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7 Avoiding Conflict at WorldCom: The Case of Bernard Ebbers
419 • ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR
the overwhelming industry leader. However, many of WorldCom’s executives had worked with Ebbers since
his start as CEO 2 decades before. Ebbers, who was regularly seen in cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, led
his close-knit staff in a “shoot from the hip” style. He was resistant to new technology and famously refused
to use e-mail to communicate with his employees. A well-known company mantra was “That’s the way we
did it at LDDS.” Ebbers lead WorldCom through over 60 acquisitions over a period of 15 years. He grew
annual revenues from $1 million in 1984 to over $17 billion in 1998. However, Ebbers had little regard for
long-term plans and avoided making larger strategic decisions as his company accumulated increasing debt.
As WorldCom acquired new companies, its accounting procedures, computer systems, and customer service
issues became increasingly more complex, and industry experts note that WorldCom struggled to keep up
with the growth. Company employees who tried to bring initial problems to Ebbers’s attention were discouraged, and Ebbers made it clear he only wanted to hear good news. This avoidance of problems created a
company culture that demanded success at all costs. That ultimately included falsifying financial reports. For
example, former employees admitted to registering “rolling revenue” to inflate earnings, recording a single
sale multiple times. Another 2002 Economist article reports that this and other dishonest techniques were
“endemic in the sales hierarchy of WorldCom.…Increasing reported revenues came above all else.”
Despite efforts to inflate the books, WorldCom’s stock prices dramatically declined, and Ebbers left the
company in 2002 after pressure from WorldCom’s board of directors. What came to light after his departure, however, highlighted the significant problems he avoided confronting. Under new CEO John Sidgmore,
internal auditor Cynthia Cooper uncovered multiple instances of financial dishonesty and illegal activity
overseen by CFO Scott Sullivan, a close confidant of Ebbers. A 2002 Wall Street Journal article reports,
“As she pursued the trail of fraud, Ms. Cooper time and again was obstructed by fellow employees, some
of whom disapproved of WorldCom’s accounting methods but were unwilling to contradict their bosses or
thwart the company’s goals.”
Ultimately Cooper’s investigation revealed the fraud that took place under Sullivan and Ebbers. Sullivan
later admitted to having booked $3.8 billion of costs as capital expenditures and that five quarters’ worth of
profits should have been recorded as losses. Ebbers’s refusal to honestly face the harsh economic truth for
WorldCom was ultimately highlighted to be a source of WorldCom’s financial problems. In 2005, he was
found guilty of fraud, conspiracy, and filing false documentation. WorldCom was purchased for $7.6 billion
and subsequently integrated into Verizon (NYSE: VE) in 2006, and Ebbers began serving a 25-year jail sentence in 2005.
Based on information from Markham, J. W. (2006). A financial history of modern U.S. corporate scandals:
From Enron to reform. New York: M. E. Sharpe Inc.; Pulliam, S., & Solomon, D. (2002, October 30).
Uncooking the books. Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition. Retrieved April 4, 2010, from
VInst=PROD&VName=PQD&VType=PQD; The big lie: Inside the rise and fraud of WorldCom. (2005).
CNBC. Retrieved April 4, 2010, from http://www.hulu.com/watch/46528/cnbc-originals-the-big-lie#sp9-so-i0; When something is rotten: The best defence against “infectious greed” is a healthy corporate culture. (2002, July 25). Economist. Retrieved April 4, 2010, from http://www.economist.com; Yesterday’s
man: WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers typified the lionised chief executive. Now he is an ex-lion. (2002, May 2).
Economist. Retrieved April 4, 2010, from http://www.economist.com.
10.7 AVOIDING CONFLICT AT WORLDCOM: THE CASE OF BERNARD EBBERS • 420
1. What potential causes of conflict existed at WorldCom during Bernard Ebbers’ administration?
2. What might have happened if Ebbers had been prone to a different conflict-handling style, such
as compromise or collaboration?
3. How did having a small “inner circle” of leadership affect the corporate culture at WorldCom?
4. If you were Cynthia Cooper, how might you have dealt with being ignored? What options did
Cooper have to deal with the company conflict?
5. What responsibility did the board of directors have to detect and confront the problems at
Conflict can run the gamut from minor annoyances to physically violent situations. At the same time, conflict can
increase creativity and innovation, or it can bring organizations to a grinding halt. There are many different types
of conflict, including interpersonal, intrapersonal, and intergroup. Within organizations, there are many common
situations that can spur conflict. Certain organizational structures, such as a matrix structure, can cause any given
employee to have multiple bosses and conflicting or overwhelming demands. A scarcity of resources for employees
to complete tasks is another common cause of organizational conflict, particularly if groups within the organization
compete over those resources. Of course, simple personality clashes can create intrapersonal conflict in any situation. Communication problems are also a very common source of conflict even when no actual problem would exist
otherwise. When conflict arises, it can be handled by any number of methods, each with varying degrees of cooperation and competitiveness. Different situations require different conflict handling methods, and no one method is
Negotiations occur during many important processes, and possessing astute negation skills can be an incredible
tool. A key component to negotiations involves having a BATNA, or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.”
Negotiations typically move through five phases, including investigation, determining your BATNA, presentation,
bargaining, and closure. During a negotiation, it is important not to make any number of common mistakes. These
mistakes can include accepting the first offer, letting ego get in the way, having unrealistic expectations of the outcome of the negotiation, becoming too emotional during the process, or being weighed down by previous failures
and letting the past repeat itself. It is important to keep in mind that many cultures have preferential methods for
handling conflict and negotiation. Individuals should understand the cultural background of others to better navigate
what could otherwise become a messy situation.
Imagine that you are part of a bargaining team that has been engaged in negotiations for 6 long months. One
night, as you are getting ready to leave and are gathering your things, you notice a piece of green paper on
the ground near where Devin, a member of the opposite negotiation team, was sitting just a few minutes earlier. When you pick it up, you realize that it is a list of the ideal outcome for the other team.
At first you are ecstatic—this is the information you need to end these negotiations! Then you begin to recall
your organizational behavior course and all those ethical dilemmas that seemed so easy back then. What
should you do? Should you use the information for your team? I mean, why not, they were careless enough
to leave it behind? On the other hand, would that be ethical?
Thinking back to that OB course, you recall some key questions you should ask yourself during negotiations:
• Would this be honest?
• Would this involve keeping my promises?
• Would I be following the Platinum Rule and be “treating people the way they want to be treated?”
As you are pondering these questions, you also realize that this is a key decision. There are some additional
questions you should ask yourself around making ethical decisions if you plan on using this information to
help your team:
Is this decision fair?
Will I feel better or worse about myself after I make this decision?
Does this decision break any organizational rules?
Does this decision break any laws?
How would I feel if this decision were broadcast on the news?
Just as you think you’ve made your decision, Devin from the opposing team walks back in and asks you if
you’ve seen a green piece of paper.
What would you do?
What are the ethical dilemmas involved?
How would you justify your choice?
What would be the consequences of your choice?
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A Case of Listening: When Silence Is Golden (Devine, 2002)
Listening can be an effective tool during negotiations. William Devine was representing a client on a land
purchase. “The owner and I spent 2 hours on the phone horse-trading contract issues, then turned to the
price,” Devine explained. “We were $100,000 apart.” The owner then said, “The price your client proposes
will leave us well short of our projections. That makes it very tough on us.” The line went silent.
“My impulse was to say something in response to the silence, and I started to speak, then stopped. As I hesitated, I sensed that if I said, ‘My client can pay all cash,’ or ‘It’s still a good deal for you,’ then the owner
would take my comment as an invitation to joust, we would battle over the hundred grand, and my client
would end up having to pay some or all of that sum. The owner had not asked a question or proposed a compromise, so no response was required from me at that moment. I decided to remain silent. After what felt
like days but was probably less than 30 seconds, I heard, ‘But I guess it’s good for us [i.e., his company] to
just get this deal done, so we’ll do it.’”
Devine saved his client $100,000 by staying silent.
Questions to Think About
1. What does this case suggest about the role of silence in negotiations?
2. Have you ever had a similar experience when saying nothing paid off?
3. Are there times when silence is a bad idea? Explain your answer.
Thinking about negotiations is a lot easier than actually engaging in them. In order to give you some practice
with the information in this chapter, you will engage in a salary negotiation.
1. To make this more meaningful, the exercise will be based on a job that you are actually
interested in. Think of a job you would like to have (either now or in the future). Imagine you
have been offered this job. The salary is OK. It is about 15% below the market rate for this type of
job, but you really want the job.
2. What will you do?
◦ Will you negotiate for a higher salary?
◦ What are the pros and cons of this choice?
3. If you’ve decided to negotiate (and we strongly suggest you do), work through the next six
10.9 EXERCISES • 424
steps in the OB Toolbox “Seven Steps to Negotiating a Higher Salary.” Once you are up to step 5,
let your instructor know you are ready to begin the negotiation process.
Devine, W. (2002, September 30). Anatomy of a deal-maker. California Real Estate Journal. Retrieved November
14, 2008 from http://www.wdesquire.com/pages/dealmaker.html.
Chapter 11: Making Decisions
After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
1. Understand what is involved in decision making.
2. Compare and contrast different decision-making models.
3. Compare and contrast individual and group decision making.
4. Understand potential decision-making traps and how to avoid them.
5. Understand the pros and cons of different decision-making aids.
6. Engage in ethical decision making.
7. Understand cross-cultural differences in decision making.
11.1 Decision-Making Culture: The Case of Google
Wikimedia Commons – public domain.
Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is one of the best-known and most admired companies around the world, so
much so that “googling” is the term many use to refer to searching information on the Web. What started out
as a student project by two Stanford University graduates—Larry Page and Sergey Brin—in 1996, Google
became the most frequently used Web search engine on the Internet with 1 billion searches per day in 2009,
as well as other innovative applications such as Gmail, Google Earth, Google Maps, and Picasa. Google
grew from 10 employees working in a garage in Palo Alto to 10,000 employees operating around the world
by 2009. What is the formula behind this success?
Google strives to operate based on solid principles that may be traced back to its founders. In a world
crowded with search engines, they were probably the first company that put users first. Their mission statement summarizes their commitment to end-user needs: “To organize the world’s information and to make it
universally accessible and useful.” While other companies were focused on marketing their sites and increasing advertising revenues, Google stripped the search page of all distractions and presented users with a blank
page consisting only of a company logo and a search box. Google resisted pop-up advertising, because the
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company felt that it was annoying to end-users. They insisted that all their advertisements would be clearly
marked as “sponsored links.” This emphasis on improving user experience and always putting it before making more money in the short term seems to have been critical to their success.
Keeping their employees happy is also a value they take to heart. Google created a unique work environment
that attracts, motivates, and retains the best players in the field. Google was ranked as the number 1 “Best
Place to Work For” by Fortune magazine in 2007 and number 4 in 2010. This is not surprising if one looks
closer to how Google treats employees. On their Mountain View, California, campus called the “Googleplex,” employees are treated to free gourmet food options including sushi bars and espresso stations. In fact,
many employees complain that once they started working for Google, they tend to gain 10 to 15 pounds!
Employees have access to gyms, shower facilities, video games, on-site child care, and doctors. Google provides 4 months of paternal leave with 75% of full pay and offers $500 for take-out meals for families with
a newborn. These perks create a place where employees feel that they are treated well and their needs are
taken care of. Moreover, they contribute to the feeling that they are working at a unique and cool place that
is different from everywhere else they may have worked.
In addition, Google encourages employee risk taking and innovation. How is this done? When a vice president in charge of the company’s advertising system made a mistake costing the company millions of dollars
and apologized for the mistake, she was commended by Larry Page, who congratulated her for making the
mistake and noting that he would rather run a company where they are moving quickly and doing too much,
as opposed to being too cautious and doing too little. This attitude toward acting fast and accepting the cost
of resulting mistakes as a natural consequence of working on the cutting edge may explain why the company is performing much ahead of competitors such as Microsoft and Yahoo! One of the current challenges
for Google is to expand to new fields outside of their Web search engine business. To promote new ideas,
Google encourages all engineers to spend 20% of their time working on their own ideas.
Google’s culture is reflected in their decision making as well. Decisions at Google are made in teams. Even
the company management is in the hands of a triad: Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired Eric Schmidt to act as
the CEO of the company, and they are reportedly leading the company by consensus. In other words, this is
not a company where decisions are made by the senior person in charge and then implemented top down. It
is common for several small teams to attack each problem and for employees to try to influence each other
using rational persuasion and data. Gut feeling has little impact on how decisions are made. In some meetings, people reportedly are not allowed to say “I think…” but instead must say “the data suggest….” To
facilitate teamwork, employees work in open office environments where private offices are assigned only to
a select few. Even Kai-Fu Lee, the famous employee whose defection from Microsoft was the target of a
lawsuit, did not get his own office and shared a cubicle with two other employees.
How do they maintain these unique values? In a company emphasizing hiring the smartest people, it is very
likely that they will attract big egos that may be difficult to work with. Google realizes that its strength
comes from its “small company” values that emphasize risk taking, agility, and cooperation. Therefore, they
take their hiring process very seriously. Hiring is extremely competitive and getting to work at Google is
not unlike applying to a college. Candidates may be asked to write essays about how they will perform their
future jobs. Recently, they targeted potential new employees using billboards featuring brain teasers directing potential candidates to a Web site where they were subjected to more brain teasers. Each candidate may
be interviewed by as many as eight people on several occasions. Through this scrutiny, they are trying to
select “Googley” employees who will share the company’s values, perform at high levels, and be liked by
others within the company.