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Speak Truth to Power



This is a well-known phrase and also served as the subtitle to an on-line course I took recently on political consulting. I thought it would be useful as a follow-up to the last blog post which comprised the Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good. It is all well and good to say that one should speak truth to power. But how exactly does one go about that? Most people realize that exercise is good for them and eating lots of refined sugar is not; but knowing that is not enough to make those lifestyle changes happen. It is easy to forgo exercise; it is easy to get hooked on sugar; it is easy to “go along” with whoever is in power and accept or acquiesce in whatever they say. Hopefully, the pattern Speak Truth to Power can help motivate people but also provide some guidance in how to go about it. The result will be organizations that are more effective and efficient as well as being more life-promoting to interact with or belong to. That said, if you are like most people, it will be uncomfortable initially to speak truth to power just as it will be uncomfortable to start an exercise program or stop your sugar addiction. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

A committed individual can accomplish a lot. In many cases, however, an organization can accomplish a lot more. Most organizations have some kind of power structure. In order to collaborate and cooperate most effectively, it is important to understand, not only how to be an outstanding individual contributor to the goals of that organization; it is also important to know how to help the organization as a whole meet its goals. The next few Patterns should help with being effective in your work for and with organizations: Speak Truth to Power; Find Allies; Seek Forgiveness, not Permission; Servant Leadership; Prioritize; Seek to Work Down, not Up the Chain of Command.  

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas in May, 2018



Be Yourself. Be Honest.


Human beings often need to form large groups in order to accomplish great things. In order to coordinate the actions of a large group, the most commonly used mechanism is to form a hierarchy of power and control. In the best of circumstances, information flows up such a chain of command only so far as it needs to; decisions are made; these decisions are carried out through the chain of command. Such “command and control” structures can be efficient, but they are subject to the difficulty that people in positions of power may use their power, not to achieve the goals of the organization but instead use the organization only for their own ends. People in power may concoct a rationalization or story or outright lie that makes it seem as though they are doing things for the common good when they are only doing things to consolidate their own power or to make themselves comfortable. People in power may discourage subordinates from giving them honest feedback about the effects of their decisions. As an antidote, it is important for everyone in the organization to speak truth to power. That is, you must find a way to insure that important information, including “bad news,” is made available to the organization.


Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. In many cases, these groups have considerable structure including, importantly, a hierarchical control structure which gives some people the power to make decisions. Often, these decisions are not just about the appropriate course of action for the group as a whole; they also include decisions about the other people in the group; e.g., who to promote, give a raise to, fire, okay a transfer, write a recommendation and so on. Hopefully, the person “in charge” of a group or team within a larger organization knows or makes sure to learn a good deal about the domain as well as the people he or she works with. Ideally, people use their power to gather information, facilitate fruitful discussion, and make decisions that people within the group understand even if they don’t always agree. However, as point out in the Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good, it is also possible that the person “in charge” uses power primarily for their own benefit; in extreme cases, they will use it for sexual exploitation, to blame others for their bad decisions, to take credit for things they didn’t do and so on. Such bosses often only want to hear about the good that comes from their decisions. They only want to hear data and arguments that support their positions.



Groups function better if decisions are based on facts. Yet, sometimes the person in charge does not want to hear facts that argue for a different course of action from the one they want or if the facts show that a previous decision turned out to be a bad one. People who work for such a boss may well know these “uncomfortable facts” but the boss has the power to promote them, fire them, give them a raise, and so on. This puts pressure on those who work for such a boss to tell the boss what he or she wants to hear so as to stay in their good graces. If a bad decision is made it is generally bad for the overall organization, the team, and at least some of the individuals on the team.


  • Having power tempts many people to abuse that power.
  • A person in power can bestow positive and negative sanctions based on obedience and compliance rather than competence.
  • People in an organization know they are supposed to be working for the best interests of the organization as a whole.
  • If a person in power signals (implicitly or explicitly) that they will use that power to put everyone under them in compliance with their wishes rather than what is best for the organization, it is tempting to be compliant.
  • When faced with an ethical dilemma, if people do what is expedient rather than what is right, they can generally find a way to “rationalize” their unethical decision.
  • An organization that runs on personal power as the driver for decision making will make inept decisions that are often at cross-purposes.
  • An organization that runs on personal power will tend to attract and keep the kind of person who will fail ethical tests.
  • If some people in an organization are willing to forgo the facts in order to please the boss, it will tend to encourage others to do the same.
  • If some people in an organization are willing to speak truth to power, it will encourage others to do the same.




Speak truth to power. There are many ways to do this. Depending on circumstances and the character (or lack of character) of the person in power, it may help to be bombastic, quiet, rational, emotional, respectful, or find a way to demonstrate that taking facts into account is in their interests as well. In many traditional and highly hierarchical Japanese companies, the workers always defer during working hours and publicly. After hours, a junior person may “unfortunately” get drunk and “accidentally” let the truth out to his superiors. Later, after sobering up, they apologize. In the Middle Ages, the Court Jester might tell the King truth. However you do it, speak truth to power. And, if you are in power, encourage everyone to speak the truth to you.


  1. To understand this example, it takes a while to set the stage. You need that background in order to understand how necessary it was to speak truth to power. For a time, I was the Executive Director for an AI lab. The company that I worked for was having a problem with their credibility. Fewer than 15% of the union people trusted top management. The figure for people in management like me, was even lower. The CEO called in a top consultant who told them about what Sam Walton did (who, at that time, enjoyed high trust among his employees). Every week, he had an hour long conference call. Each of his 700 store managers were on the call. Each manager had a chance to describe in one minute, a problem that he or she had encountered and how they had solved it. Part of the reason this process worked for Sam Walton was that he already had a lot of credibility. He would spend fully half his time traveling the country in jeans and a pick-up truck with two dogs in the back. He knew each of his store managers personally. Beyond that, while clearly some problems are local, any given store manager might very well have a solution to a problem that the other 699 could use.

By contrast, in the company I worked for, at this time, there were 70,000 “managers” in the company. The range of jobs among these 70,000 was tremendous. Some, like me, were in R&D. Others were telecom engineers or personnel counselors or accountants or software engineers. Our CEO at that time was definitely not someone wear jeans nor to ride around in a pickup truck with dogs in the back. He definitely was someone who “stood on ceremony” and expected others to do the same.

Management realized that 70,000 was far too many for everyone to speak about problems and solutions, but they still thought it important to make this weekly experience interactive. So, they decided that each week, the CEO would talk at the 70,000 managers for an hour about something important such as that they had a clear understanding of their precise role and duties. After the talk, each of the 70,000 managers would be asked to react with the touch-tone keypad. In this example, they were supposed to indicate on a 10-point scale how much they had a clear understanding of their precise role and duties. The basic structure of this had been decided. They came to me, because I was an “expert” in human-computer interaction. They wanted to know whether the “0” key should be used to indicate a “ten” or whether it was better to use “9” as the top of the scale and “0” as the bottom of the scale.



I made it very clear that this plan was a disaster waiting to happen and would do nothing to improve trust between people in the company and top management. After explaining this as clearly, yet politely as I could, the person from Corporate who presented the plan said, in essence:

“Well, when my boss asks me what the best way to do something is, it isn’t my job to tell him that it’s a bad idea. It’s my job to figure out the best way to do it.”

I said, in essence:

“Well, if my boss asks me what sort of chain saw he should use to trim his  hair, I think it is definitely my job to tell him that trimming his hair with a chain saw is a really bad idea.”

The guy from Corporate was not pleased. Eventually, however, before implementing this plan, they did run some focus groups and I am happy to report that this plan was never implemented.

Of course, it’s uncomfortable to be a nay-sayer, particularly when the CEO of the company has already been involved in choosing (what I saw as) a disastrous course of action. But the alternative would have been to dishonest. The alternative would ultimately done a disservice to myself, my work colleagues, the stockholders of the company and, indeed, to the CEO himself.

In my opinion, you should always be mentally prepared to lose your job even before you accept the job offer. You should be prepared to be fired for insubordination, laid off for no reason, or suffer at the hands of someone in power who is not really doing what is best for the organization. Then, when you are surprised by someone making an absurd request, you already know where you stand.


2. In the 1990’s, I became intrigued with the idea of a “Learning Organization.” The idea is simple in essence but non-trivial to implement. Just as individual animals (including humans) learn, so too can an organization be set up so that lessons learned by a few can be shared by the many. (Some of the Story Patterns just posted are meant to encourage just that). Working with consultants, my colleague Bart Burns and I made the outline of a plan to help turn our company into one that was a “Learning Organization.” In order to modify this plan appropriately and ensure its acceptance, it would be necessary to get the CEO’s backing. (FYI, this was a different CEO than in example 1). I decided that I wanted to present this to our CEO directly. This is, of course, not how things are typically done. Good manners would be to convince my boss. If I convinced him it was a good idea, I would still have to convince him to try to convince his boss. And, not only would I have to convince my boss to convince his boss; I would have to convince him to convince his boss to convince his boss. And so on. I knew the company. I knew it would never happen. The further up the management chain you went, the more conservative the people were about “shaking the boat.”

Instead, I set up an appointment with the CEO directly, went to the meeting, made the pitch. I immediately told my boss what I had done and why. It was a gamble, but my boss was a smart man. He realized I was right that it would never go up the hierarchy to the CEO. Furthermore, even if I had convinced my boss, he might still appear foolish to his boss, or his boss’s boss. Basically, by not telling my boss, I had actually saved him some potential embarrassment and hassle. This is not a method I would try many times in a career and you’d better be ready for consequences. In this case, I felt that the transformation that it might have made to the organization was worth the risk. The “truth” here was not something that could be proven with the kind of certainty we have about, say, global climate change. I could not “prove” that being a Learning Organizations was a good idea. So, it was speaking my truth to power, not an objectively provable truth.


3. In The Shawshank Redemption, a crucial turning point in the movie occurs when the main character, Andy, overhears one of the prison guards talking about some tax problems. He asks the guard whether he trusts his wife. The guard is ready to kill him, but Andy persists. If the guard can really trust his wife, Andy can show him how to avoid the taxes by putting everything in the name of the guard’s wife. This allows Andy to begin working for all he guards and indeed making lots of money for the prison officials. He eventually uses the information to his great benefit. In this plot, Andy was taking a chance. It would have been easier just to keep his head down and say nothing.

Resulting Context:

Speaking truth to power tends to help an organization be effective. It tends to prevent people in power from trying to dictate truth to suit their private agenda. In addition, when people speak the truth, it makes for a more creative, more peaceful workplace. People can concentrate on finding out what’s what and doing what’s correct, not dwell on what the likes and dislikes of the next person in the hierarchy are or how to curry favor with them. “The truth shall make you free.”

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check.