Is Honesty Bad Business?

>> Monday, October 5, 2009

I've mentioned NASAWatch before and, though I often find it self-serving and focused on the aspects of NASA that interest me least, it's leader, Keith Cowling, pulls up enough interesting stuff (and key information) to make it a worthwhile daily stop for me. I'm not badmouthing the blog; it's just not focused (generally) on the same things I focus on.

However, NASAWatch often finds things I might not readily find on my own and, for that, I'm grateful. Yesterday, it mentioned a blog I've seen before (thanks also to NASAWatch) that I wanted to bloglist but had forgotten (I have it now). Not a rocket scientist, but someone working with NASA on those same topics I don't find interesting, politics and the like, that are part and parcel of the job anyway. In this case, the topic was "speaking out at NASA."

Beth Beck (and I can't begin to describe how ironic I find it that that's her name) stood up and asked a question at a "town meeting" and her interpretation of the reaction after the fact from other NASA folks was off-putting - disbelief, even resentment from others that she had the nerve to ask the question and hasn't yet been punished for it. That anyone expects that reaction is disheartening (and I think that's the point of the blog post).

What rather surprised me was the first comment on NASAWatch which was an attack on Beth Beck and her questions as well as her characterization of other NASA folks - apparently out of sync with business etiquette. Say what?

First of all, NASA isn't a business. It's a public organization for the good of all America, to spend taxpayer money to further our nation's interests. If middle management can't take tough questions, maybe they should be doing something else (and if that IS the case in the real world, perhaps our business model is even more screwed up than I imagined. As I've never worked in the "real world" so the rest of you will have to tell me, is honesty punished? Good heavens, why?).

Now, I'll have to raise my hand with my own reputation as a troublemaker, of asking tough questions at times some thought were awkward. But, unlike Ms. Beck, in the technical world of NASA, the reaction (among coworkers) has always been admiration that I asked it and support if/when there have been repercussions. The managers I've questioned in the past have generally professed gratitude, but I think I'm right to take that with a grain of salt. That technical folks at NASA aren't comfortable asking challenging questions is a sad fact that desperately needs change. But that anyone thinks that's not the way to do business for an organization that is bound by physical (and pitiless) laws is a travesty.

I'm fortunate that I work in an environment where my honest and forthrightness have not cost me much (if anything) and have, over time, worked to my benefit. However, the perception that honesty is not acceptable is still pervasive in many areas, and it's impossible to tell where the perception might be true and where it isn't. In either case, though, it's possible that things that need to be said/asked are not voiced because of the perception. And that's frightening. The fact that these two views can both come forward at the same time, right here and now, shows we aren't where we need to be at NASA and, perhaps, elsewhere as well.


  • flit

    I've been slapped for asking questions - or pointing out things that could have been done better - in some places I've worked.Usually a good indication that they're not great places to work.

  • Jeff King

    I have always been moved up the ladder for my blunt honesty accompanied with being right. But of course I work in construction, where I can say what I want in most cases.

  • Roy

    From another angle - I've spent most of my adult life in retail, and I've noticed the bigger the company, the less receptive they are to feedback. The Home Depot certainly operates the way Beth's apprehensive colleagues reflect. Most of the people I worked with at THD kept their heads down, stayed under the radar, kept a lid on it. Management considered questions to be disloyal. The fact that I did ask questions and made suggestions about how our department could function better was probably one of the reasons I was terminated there (along with the fact that I was good at my job in a culture that fears expertise, and the fact that I was making too much money for the period of time I'd worked there). And I watched the same kind of dynamics in play 20 years earlier when I worked for F.W. Woolworth's.

    What's heartening is that the person she asked the questions of thought they were good questions and thanked her for the opportunity to clarify. That's the sign of a good manager. Her colleagues' reactions, though, show that the culture at NASA still needs some serious work.

  • Project Savior

    In two out of the three industries I worked in, Mortgage Brokerage and Securities Brokerage, honesty was barely tolerated, those people who could lie and not get caught under the very loose laws that governed the industries were heavily rewarded.
    The industry that I worked in that encouraged honesty (above what the law required) was Property Insurance (home & auto).
    However, the insurance companies have all instituted "Personality Tests" for new hires, these tests are designed to weed out people who think for themselves.

  • Beth Stephens Beck

    Thanks for picking up the discussion on organizational culture. I'm a communicator by trade. The way I see it, lack of communication is a deadly poison. I merely want us to name the poison so that we can begin to administer the proper antidote.

    We have new leadership at NASA, yet we ARE an AARP-aged bureaucracy. Old habits are difficult to break. The next few months should be interesting as our leadership shapes the organization to reflect their priorities.

    We're good at accomplishing the impossible. Culture is only one of the challenges ahead. :-D

  • The Mother

    If no one speaks up, things never change. Kudos to those who at least TRY.

  • Stephanie B

    That was a better summation than I could ever hope to come up with, the Mother.

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