Executives often sense early on when the business is stagnating and a need for change is in the air. Nevertheless, they often remain silent or defend the status quo—even in front of external advisors: In the omertà dilemma*, remaining silent becomes a value in itself.

* omertà: the unwritten code of silence; e.g., as part of the Mafia’s code of “honor.”

Breaking Omertà from the Inside

Many executives would agree that a strong, harmonious corporate culture and well-established, homogeneous management teams are indispensable to the success of a company.

Upon closer inspection, however, we invariably find that it is precisely these factors that create and further exacerbate the omertà dilemma:

  • Well-established and homogeneous management circles operate on the basis of shared, and often unspoken, values ​​and rituals. Unpleasant topics are shrouded in a cloak of silence—after all, no one would like to offend other members of the “famiglia.”
  • The stronger the corporate culture, the less it is able to recognize the need for change; for instance, when there are external pressures due to changing economic conditions. Perhaps the clearest example of late is Nokia missing out on the smartphone revolution.

The logical way out: Let the company hire an external advisor! But when an advisor finally steps in front of the team and talks straight: “but we must talk to each other!” and “we need to address unpleasant topics!”, s/he is almost guaranteed to be met with indignation and fraternization. All energies are directed at proving that the advisor is wrong, and, as a result, the harmful patterns are further reinforced.

Omertà can only be broken from within, and it is your job as an executive to take the first step, for the benefit of all.

Alignment Incentive: Witness Protection Program

Imagine that you are sitting in a team meeting, and everyone is aware of important topics – but beating around the bush. Maybe it’s about the rise of absenteeism, or the rise of an aggressive business rival who has overtaken you several months ago. No one will speak of those topics, until …

… until a young team leader casually remarks: “Our delivery times are three weeks longer than our competitor’s. How do we reduce our backlog list?”

Bam. Everyone winces briefly, followed by an awkward silence. OMG, someone has just addressed an existential problem! And then, the omertà trap snaps: The issue is postponed, ignored, or dismissed with a plausible-soundingexplanation.

Worse still: You notice that you yourself also wince and say nothing. After all, you’re part of the system, but … well, if you wait long enough, maybe it will go away?

Of course, you know that this behavioral pattern is detrimental, so here is a more useful stimulus for you as an executive:

Place the “disrupter” into a witness protection program. Let him speak freely and protect him from any attacks, thus ensuring that the issue remains on the table. Do not use the situation to criticize, but rather to calmly analyze the problem. Everyone at the table needs to learn that it is not dangerous to address an issue. Over time, this will help you to open the session and initiate an honest exchange.

What’s Keeping us Busy: Current projects in a nutshell

Profitability improvement project in a medium-sized IT company: A very successful history of growth facilitated that performance problems were more and more obscured. After growth eventually slowed down, these problems painfully came to the fore. We are using the Birds of a Feather process to work with the management team, analyzing all-too-familiar processes and identifying vulnerabilities. We do not develop a “one size fits all” measure, but a variety of smaller coordinated measures in order to bring about the necessary changes.