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? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

The Declaration of IndependenceMore Stuff and Nonsense
Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture. These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help. Here are some examples.
A section of the walls of Conwy Castle showing a battered plinthHow to Undermine Your Subordinates
People write to me occasionally that their bosses undermine them, but I know there are bosses who want to do more undermining than they are already doing. So here are some tips for bosses aspiring to sink even lower.
Abraham Lincoln as a young man about to become a candidate for U.S. SenateWorkplace Politics and Integrity
Some see workplace politics and integrity as inherently opposed. One can participate in politics, or one can have integrity — not both. This belief is a dangerous delusion.
RaspberriesHuman Limitations and Meeting Agendas
Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings more productive and save us from ourselves.
Virginia SatirCongruent Decision-Making: I
Decision-makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make faulty decisions. Congruent decision-making can limit the incidence of bad decisions.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Bay of Pigs, CubaComing September 30: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: II
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias. Available here and by RSS on September 30.
Assembling an IKEA chairAnd on October 7: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule. Available here and by RSS on October 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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.