Organisations love to share their triumphs with new hires while shying away from discussing failures. Some even go so far as to recreate the stories of their greatest mistakes as noble victories so as to assuage their wounded pride. This is counterproductive … and potentially dangerous. Transparency and integrity are crucial to an organisation’s long-term success.
Everyone’s heard the aphorism ‘those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’ Recently, perhaps, given all of the drama engulfing the United States. There’s a corollary to that rule that often goes ‘those that are never taught an accurate version of their past are easily manipulated into making counterproductive decisions.’ No, I’m not about to go on a long rant about the state of current U.S. politics. Relax. This idea applies equally well in business.
So … I have a fake, old-timey, tin-type style photo tucked away in a folder in my office. It was taken at an amusement park when I was very young. It captures me dressed up in a Civil War era uniform complete with sheathed sabre in front of a battle flag. A rebel flag, as it turned out. It was printed with a fake bronze as if it dated back to the actual war. I think that sort of souvenir was popular back in the eighties.
The photo happened on a road trip. Somehow, my family found an obscure amusement park slash tourist destination. Can’t say as I remember exactly which one. I think it was in either Missouri or Arkansas although don’t ask me to swear to that. All I remember about the park was that (a) it was darned hot outside, and (b) the park featured a vague ‘old west’ theme.
Anyway, the only part of the park experience that I remember with any clarity was visiting the faux antique photo studio. We went in for a commemorative gimmick photo. The woman running the booth asked me which antique military uniform I preferred to wear for my snap: Union or Confederate. I remember very clearly freezing up because I didn’t know the right answer. I could tell by the woman’s tone and expression that there was a right answer; I had no idea objectively which it should be. We’d never studied the Civil War in school. It was just some event that happened a long time ago and (as far as our teachers were concerned) it didn’t matter.
‘How could a pivotal event in the definition of a nation about the definition of its people that was never truly reconciled have any long-term consequences for law, justice, social policy, economics, education, housing, civil rights, er … Um … It’s time for spelling. Our first word is “denial” … ‘
To be clear, it mattered a whole hell of a lot, and not just to the million Americans killed or wounded from 1861 to 1865. Our local schools, however, seemed to believe that it wasn’t important enough to cover in any detail. Why bother studying it? It was old news. No lessons to be learned from it … Let’s all talk about those darned dirty commies instead, okay kids?
Anyway, there I was. A kid, struggling to read this strange adult’s body language and facial expression. I guessed ‘Confederate’ and she seemed happy with my choice. Next thing I knew, I was dressed in a CSA cavalry lieutenant’s coat, trousers, and hat with one hand half-tucked in my coat and the other clutching a reproduction sword. The camera flashed, I gave back the costume, and we were handed a photo in a little plastic frame. I didn’t think much of it.
Years later, after I enlisted and the Army sent me to Texas, I had my first encounter with southerners peddling the ‘states rights’ fable. It didn’t mean anything to me. I’d read very little about the U.S. Civil War, having always preferred the World War II and Korea offerings in my local library. It wasn’t until we covered it in Army R.O.T.C. military history class that the pieces started to fall into place. The U.S. Civil War hadn’t been a ho-hum nothing-to-see-here event with no lasting consequences. Our professors made darned sure that us officer cadets understood the ramifications of the American slave economy, the geopolitical situation, the long-lasting impact on American law, culture, race relations, and politics, and – most importantly – the myth-making around the war that persists to this day. Our senior officers required us to come to grips with our history better than any public schoolteacher I’d had ever did. 
Looking back on it, I understand why: many of the adults that interacted with when I was a boy had a vested interest in denying the truth. The U.S. Civil War was fought over slavery, full stop. There was no ‘lost cause’ or heroic counternarrative narrative. All that apologia was designed to white-wash the guilt of the last Confederate veterans, to resist desegregation, and to justify the continued suppression of justice and civil rights throughout the American south. ‘War of Northern Aggression’ my aching &#£$. Gone with the Wind was a blatant revisionist fantasy, not a carefully-researched documentary. There were no happy slaves.
Every year, some disingenuous bigot tries to convince people that Americans were doing slaves a favour by offering them job security or some other such revolting nonsense.
My experience at the theme park only made sense in retrospect after I learned about our national self-serving recharacterization of history. Making it seem perfectly normal to dress up for fun as a rebel soldier was part and parcel of the normalization of an insidious counternarrative. One that outright denied or twisted actual documented history to seem more like a Disney-fied fantasy version of the bloody slaughter that tore our country apart. Going along with what the adults suggested made me one more dupe helping (albeit infinitesimally) to deny the facts.
So … what’s this got to do with business? No, I’m not going to address the still-simmering workplace tensions generated by Confederate apologists, conspiracy theorists, and closeted violent extremists. That’s a whole other column, assuming I ever decide to publish it. No, what I’m talking about is the habit of ‘old timers’ in any given business to whitewash, ‘spin,’ or outright deny their failures when explaining their organisation’s history to new hires.
This is the same sort of self-serving distortion. People with an embarrassing or shameful secret not only don’t want to be reminded of it, they often want their failures to be re-cast as successes so as to come across better to new hires. That’s how you get self-serving post-facto whoppers like ‘No, we didn’t lose the XYZ account to our bigger competitor; we chose to forego it because of our corporate values.’ Or ‘we didn’t suffer a catastrophic security breach because of preventable negligence; we led the industry in new cyber technologies which attracted the Internet’s best criminals to try their mettle against us because we were the best.’ See how it goes? Our mistakes weren’t mistakes, and if they were mistake, they weren’t out fault, and even if they were our fault, they were deliberate and smart and nobody cares. Don’t question the plot holes, kid.
This bad habit is encouraged by leaders and organisational cultures that despise ‘airing their dirty laundry’ through factual documentation or honest introspection. Failures are something to be hidden, erased, or denied; not something to be learned from. There are few promotions for the person on conscience who takes responsibility for their failures. Best to just not speak of it at all, at least until such time as no one is left to contradict a little … innocent recharacterization. All for the greater good, of course!
‘… and this used to be our corporate headquarters up until 2007. We decided that a prestigious skyscraper was too ostentatious given the economic climate and chose to relocate our subprime mortgage business into the filth-strewn alley that we now call home. Our customers appreciated us all the more for emulating their own living habits after foreclosed on their houses.’
Setting aside the abysmal integrity failure that such behaviour represents, the practice of white-washing of organisational history presents a deadly vulnerability. Whatever attitudes, perspectives, cultural imperatives, or misunderstandings brought about an embarrassing screw-up almost certainly still exist in the organisation so long as the people responsible for the screw-up are still around. Unless the root causes of a major failure are dispassionately examined and corrected, the flaws that brought about one botched job will inevitably continue to affect current work, possibly leading to a similar (if not identical) embarrassing failure. Leaders have a duty to their people, their superiors, their customers, and their owners to fix what’s wrong in their organisation. Denying harsh truths doesn’t make them go away; it simply allows them to fester and corrupt the culture from within.
New hires, in turn, have a responsibility to ask hard questions about why things happened the way that they did. Preferably during the interview process. Despite all claims to the contrary, culture always dominates business decisions. Leaders’ and key stakeholders’ blind spots will stymie growth, blunt innovation, and corrupt the best of intentions if left unchecked. If you’re considering signing on with a new team, it’s best to know up front what peculiar counternarratives the team is peddling … and decide with eyes wide open whether or not you’re willing to go along with them.
 Remember that the U.S.A. does the exact opposite of the U.K. when it comes to the whole ‘public’ vs. ‘private’ school definitions.
POC is Keil Hubert, email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.