Team Whistle Blowing: Duty or Disloyalty?

Leaders, what do you expect of your team members about whistle blowing? If a team member is slacking off, not contributing to the mission, working against the mission — is it the duty of other team members to speak up about it? If yes, whom should they speak to?

Or would you see this as a disloyalty and poor teamwork? Many reply it depends on the situation.

Leaders, Do Your Teams Know Your View on Whistleblowing?

My questions to leaders:

Do your team members think whistle blowing is a duty or disloyalty? Do they know what you think? Have you discussed this openly with the team?

So often when a team forms, there is great focus on purpose, goals, and getting to know each other. It is a good beginning for a productive team.

Yet productivity, morale, and results can plummet where confusion reigns around whistle blowing.

  1. Will I be seen as a rat?
  2. What retribution will I suffer?
  3. Will the leader see this as intruding on his/her domain?
  4. Will the leader label me a trouble maker?

In the worst case of this confusion, cliques can develop, negativity can spread, and time is spent griping vs. working. A recent development – employees were fired for Facebook posts decrying a peer who was slacking off and The National Labor Relations Board judge ruled the employees back to work.

Having the conversation at work vs. griping on Facebook is far more valuable! How sure are you that your team knows your position  — duty or disloyalty?  Have you ever said to yourself, “why didn’t they tell me before it got so bad?

The Valuable Conversation
If you are ready to broach the subject, these guidelines deliver.

    The Focus: Team ownership of the results and reaching full potential. Is this team trying to be a high performance team? What does that mean? What impact does individual commitment and performance ultimately have on results?

    Trust: Spend time discussing it. How do each assess trust? What can team members do to sustain trust when disagreeing and/or speaking up about poor performance?

    The Approach: State perceptions and ask questions instead of declaring and accusing. Statements worded as perceptions followed by questions keep communication flowing. Declarations by peers can be inaccurate and accusatory questions can build resentments.

There are many times when having this conversation is critical: Forming a new team, becoming the new leader of an existing team, bringing on new team members, merging teams into one, and before major changes or stress.

It may not be the most comfortable conversation yet not having it breeds more discomfort.

I am happy to provide you with more targeted details for having this conversation,

From my experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach

What do you think? Is it a duty or a disloyalty?

©2011 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish this post, please email Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach, Masters Org. Psychology, turns interaction obstacles into teamwork and business success. From inspiration to action, Kate will help you fill the gaps of diversity with business wins. See this site for custom workshop info, customer results, and book Kate now.

8 Responses to “Team Whistle Blowing: Duty or Disloyalty?”

  1. Yes, it should be made clear to the team that you want them to come to you with problems. In this case, as a team leader, news of a slacker member of the team shouldn’t be news at all.

    Nevertheless, the difference between a whistleblower and a rat is attitude. One is constructive and the other represents an additional problem. What is the motivation? Have they talked to the “slacker” first about their valued contribution or is this just an exercise in one-upmanship? Is the person a slacker because they just don’t like him or because they are not meeting very clear and tangible measurements that you have provided?

    Thanks Kate.

  2. Jim Morgan says:

    Great questions as usual, Kate. I have blogged that “team player” is one of the most abused phrases in business. “You need to be a better team player” generally means, “Shut up and get with the crowd.” But teams that do not encourage challenges to the status quo fall into “groupthink,” the opposite end of the continuum from constant conflict and just as destructive to team performance.

    However, there are ways to encourage openness such that “whistle-blowing” becomes unnecessary. One is to have the team create a set of behavior-based team rules, and ensure one of those rules is along the lines of: “Express ethical concerns others might raise about team decisions.” Then create a self-enforcement procedure for the rules. What does everyone agree the team leader or a member should do when they think a rule has been violated or someone following it was criticized? If that doesn’t work, what is the next step, and so on? Include a step for escalating above the team leader with his/her knowledge. Put it into the team charter and negotiate approval by the leader. This way, challenges to the team taken outside the team are part of the team’s normal process, not whistle-blowing. And team members gain some protection from retaliation by managers or teammates, because A) everyone agreed to the process, and B) the escalation is witnessed by everyone on the team.

  3. Liz Weber says:

    If – as the leader – you do your job right, the team should clarify their Team Rules right at the start of the project. What do they expect of EACH OTHER to ensure they can work together & get the deliverables out? This step — often incorrectly viewed as touchy-feely by some — is a great way to establish the teams EXPECTATIONS of each other. That way, should any one team member not perform to the team’s expectations and violate the team’s rules, ANY team member has the right & obligation to raise the issue. To hold their colleague accountable. A way to do this is to have team member status updates be a regular part of the team meetings right at the start. This creates a “format” for all to follow and allows all to quickly get into the culture of how the team operates, the performance standards expected and accepted. I’ve seen team members take ownership when they set the rules. It’s not whistle blowing then. It’s holding their fellow team member(s) accountable. Another great post Kate. L

  4. Wally Bock says:

    Those are great questions, Kate. I used to think about that issue a lot until one of the top supervisors I was studying shared his view: that if the boss is doing his or her job, there will be no need for anyone blowing the whistle. Since I first heard that, a couple of decades ago, I’ve observed it to be true. In the vast majority of cases if the boss is doing a good job, showing up a lot, having conversations with people, assigning work sensibly, etc, there won’t be a need for any whistles to be blown. That leads to two other observations.

    If the boss is not doing a good job, then whistle-blowing to that boss may not make any difference. You might have to do the deed to higher authority.

    Whether it is the right thing to do or not, blowing the whistle is ALWAYS a big risk. There’s no real way to assess the risk in advance, either.

  5. I’m with Wally and the others. Any supervisor worth their paycheck should know or be quickly learning.

    As a team member, I’ll have the conversation with my co-worker. There are ways to phrase the problem so that you can discuss the problem with your co-worker in a way that communicates that you’d prefer they change their behavior. It depends on the issue, but I’ve found that being open and direct is the best way to handle it, but directly with the co-worker.


  6. Susan Mazza says:

    If there needs to be a whistle blower or someone feels compelled to be a rat then chances are it’s not a high performance team. i think you are absolutely right Kate that expectations set properly up front in terms of focus, trust and approach are key to preventing this kind of situation from even arising.

    And I think the traditional context of the “boss is in charge” is part of the problem. From my point of view the key expectation that must be set for high performance is granting permission to be held to account by each other or to hold each other to account. In a hierarchical organization all too often the perception is that accountability is the bosses job. People like Mike who are leaders will speak up and talk directly to the person regardless. But a lot of people won’t because they don’t believe it is their “job” to do so.

  7. John Wenger says:

    I’m with Mike and Susan in that I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to be having conversations about performance with everyone else. Taking a systems view of it, the top-down picture of power and control may not be the best way of organising and running our workplaces in a lot of cases. The supervisor should certainly have his/her finger on the pulse but sometimes, the higher up the food chain you progress, the less information you have about how things are really going, so why not facilitate everyone to have challenging performance conversations by building and fostering a culture of responsibility-taking. From a systems perspective, it’s just as much to do with me if someone else is underperforming because we impact on each other in ways that we often don’t see, so I would take the initiative. Then it’s about how I do it in a way that doesn’t damage workplace relationships.

  8. Kc says:

    Hi , I feel that regardless of being seen as a “rat” telling the truth and speaking up is appropriate for any situation that is unethical or illegal. We are all responsible for ourselves as well as others, especially when it comes to speaking up about these types of situations. It should not matter what others think of us as long as we know we did the right thing. First and foremost every leader should lay out their expectations and guidelines, but they should also follow those as well, they cannot be an exception to their own rules etc.

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