Six Steps to Becoming a Better "Work Prophet"

by Tim McGuire

E-mail writers are constantly telling me that even though their workplaces are bleak and their bosses refuse to listen to sincere, well-intentioned feedback and advice, they are too frightened to rock the sinking corporate boat. They say nothing and do nothing.

Fortunately, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, Colleen Rowley of the FBI and Sherron Watkins of Enron were not afraid to rock the boat and that's why TIME magazine made them the persons of the year.

I'm afraid most American workers are still too frightened, too reluctant and too intimidated to even speak their minds much less be whistleblowers. Because of the sheer negative power of bosses, too few people in the workplace are comfortable with the concept that spirituality-of-work scholars call "prophetic work." [on-the-spot edits happened here]

The concept simply means speaking out for what the worker believes is right. The ancient religious prophets spoke out against the kings, the rich, the powerful, and they spoke to protect the poor, the lame and the sick. They spoke for truth.

One scholar, Matthew Fox, says every profession requires prophets. He says, "the prophet, by definition, interferes. . . . and one significant place for our interference is where we work and earn a living."

As with all work and spirituality issues, the responsibility for the reluctance of American workers to be "prophets," to speak their mind about wrongdoing, bad customer service or the abuse of privileges by other employees, rests with both bosses and workers.

Bosses who run workplaces where employees are scared to challenge the status quo cannot say they bring their ethics and spirituality to work. Your arrogance overwhelms your values if you can't listen to and carefully consider the input of your staff.

If, as a boss, you believe that all your systems are incorruptible and that nobody's personal greed can destroy your company, you are kaput!

The headlines tell us some executives believed they could loot their own companies because nobody would have the courage to blow the whistle. Why are employees silent when they see bad management, illegalities or employee abuse?

Fear of reprisal is the most obvious reason. A lack of personal courage to stand up for ethics and values is clearly a culprit. Some of it goes back to elementary school when we were taught not to be tattletales.

Some of it is fed by the "mind-your-own-business" mentality of our current culture. When I was 17 and itching to get in trouble in a small town, the whole community was ready and willing to tell my parents. Today, parents are liable to tell those well-intentioned caretakers to take a hike. The same thing happens in the workplace. Helpful input is often resented.

The other problem with "prophetic workers" is that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between true work prophets and those people we politely call "pains in the butt."

I've been both. People have told me my objections and suggestions made me an important conscience of my company, but others told me I was an obstructionist and I abused my power to persuade. I'm sure both are truth.

Here are six things I believe would make all of us a better "work prophets."

  1. Start with yourself. Makes sure you are serving the interests of the company and not your own self interests.
  2. Make sure the issues you advocate relate to the core values of the company. Stop and ask yourself if it's really worth the fight. Don't battle over the color of the drapes.
  3. Be constructive.
  4. Enhance the self esteem of others. Remove contention by carefully listening to what other people say. Then make their comments part of your solution.
  5. Be clear and straightforward without being judgmental. Be direct but don't load up your argument with a snotty tone, condescension.
  6. Make your suggestions specific, actionable and manageable. Too often we try to fix all the problems of the world in one meeting.

These six steps will help you be more courageous and effective in the workplace.

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Coleen Rowley

is Special Agent in the Minneapolis Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (She speaks in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the FBI.)

Since September 11, 2001, she has been examining her own deepest motivations and has become a counselor and role model for others. In this program, she speaks about her personal experiences and how her conscience has developed. What might the high-profile courage of this plainspoken woman have to do with the rest of us, in other fields of work?

is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and facilitator. He's the past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and former Vice President and Editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

Tim McGuire connects the morality of whistleblowing with a larger movement sometimes called spirituality in the workplace. McGuire writes a weekly syndicated column, More Than Work, for United Media addressing ethics, spirituality, and values in work. He traces his interest in this field to a period in which he was searching for ways to reconcile his own values and his style of leadership.