The Danger of a ‘Wink and a Nod’

The head of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, testified in front of a congressional panel on Wednesday about the scandal created by the agents and prostitutes before a presidential visit to Colombia. He basically testified that while some agents did some dumb things, there were no systemic problems.

However, Sen. Joe Lieberman noted that during the past five years there have been 64 separate incidents reported. From the testimony the panel remains suspicious that the issue is not only about the 11 agents involved in the incident but the actions, or inactions, on the part of management. To further this claim, it was also reported that similar misconduct charges were brought against DEA agents in Colombia, resulting in Sen. Susan Collins, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, declaring that “The evidence uncovered thus far indicates that this likely was not just a one-time incident.”

Listening to TV reports of the scandal, I heard a former agent say that management often gave minor rule-breaking “a wink and a nod.”  I looked up the phrase on the Web and ran across the following. quotes the Scottish poet William Dunbar, who wrote, “What women should … their virtues all make of no avail, by subtle winks and their deceitful tales.” It also quotes Samuel Palmer, who said in 1710, “A nod and a wink are very often treacherous and false.” Interestingly, the more modern interpretation of this phrase relates more to flirting than the older ones.

I am sure that given the context in which this was spoken, the phrase was meant to say that management gave tacit approval to many policy and rule infractions not by what was actually spoken about the infraction but by what was implied by their actions, or more likely, inactions.  According to Ron Kessler, author of In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, there were so many winks and nods that managers often looked like bobble-head dolls.

I have often said that in matters of process and procedures, whether related to the safety of the president or everyday business processes, there should be no tolerance for variance. By no tolerance I mean that the variance should draw consequences that will result in a higher level of adherence in the future. My experience tells me that variance in how senior-level decisions are carried out is significant by the time they reach the front line of the organization. More importantly, the consequences associated with infractions (i.e. variances) must be effective to correct the behavior regardless of where on the chain these variances occur. In the case of the government, “no tolerance” has typically led to some form of punishment which, behaviorally speaking, is usually not an effective way to guarantee that employees will maintain the integrity of the process in the future. They will, instead, try to hide the variance.

The reason variance occurs is simple; it usually comes from behavior that is easier, more comfortable or quicker to complete. Not wearing safety equipment, skipping steps and inattention to details are all naturally reinforcing. Because they are naturally reinforcing, they will likely occur again and over time will vary more and more. The same is true for matters of policy and procedure. Variance unattended increases variance.

Interestingly, the people “at fault” in my opinion are not the agents but their managers. No doubt the agents involved will be the ones punished by the agency as if the consequences of public humiliation and the reaction of families is not punishment enough. Firing the agents is a typical management response, and although it will quell the public’s cry for blood, it will not address the management issue. I am sorry, Mr. Sullivan, but apologies will not fix the problem. A wink and a nod may well be interpreted as a “thumbs up” in this and other management settings, but what we need is an understanding of the system that causes that behavior and identification of the changes needed to be made to ensure that variance does not continue.