Updated: Oct 12
Reading the Excessively Revealing Book, Bad Blood.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies about a Silicon Valley Startup was written by John Carreyrou is the story of Elizabeth Holmes, a founder of Theranos, who had visions of paving a new phlebotomy landscape, but instead defrauded investors, misled patients, and scared many employees into hiding.
I’m a big watcher of documentaries and have watched several documentaries on Theranos. I enjoyed the book as it went into more detail about the company's inner workings than many of the documentaries I’d seen.
Before I started reading the book, I thought about whether Elizabeth was in over her head and couldn’t stop “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” After reading the book, I felt that the level of fraud and deceit with investors, consumers, and employees was intentional. At the expense of nearly everyone in their path; Elizabeth and Sunny thought they could avoid responsibility for their actions until they had a viable product to market.
It is interesting because she had a real vision of changing the world, but her behavior toward people in her company did not reflect this image. She brought on big names to sit on her board, people who were willing to eat up her nonsense at the expense of her company's culture and employees and patient well-being.
The tragedy that happened to patients, employees, and the company that was the result of this ongoing deceit is worth investigating and asking, what can other organizations learn from this epic failure?
Low transparency creates a state of fear and distrust.
I say no transparency, but I suppose that's what I really mean no transparency. At all. The company took secrecy and lack of trust to militant levels. The company monitored the employees' every move, including when they went to the bathroom, what emails they read, and who at work they talked to. Some employees even suspected they were being followed and monitored after they left the company. This type of management destroys morale and is demoralizing.
According to a 2021 Pew Research study, one of the top three reasons people left their jobs was due to feeling disrespected in the workplace (35%). According to SHRM, 53% have left because of their manager. My reading of the book suggests that many capable adults were demoralized and disrespected on a continual basis, which prevented employees from doing the job they thought they were hired to do. Many of them, I think, simply gave up.
A bully is not the making for a good manager.
Elizabeth’s counterpart, Sunny, was a man she had been dating on and off for nearly 20 years unbeknownst to her employees and board members. He was the muscle of the company, there to do the company’s “dirty work.” Sunny was a bully who often threatened and yelled at employees, in behavior that I would classify as workplace violence. 75% of employees who feel harassed at work, do not report it (Civility Partners, 2021). It did not appear that Theranos had an HR department nor anyone to advocate for employees. It is unclear how effective an HR department would have been if it had existed.
In this type of hostile environment, employees are prone to making mistakes. It also is a breeding ground that fosters fraudulent activity. In fact, one employee had become so distraught over what was taking place at the company and faced so much ongoing bullying that he took his own life. Still, think that the psyche of people is not affected by their job? Think again.
Lying is no bueno for company culture.
Creating a good company culture takes time, effort, and dedication. You can’t shortcut the process. The question remains, what would have happened if the work environment and circumstances had been different for Theranos? Could they have produced a viable product? I am not an expert in the medical industry. However, lying to your investors, employees, and the public is never good for company culture or product development.
As with most people, I understand how difficult it can be to listen actively and how hard it can be to receive feedback. Businesses hire teams for a reason. Your team members can help you see past your blind spots to make informed decisions. Many of the people Elizabeth consulted medical experts that predicted that her idea would be difficult to execute. Instead of pivoting or asking more questions, she forged ahead.
Your team can help you build your business in ways that you could never do alone, but you must trust them, and understand that you brought them on to build something better together. Building something together often means that you have to relinquish some control, something leaders at Theranos were unwilling to do.
Bad Blood was a fascinating read. The book sheds light not just on the medical misfortunes of Theranos, but also on how mismanagement, secrecy, and bullying impacted employees long term. Some may never get over their experiences with the company and that is a shame.
2022. SHRM. The Culture Effect. Workplace Study.
2021. Civility Partners, Presentation, Association for Talent Development, Organizational Development Conference.
2022. March. Pew Research.