Volkswagen: Ambition to Destruction

This is not an unfamiliar story: From Ambition to Destruction. Many have played it. Enron did it. Arthur Anderson did it. Satyam did it. Kingfisher lived up to its name and dived deep in troubled waters.
And we have a very unlikely name in the list – Volkswagen. This name had acquired an excellent image for excellent quality cars. All that got ruined in just one day.
It All Begins With Ambition
The stories of Satyam, Enron and the like has one thing in common – the ambition. Volkswagen wanted to be the number one car maker. Nothing wrong with that goal. The trouble with a big goal is that means get sacrificed when you are chasing it.
When the goal is big, performance matters, but very often leaders do not take a pause to define ‘performance.’ Defining ‘performance’ is not easy. Discussion about performance is a skill managers have to possess, and it is not simply a discussion for providing feedback. It is an opportunity to reflect on what people did and how they did it. The how part is very important but usually gets lost in following process.
Moreover, it brings certain issues to the fore which leaders choose to ignore. Take for instance the ubiquitous case in almost every company where a manager who is showing very high level of achievement by bullying his team is not reprimanded – in fact he gets highest rating!
Protecting a deviant who puts up [alleged] high performance is the easiest route. Disciplining him or counselling him is a very difficult option. It is a common experience that the easier route followed. As somebody has said ‘There are always two choices, two paths to take. One is easy. Its only reward is that it is easy.’
Leaders have to manage conflicting priorities: they must set a big goal, create a big ambition and they must also have realistic understanding of the ability of the team. Ambitions outrunning abilities create situations which breed Volkswagen like cases. This is true of Satyam, true of Kingfisher, and true of almost all organizations involved in scandals.
Play One Wrong Step and You Win
I was playing ‘solitaire’ at home. This was when computers, laptops and mobiles had not intruded our lives. There are certain rules of the game of solitaire, like they are for all games, and playing strictly by the rule can mean you can’t arrange all the cards and the game would end in a dead end situation. It was happening so in my case. A friend watching my game jokingly remarked that if you make one move which is not allowed by rules, it helps you win the game! [This is fortunately not possible on laptops and mobiles]. Try this – in almost all cases you can win the game.
Greed is taking that one wrong step. Ambition and initial success often fuels greed. You see end in sight. And you delude yourself in thinking that you are committing the proverbial ‘perfect murder.’
Dan Ariely has explained this so well in his book ‘The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.’ I have excerpted this short para from one of his article on his own book:
….the whole thing is a question of conflicts of interest. And conflicts of interest mean that we have a pull to see reality in a certain way and we can justify our view. Imagine that you like a particular soccer team and you go to a game and the referee calls a call against your team – is there anyway but for you to think the referee is evil, vicious, stupid, blind something like that? Of course not, you can’t help but having your motivation influence how you see reality. Now replace your team with five million dollars or with something else and you can see how the same forces would get you to see reality in a biased way.
Dan Ariely blames all this on ‘our flexible cognitive psychology and thanks to our ability to rationalise our actions we could do both.’
Cases like Volkswagen usually do not start as a comprehensive project to defeat the emission tests; they make a small beginning and then initial success emboldens the decision makers to take a few more steps.
Greed is like ‘one more’ peg of whiskey – you think you are doing well but the world starts noticing odd things.
What Language Do You Speak at Work?
We tend to program our mind by our language. While training a group of senior managers, I once asked how many times we speak language of complaint as against language of commitment. The answer was a truthful yet shocking 80:20!
At work there are not many opportunities to talk about the values we hold and the values that hold us. Such opportunities are not created! This discussion is not easy, but it helps become more courageous; and ‘Courage is the mother of all virtues’ as Aristotle said.
Why is it so? My submission is that there is usually excessive focus on revenue or cost, but not on how we work, how we make decisions. We do not discuss ‘value dilemmas’ although all managers face them. This in my opinion is a major failure of the leadership. Discussing value dilemmas only prepares managers to take good decisions in difficult situations. Interestingly a very large number of organisations define values and publish those in their websites; but there usually ends the commitment.
Here are the values defined by Volkswagen: “sense of responsibility, respect, cooperation, learning, trust, strong attitude towards success and determination.” [].
Declaring values is no guarantee that they will be practiced, unless there is discussion and understanding is created about the values; in other words unless people adopt a language of value awareness. 
We do not adopt it at home, how will we adopt it at the workplace?
The Road to Self-Destruction
The story like Volkswagen’s takes us from ambition to destruction. There are stations in between, it is something like Ambition – Greed – Self-deception – Denial – Destruction.
It is not as if the leader is the only person to blame. Employees knowingly assist by helping their bosses do wrong things. They can later take subterfuge in saying that “I was acting under instructions” but all know that it is usually far from the truth. Employees working with Dr Vijay Mallya surely knew what they were doing or were assisting him in doing. Skeletons are now tumbling out.
Even Hitler’s man Eichmann [he oversaw the deportation and extermination of Hungary’s Jewish population estimated to be about 5 lakh] pleaded that ‘he was following the orders of his boss and so he was not responsible.’ This is not true, not just for Eichmann, but also of anybody who knowingly helps his organisation indulge in wrong practices.
So in final analysis, an employee may sell his time, talent and labour, but if he sells his conscience then nothing can save him and his organisation.
Vivek S Patwardhan