Until the 1980s, deep miners used canaries to detect carbon monoxide and methane. Canaries are sensitive to these gases, especially colorless and odorless carbon monoxide, which is toxic. Because male canaries sing almost incessantly, and because they tend to woozily fall off their perches before the gas concentration becomes toxic to humans, canaries provided both visible and audible warnings of danger. It was a valuable service, for which the canaries often paid with their lives.
In the modern workplace, the canary in the coalmine is the person who first registers notice of an uncomfortable issue, such as bullying, ethical transgressions, unreasonably aggressive goals, or other abusive or risky practices.
We're all sensitive to these things to varying degrees. Fortunately, someone else usually notices the abuses and risks we don't notice ourselves. We return the favor by noticing abuses and risks that others don't.
Still, a difficulty arises when we've noticed something, and no one else has yet registered his or her notice: what to do? Here are some guidelines for being the canary.
- The canaries often died
- It's risky to be the first to register notice of abuses or risks. Even though the group might benefit from your action, it might still extract a price. The price is likely to be higher in more toxic political environments, and the price escalates with the degree of embarrassment to those with political power. But even if the political price is low, the price can be personal if your action brings harm to someone close to you.
- Consider carefully In the modern workplace,
the canary in the coalmine
is the person who first
registers notice of
abusive or risky
practiceswhether you're willing and able to pay the price.
- What you think you know might be wrong or incomplete
- Since the price of surfacing what you think you know can be high, be certain that what you know is correct and complete enough to justify the risks you might have to bear. Validation can be tricky, because even asking questions can carry risks.
- But ambiguity can also supply protection. If a benign interpretation is possible, and you elect not to surface what you know, you might be able to say, justifiably, that you thought all was well.
- Withholding also carries risks
- If you're aware of abuses or risks, and if you elect not to surface that knowledge, someone else might do so, or the situation might become self-evident. When the knowledge comes into the open, a natural question arises: who else knew about this, and why didn't they say something? Sometimes failing to surface the knowledge can be seen as disloyal, negligent, unethical, or even criminal.
- In some cases, you can be in jeopardy both for surfacing what you know, and for failing to do so.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Big, complicated problems can be difficult to solve. Even contemplating them can be daunting. But we can survive them if we get advice we can trust, know our resources, recall solutions to past problems, find workarounds, or as a last resort, escape. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
- And on May 1: Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility. Available here and by RSS on May 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.