What all CEOs Can Learn from Netflix’s “House of Cards” Series

You might have seen Netflix beginning to advertise the trailers for the fourth season of its hit show, “House of Cards” (which debuts on March 4). If you’re familiar with the series that follows the trials and tribulations of the fictional President of the United States (POTUS) Frank Underwood, you know he’s all too familiar with the word “scandal.” Even more so, his questionable practices as president and unethical treatment of his staff make him the epitome of an abusive leader.

But how does Underwood’s leadership style translate to the managers people encounter every day? Underwood’s beliefs, values and behaviors—three “causes” that feed on one another and spread throughout an organization—foster a Culture of Silence: when employees willfully withhold valuable work-related information for a number of reasons that pertain to self-protection. All leaders should beware of a Culture of Silence and do everything possible to create a Culture of Voice. Cultures of silence represent operational, fiduciary and reputational risk because when employees remain silent, knowledge transfer slows or stops, innovation declines and effective problem-solving decreases. This is clearly detrimental to the organization.

In a culture where workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas—similar to how Underwood handles the ideas of his Chief of Staff before she ultimately decides to quit—offensive silence occurs because “I’m not going to speak up to help you. I don’t have your back because I don’t think you have mine.” In the real world, employees are unlikely to disclose their silence to the leader; rather, they commonly use offensive silence when they’re perceived to be the victim.

“Establish a culture of voice and encourage employees to speak up.”

How do you know if you are operating in a Culture of Silence? Answer these simple questions. In the past few months:

1. How many of your employees presented a solution to a problem that you couldn’t solve?
2. How many times have you seen the “Bovine Stare”—that blank look on associates faces when you ask for input in a group settings?
3. How many times have your employees brought an unsolicited innovative idea or improvement recommendation to you?
4. How many times have your employees openly disagreed with you in a group setting?

If you answer “none” to any of these questions then you may be operating in a Culture of Silence. Moving to a Culture of Voice is possible with the correct leadership practices and mindset.

With all of this in mind, how can leaders prevent creating their own “house of cards”—a workplace heavily rooted in a Culture of Silence? Establish a culture of voice and encourage employees to speak up by following these leadership practices:

1. Learn more than you affirm. It’s important for business leaders to remain curious. Committing to learning about employees’ views and opinions helps facilitate decision processes.

2. Ask more than you tell. Spend more time asking questions than telling others what to do. This practice is known as the 20/80 Rule—limiting the amount of time you tell others to 20% of the time, versus asking questions to understand and learn 80% of the time.

3. Strengthen instead of discount. Discounting includes both verbal and nonverbal communication practices perceived as put-downs. If you “discount” someone, that person can experience a threat to their self-esteem. Business leaders must strengthen and build up to keep employees’ self-esteem intact, and to foster a collaborative problem-solving environment where everyone can contribute.

4. Coach, don’t punish. When an employee makes a mistake, instead of punishing, demonstrate coaching practices to mitigate the mistake and protect the person’s feelings. This can be accomplished by listening, building self-esteem, asking questions and challenging while supporting (e.g. you might say, “What issues do you foresee encountering?”).

As we anticipate the premiere of Season 4 of “House of Cards,” mold yourself into a leader who is the antithesis of Frank Underwood—a leader fully aware of the impact of his/her behaviors both in and after the moment. If you do that, your beliefs, values and behaviors will move your organization from a Culture of Silence to a Culture of Voice.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events