Speaking Truth to Power Can Be Challenging

Speaking Truth to Power Can Be Challenging

  • Posted by Stephen White
  • On July 1, 2018
  • challenging authority, dissent, expressing divergent opinions, speaking truth to power


Is speaking truth to power a sign of disloyalty?  Is it career suicide to question decisions or challenge the status quo?  Is it realistic for those in positions of authority to naturally expect blind obedience and loyalty?  Does dissent equate to disloyalty?

The billboard depicts the boardroom from the movie.

A billboard from the 1956 movie Patterns starring Van Heflin and Ed Begley Senior.

A Memorable Film

Once in a while you watch a film, read a book or witness an event that causes you to reflect on an issue.  My “ah ha” moment occurred last week.

Because I am an early riser I seldom stay up past midnight.  Recently though I broke with my usual protocol to watch an incredible movie on the Rewind Channel.  The film was entitled “Patterns”.  Originally released in 1956 it was written by Rod Serling and stared Van Heflin and Ed Begley Sr.

The movie focuses on an industrial enterprise headquartered in Manhattan called Ramsay & Company, headed by a ruthless, domineering tycoon named Walter Ramsay.  Van Heflin portrayed a promising industrial engineer named Fred Staples who is promoted from a branch in Mansfield, Ohio to head office.  Ramsay’s strategy in promoting Staples was to groom him to replace Bill Briggs, played by Ed Begley Sr.  Briggs is an older, long service employee with a strong concern for the company’s employees.  Throughout the film Ramsay goes to great lengths to embarrass and humiliate Briggs, even going so far as to transfer his long time secretary.

During the course of the film Briggs and Ramsay clash repeatedly over various issues.  Early in the film there is one particularly memorable scene in the boardroom where Ramsay announces plans to acquire a new business and layoff its employees for six months.  All the members of the board sit silently as Ramsay announces this plan, and only Briggs has the courage to challenge both the decision and the process.  The altercation that ensues between the two men is heated and vitriolic, and adds considerably to the film’s realism.


Dissent vs. Disloyalty

Watching the film I was reminded of the issue of dissent and how it is often manifested in the workplace.  Noted American General George S. Patton is quoted as having said “When everyone in the room thinks alike then no one is thinking”.  Patton, like many other strong leaders, recognized that through discussion and challenging conventional opinions innovation and creativity is fostered. He understood that an unwillingness to investigate or explore alternative possibilities was stifling and potentially counter productive.

However, not all leaders subscribe to this viewpoint.  Many in positions of authority are convinced of the inviolability and soundness of their decisions.  In situations like this, how does an employee, and particularly, one in a subordinate role, raise questions or challenge decisions on which they hold strong reservations or are in opposition?  And if they speak up or raise objections, are they risking career suicide?


Calculated Risk versus Being Reckless

Make no mistake about it:  expressing divergent opinions, and speaking truth to power, takes guts.  Whether you are doing it in a one-on-one meeting with your boss, or in a boardroom like Bill Briggs, it takes courage and a strong belief in your convictions.  But how do you know if it is worth the risk?  Truth is you don’t, but here are some pointers that may help either in determining whether to step forward or how to advance your perspective:

1. Consider the consequences. Consciously evaluate the criticality of the issue, and whether the potential negative consequences of speaking up are worth the risk.

2. Wherever possible recruit allies.   Sound out others in a similar position to see if they hold the same opinion and viewpoint.  Evaluate their willingness to support you if you step forward to challenge.

3. Build your case.  Get your facts and have them readily at your disposal.  Make absolutely sure you have facts, figures and data to support your argument.

4. Prepare in advance, and simulate possible reactions.  Do a dry run to identify potential flaws or weaknesses in your argument.  Have a close colleague or family member critique your review to identify flaws or shortcomings in your argument.

5. Choose your moment.  Carefully evaluate to determine where and how to raise your opposition.  Try not to embarrass your boss, and ensure that the issue you are raising does not go viral throughout the organization.

6. Explore compromise options.  Rather than just opposing an idea, it may be more suitable to propose a compromise solution.  Options such as a pilot study, an additional review, further examination by a neutral third-party, or even a temporary delay, may be easier for your boss to accept than the wholesale rejection of an idea.

7. Use alternate approaches.  Is there another way besides directly confronting your supervisor that you can promote your alternate viewpoint?  For instance, is there an outside consultant, contractor or coach operating in your organization who has your boss’ ear and respect, and who could articulate your concerns without directly exposing you as the source?


Back to the Film

In the film Briggs challenged Ramsay directly.  However, he did so recognizing three things.  First, Briggs suspected that Ramsay would never directly fire him because of his strong identification with the organization.  Second, Briggs had already been humiliated, degraded and isolated repeatedly, and essentially had nothing to lose.  Third, Briggs argument was based on a strong moral imperative.  As the Industrial Relations Manager for the company he had worked hard to build and sustain positive employee relations, and his argument against the closure was based not on financial considerations but rather, humanistic values of decency and morality.


A Final Thought

Speaking truth to power can be challenging.  The more junior you are in an organization, or the less seniority you have, and especially if you are the only one fronting the issue, the greater the inherent risks.  Before going down this route think carefully about what is involved and what you have to gain or lose.  Sadly, not everyone is as accepting of divergent viewpoints as George Patton.

Additional Note

Want to find out more about this film?  Check out this reference from Rotten Tomatoes:  www.rottentomatoes.com/m/patterns

From the movie Patterns released in 1956.

The famous boardroom confrontation between Briggs and Ramsay from the movie Patterns.





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