Should You Speak Truth to Power?

Pete Ross

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“Signalman Ross, if it was up to me, I’d charge you with mutiny.”

Those were the exact words spoken to me once upon a time by a sergeant while I was at a training facility in the army. I’d broken one of the cardinal rules of the military — I’d gone above his head, also known as breaking the chain of command. We had a civilian instructor who was acting in a completely inappropriate and abusive manner on a daily basis, and this sergeant, who was supposed to be a military liaison between us and her, instead had his head jammed up her butt the entire time.

After one too many of her indiscretions and power plays that victimised members of numerous classes, I took it upon myself to inform a higher power. I wasn’t going to go to the sergeant, because in my opinion, he was derelict in his duty and didn’t have the self awareness to realise it. I wasn’t going to give him the benefit of telling him I’d be going above his head either. This is one of the classic things you’re supposed to do when you aren’t happy with a superior’s response, but all that does is give them a chance to screw you over before anything important gets done.

I’m still glad I did what I did. While I was guaranteed anonymity by the officer in charge, I knew the reality was that I’d be found out sooner or later. The civilian instructor was pulled into line, and the sergeant found out it was me. Despite him saying he wanted to charge me with mutiny, he couldn’t. He said “I’m hurt you thought you couldn’t come to me.” The hilarious thing is that this guy had previous form, and was not trustworthy.

What I later found out — because he was an infantry sergeant assigned as a military liaison at a language school of all places, is that he’d gotten himself in trouble on deployment. He’d misplaced his weapon and tried to pin it on one of his subordinates that actually found it to avoid disciplinary action. He was so ostracised by his unit that they’d moved him out of infantry for a posting cycle.

Believe it or not, that was the first time I took a stand on anything. I’d been raised to be a people pleasing respecter of authority, so the idea of doing anything like that when I was younger was anathema. Even when people had wronged me — be they friends, family or bosses, I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just act like it didn’t happen and put up with it, no matter how poorly I’d been treated. Instead I had the impotent response of inwardly seething every time it happened.

Doing that made me weak.

Make no mistake, every time you push down your instinct to say something or act in a way that is counter to what you believe to be right, you allow that person power over you. You leave the small wrongs and annoyances because you believe they aren’t worth making a fuss over, oblivious to the fact that by allowing those small wrongs, you’ve guaranteed the fact that you can’t speak up when the big ones happen.

People don’t just suddenly find a voice when things are really wrong, because it’s a muscle they’ve never exercised before.* That’s why some of the greatest atrocities in history happen and we look back wondering why no one ever objected.

After all, if you can’t bring yourself to speak up when a colleague says something racist, or an aunt is rude to your new girlfriend, or when the Subway sandwich artist starts to put on a topping you didn’t ask for, the last thing you’re going to do is speak up when something really important is on the line.

How many times have you gone along with something at work that you didn’t agree with because you didn’t want to rock the boat? Maybe you were scared of what your boss’s response would be, thinking it might hurt your shot at a promotion or maybe your performance evaluation for the year, so you shut your big trap and just went along with things.

If you feel powerless and small, this is one of the reasons. Whether it’s your overly assertive aunt, your boss, an obnoxious co-worker or someone you think is your friend, every time you let them steamroll you into agreeing with them or doing something you don’t like, you give them more power over you. You also make it more likely that someone else in your life will be able to do the same thing as well, because now you’ve ingrained it into a habit.

When it comes to work, one thing I’ve realised is that the people above you in the hierarchy are often no better, smarter or gifted than you are. Yet we fear them. We fear what they can do to us. Sure, they can make your life difficult if they’re petty and vengeful enough, but that’s a pretty damn good reason not to work for such a person in the first place. But the simple fact is they can’t do anything to you that is so bad you should abandon your principles and let them walk all over you.

In fact, you’ll often find that their response is the opposite of what you expect. I’ve had some really good bosses over the last few years, and numerous times I’ve said things like “I don’t think that’s a good idea, here’s why” or “that wasn’t cool what you said there, it felt like you were throwing me under the bus.” The response wasn’t that I got fired or reprimanded, it was willingness to be receptive to what I’d said and a resolution afterwards.

What you might not realise is that a lot of people who behave badly do it because they’ve been appeased by those around them for a long time. They don’t even realise how they act. Often when someone stands up to them, the response is one of shock rather than aggression. Stuttering and even tears can ensue after this, believe it or not, because a single person speaking up can change their entire world view. I’ve seen it happen.

That’s why you should ask yourself a really simple question:

What am I so scared will happen if I speak my mind?

Is it losing your job? Is it being yelled at? Is it being ostracised? Is it having an argument? Often we harbor irrational fears based on our evolution. In the case of work, dominance hierarchies have been part of our existence since before our species even existed. There was good reason not to speak up, because up until a few hundred years ago speaking truth to power would have earned your head a vacation from your body. There is also the issue of how we’ve been raised — some of us by dominant parents who wouldn’t tolerate any kind of disagreement.

Breaking out of this mold is difficult, but vital if we want to live as fully actualised adults. Asking yourself the question above is important in breaking down the irrational fears within you and realising that there is nothing to be scared of. There’s a second question that you should be asking though, one that will help you take the next step:

What are the consequences to me as a person for not speaking the truth or going along with things I know to be wrong?

If you can’t bring yourself to start taking a stand on the little things now, you’re always going to find yourself under the thumb of someone more assertive and controlling than you. You might finally get away from that boss or senior colleague who makes you feel small to a new job, but soon enough you’ll encounter someone else like that and you’ll be back at square one.

I do need to provide a small caveat here. The title of this piece was a question as to whether you should speak truth to power. Well, maybe. There’s a big difference between refusing to say or do things that make you weak and going toe to toe with someone higher up than you every time you disagree. That’s probably not a sound strategy for success because you’re going to be that annoying jerk who always wants to argue.

You also have to be prepared for the fact that when you do speak up, the other person isn’t always going to back down. It’s not going to be all beer and skittles where you’re some righteous crusader, righting all the wrongs that overbearing people have inflicted upon the world. You’ll probably get some resistance here and there, and you might even get into a couple of disagreements. That’s ok. Remember that you’re trying to resolve differences of opinion, not pick fights.

It’s important to note that while the first few times you speak your mind will be tough, you shouldn’t build it up too much in your mind. You’re not trying to confront Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and getting him to admit his guilt. All you’re trying to do is make the person understand that maybe you’re less than happy with something they said or did. They probably don’t even realise what they’ve done. All it requires is “hey, so the way you spoke to me in our meeting yesterday, I didn’t really like it. I thought you valued me as a member of your team?”

Notice the language there? It’s softened. It barely feels confronting. It even ends on a question, inviting them to reflect on their behaviour. It’s certainly not “THE TRUTH!? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

Start there. Don’t make the first stand you take into a huge deal where it feels like there is a lot at stake. Start small and build up that muscle. Work your way into becoming that person who doesn’t just let things slide all the time and who won’t put up with being trampled on.

Finally, remember that even when it doesn’t work out the way you want it to, standing tall is so much better than cowering in fear.

*You may be thinking “but you never stood up for yourself, and all of a sudden you did something as big as breaking the military chain of command! It couldn’t be that hard.” Fair enough point. The difference is that my personality made an abrupt change having gone through army boot camp. I was not the person I used to be after that experience, which certain family members found out very quickly on the other side.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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