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.
Is 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
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Using 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.
- Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
- Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they
function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
- On Snitching at Work: I
- Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work.
Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: III
- In group decision-making, impasses can develop. Some are related to the substance of the issue at hand.
With some effort, we can usually resolve substantive impasses. But treating nonsubstantive impasses
in the same way doesn't work. Here's why.
- Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
- Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense
of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you
want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
- And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
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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.