Telling Truth to Power

Speaking the truth isn't just a matter of personal integrity; it's crucial for organizational success.
by | January 9, 2008

Being an ethical boss can be trying, but it's easy compared to being an ethical subordinate. Imagine working for a boss like Samuel Goldwyn -- arguably the world's most successful movie producer -- who famously said, "I don't want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs."

Telling the truth to the boss is the first responsibility of an ethical subordinate. We're hired for our brains and for the ability to use them. We're paid to give our best effort, which includes our best thinking.

Speaking the truth isn't just a matter of personal integrity; it's crucial for organizational success. Only about half of executives' decisions turn out well. Even the best bosses don't average much better. Their success depends largely on correcting mistakes quickly. Therefore, when the boss gives a faulty instruction or behaves poorly, an ethical subordinate must point out the error.

As a boss, I was often blessed with subordinates who were not yes-men -- and especially not yes-women. Once, during my tenure at the White House, two staff members organized a small conference that turned out to be a dreadfully gloomy affair. Afterwards I was depressed and wandered into the office of one of the organizers, and unburdened myself: "Boy, am I glad that's over! What an awful way to spend an afternoon! That was the most depressing meeting I've ever had to sit through."

I returned to my office, feeling better having gotten it off my chest. The feeling did not last for long, as Jean Logan -- a staff member who had overheard my comments -- flew into my office behind me and firmly shut the door. She then proceeded to give me a major dressing down: "Bob Stone, what you just did was awful! Those people worked their hearts out for two weeks to make this happen, and in 10 seconds you totally demoralized them. You should be ashamed of yourself and you should apologize!"

Jean was right, of course. She was being an ethical subordinate, doing the right thing even when it was hard to do and involved some risk. (P.S.: I apologized.)

Sometimes ethical behavior can get you into trouble with a boss who doesn't value it. Nevertheless, the potential costs or benefits enter into the decision of whether to act ethically. When you sign on as a knowledge worker, you are also taking a vow to do your best critical thinking. If that process leads you to conclude that the boss is wrong, then you are ethically bound to let them know.

If you're lucky, however, there's potentially a big payoff for such tenacity. Jean Logan explains, "I understand that I've been very lucky to work at things I love with people I love, and many people don't get that opportunity. But you're sure not going to get it unless you're willing to make yourself uncomfortable and go looking for it."

I learned about telling truth to power from Warren K. "Doc" Lewis, the father of chemical engineering in the United States and an inspiration to me in my days at MIT. Lewis told the story of a young engineer, newly hired in a steel mill, whose first assignment was to look around and learn how the plant worked. He soon stumbled onto the fact that the blast furnace was dependent for cooling upon a single pump. If the pump failed, there would be millions of dollars in damage.

He told his new boss, and then his boss's boss, but they both brushed him off. Undaunted, he kept telling people up the line, but to no avail. Finally, he got to the plant manager, who also brushed him off. Soon afterward, the pump failed, and the blast furnace was wrecked. The plant manager called in the young engineer and fired him.

"But I tried to warn you how critical a pump failure would be."

"If you knew, you should have made me listen."

An employment contract entails an obligation to tell the truth to the boss, even if you have to make them listen.

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