opposition’ to the organisation, whistleblowers constitute a substantial threat and are disliked – or even hated – because they represent the ‘other’ who would appear to stand up in opposition to colleagues and the organisation.

I challenge the idea that this is exclusively why whistleblowers are hated, and argue that there is more here than meets the eye. Contrary to the above view, as well as representing the ‘other’, I argue that whistleblowers may unconsciously also represent the lost good part of the ‘self’ of the staff member, the self that is capable of knowing and facing the truth, and that this intensifies hatred of them.

I thus argue that there is a deeply problematic sense in which the whistleblower may unconsciously remind staff of why they are there, of their very purpose or function, their reason to be in the organization, and of the ethical imperative of their job. This reminding of staff members of what they have lost is highly charged because it alludes to a sense of failure, that they have lost touch with the truth of the problems of the organisation, and that they too have failed, or at least colluded with the difficulties or misdemeanours of others.

Understood in this way, whistleblowers may unconsciously, on behalf of the organization, represent the function of honesty, integrity and candidness, of asking why things happen as they do, of knowing and facing the truth, and thus represent these aspects of organisational members that they have lost, and cannot retrieve. Added to this, the whistleblower may be felt to have taken on the function and the actual work of the staff, of focusing on the task of the organisation, thus deepening the problem. In the education sector, the whistleblower may sometimes unconsciously be felt to represent the function of being focused on maintaining an effective pedagogic environment for students, a function intrinsic to any education provider.

The issues raised by the whistleblower thus may force staff members to glimpse serious problems within the organisation and their collusion with it, and this evokes deep shame and guilt in them. These feelings are unmanageable and – in defence – staff members transform them into an attack on the truth, and into angry and vengeful attacks on the whistleblower.

Staff members thus lay the blame – and locate the problem – at the door of the whistleblower, effectively blaming the messenger, precisely because the whistleblower’s offence has been to bring the lost self and its failure into focus. The other, in this case the whistleblower, as the psychoanalyst Waddell puts it, ‘becomes the repository for feelings which cannot be acknowledged as part of the self’, and is thus scapegoated and ‘blamed or punished for the sins of others’.[2] To borrow from Bion, for the one doing the blaming the only misfortune would seem to be the existence of the person who has spoken the truth.[3] The lost good self that the whistleblower represents thus necessarily gets transformed into something evil and malign, and much energy needs therefore needs to be expended to get rid of this person and their ideas.

Mark Stein is Professor of Leadership and Management, School of Business, University of Leicester. Mark is to give this year’s FETL lecture, ‘Whistleblowing – and the loss of the good self’, in London on 14 March 2018.

[1] Ash, A. 2016. Whistleblowing and ethics in health and social care. London, Jessica Kingsley, p. 49.

[2] Waddell, M. 1998. The scapegoat. In: R. Anderson & A. Dartington (Eds.), Facing it out: Clinical perspectives on adolescent disturbance , pp. 127–141). London, Duckworth, p. 127.

[3] Bion, W.R. 1967. On arrogance. In: W.R. Bion (Ed.) Second thoughts: Selected papers on psycho-analysis, pp. 86–92. London, Maresfield, p. 88.

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