Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 31;   August 4, 2010: On Being the Canary

On Being the Canary

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Nobody else seems to be concerned about what's going on. You are. Should you raise the issue? What are the risks? What are the risks of not raising the issue?
Small cage with canary used in testing for carbon monoxide after the Hollinger Mine fire on February 10, 1928

Small cage with canary used in testing for carbon monoxide after the Hollinger Mine fire on February 10, 1928 in Timmons, Ontario, Canada. Because humans cannot detect carbon monoxide unaided — it is colorless, odorless and tasteless — and because canaries succumb to the gas at lower concentrations than do humans, caged canaries were used as warning systems for miners. Although the popular phrase today is "canary in a coalmine," canaries were used in mines of any type where methane or carbon monoxide posed risks. Most such mines were coalmines, especially following fires, when carbon monoxide was especially common. Photo courtesy U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

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
practices
whether 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.

Deciding whether to surface what you know can be difficult. I've usually found the moral price of silence to be higher than the price of being a canary. The choice is yours. Go to top Top  Next issue: Take Charge of Your Learning  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenuQKLUMsVubCpqOpqner@ChacCCvpZbzKGsgliMGNoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Lion, ready to spring, in Samburu National Reserve, KenyaUsing Indirectness at Work
Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore well-being and comity within the organization.
A collared lizardHow to Avoid a Layoff: Your Situation
These are troubled economic times. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common. Here are some tips for positioning yourself in the organization to reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
The Jolly RogerDealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation.
What an implicit interrogation can look likeImplicit Interrogations
Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the nature of implicit interrogations?
Benches at the beachImplicit Interrogation Tactics
When one person tries surreptitiously to extract information from another at work, an implicit interrogation is taking place. Here are seven tactics that people use to interrogate others without revealing what they're doing.

See also Workplace Politics and Workplace Bullying for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A meeting held in a long conference room.Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
A dictionaryAnd on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenuQKLUMsVubCpqOpqner@ChacCCvpZbzKGsgliMGNoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.