'It's in their DNA': What makes people blow the whistle over their silent counterparts

Zeno Franco researches the social psychology of heroism, and he believes the moral courage of whistleblowers has gone undervalued.

'Whistleblowers ... [are] almost more heroic than somebody that's running into a burning building'

Former U.S. intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning said she had 'a responsibility to the public' to leak a trove of government documents in 2010. As consequence, Manning was convicted on charges under the U.S. Espionage Act and served seven years in military prison. (Tim Travers Hawkins/Courtesy of Chelsea Manning via AP)

It's nice to believe that if we were in the position of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning — or Alyson Mosher and Kalen Christ — we would have also blown the whistle.

But according to Zeno Franco, an assistant professor at the Medical College at Wisconsin, that's probably unlikely. 

Zeno Franco is an assistant professor in Family and Community Medicine at the Medical College at Wisconsin. (HSP Imaging)

"What sets whistleblowers apart is they're able to continue to walk forward knowing that everyone's turning against them," he told CBC Go Public's Erica Johnson.

​"Stubborness in that situation is actually a strength. It's in their DNA in that sense. They can't help but call us back to account."

Franco, who researches the social psychology of heroism, says the particular moral courage of whistleblowers has gone overlooked. 

As part of CBC Radio's Go Public special Workplace Whistleblowers Johnson spoke with Franco about what characteristics distinguish whistleblowers from the rest of us, and why he believes researchers have been afraid to study these modern-day mavericks. 

When things aren't working at work, some people lament, some leave, and when the stakes are highest, some blow the whistle on what's going wrong. In this Labour Day special edition of Go Public, we explore what it's like to be a workplace whistleblower, standing up for your co-workers, your customers, and for what you feel is right. 54:00

So you study heroics, heroism and you say that whistleblowers fall under that category. How is that?

I think one of the definitions that we have of heroics is taking risky action — either physically risky action or socially risky action — in the service of a noble goal without the expectation of a personal reward. And whistleblowers do exactly that.

Usually they're facing some sort of social cost — social ostracism, being cast out of their workplace. And all of a sudden some issue comes up, and they say, "You know what? This is really not right and I'm going to break with the social group to say I don't agree with this." And that comes with a set of costs, real risks.

So why would someone do that? Break with the pack?

I think a lot of it has to do with valuing principle over social relationships.

Whistleblowers feel like, "This principle that I've believed in my whole life — that's more important than keeping an even keel with my co-workers or with my friend." But that's a very scary position to be in. We are very social animals and we like to be in a group.

Whistleblowers  ... [are] almost more heroic than somebody that's running into a burning building. The process unfolds over time and the  whistleblower  has multiple opportunities to withdraw. - Zeno Franco, assistant professor at  Medical College at Wisconsin

What happens psychologically to someone once they start to blow the whistle? Often it's a long drawn-out process.

I think one of the forms of heroics that we've identified is this ability to keep at things and persist despite increasing costs. We often think of heroics as action, but there's also what I would describe as passive heroics, which is not complying when people are trying to make you do something that's wrong.

One of the things that happens is an element of self-doubt comes into play, creeps in, so you may really view the principle as incredibly important, but all of a sudden you've got five other co-workers saying you're doing wrong by breaking with what we're saying is the next set of action as a team … what happens is people have self-doubt.

What sets whistleblowers apart is they're able to continue to walk forward knowing that everyone's turning against them. And they hold on to that ideal internally, even if they start to doubt themselves. Somehow they manage to hold on to that principle.

In a 2017 Go Public investigation, Alyson Mosher blew the whistle on TD, who was increasingly outsourcing the work she had been doing in fraud investigation overseas. She was concerned that outsourcing work overseas would make customers' personal information more vulnerable. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Often when we think of a hero, we think of someone dashing into a burning building to rescue a baby — it's a split-second decision for that act of bravery. But when we come to whistleblowing, how often is that a split-second decision or have you found in your research these things simmer away until finally the whistleblower says, "This is it, I've got to speak out."

One of the arguments we've made is that actually whistleblowers and social heroes [are] almost more heroic than somebody that's running into a burning building. The process unfolds over time and the whistleblower has multiple opportunities to withdraw.  

They come up to several different situations where they say, "This is crazy, this is too risky. I don't want to abandon my entire career over this one issue." Whistleblowers are often physically assaulted as well, but they keep going. And that's, I think, a form of heroics that we often don't think about. It's not just a single action. It's the individual encounters, multiple opportunities to exit and they continue to persist.

When we really study whistleblowers ... we are forced to be introspective and ask if ever I was put in that situation would I ever rise to that standard of behaviour? And frankly, most researchers are afraid of asking that question.- Zeno Franco, assistant professor at  Medical College at Wisconsin

We have heard experts say it's part of their DNA that whistleblowers can't turn a blind eye when they see wrongdoing. What do you think?

I think it's a lot of things. I think it's nature and nurture, just like everything else. But I think that idea that it's so deeply ingrained in them, that "this principle is more important than what the social milieu is asking me to do" is something at their core. We often see stubbornness as a bad feature. Often times, we end up looking at people who are whistleblowers as an outsider in a workplace. But often times — and this is what I think corporations need to understand, and teams in workplaces need to understand, too — that stubborn person holds us as a group to account on the things that really matter.

Stubbornness in that situation is actually a strength. It's in their DNA in that sense. They can't help but call us back to account.

At the age of 21, Kalen Christ went public with the information that Canadian staff at his B.C. McDonald’s franchise were seeing their hours cut and given to foreign workers. In response, McDonald’s Canada put its temporary foreign workers program on hold and ordered a third party audit of all of its restaurants. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Whistleblowers haven't been explored very much in the past decade or so… why is that?

I think when we really study whistleblowers and heroes we are forced to be introspective and ask if ever I was put in that situation, would I ever rise to that standard of behaviour? And frankly, most researchers are afraid of asking that question of themselves. It's a very challenging question. And so I think it's easy to shy away from this research because it's personally challenging. But we should. And I think we can't understand human behaviour fully until we understand human behaviour at its best.

Have you asked yourself that question?

Absolutely. I give a couple of lectures on this and I share a point in my career where I failed to act heroically and that I regret. And I describe it openly to show people what it looks like and how you can learn from those mistakes. And hopefully, when you're encountering a similar situation in the workplace — or on a sports team or whatever context — that you know yourself well enough to be able to negotiate that situation and to stick with the things that you believe.

This segment was produced by Enza Uda, Jessica Linzey and Erica Williams. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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