Friday, May 17, 2013

Speaking Truth to Power

Telling the emperor he has no clothes can be tricky.  You remember the fairy tale about this. As I remember, the naïve young boy came out of the encounter unscathed, but the emperor was totally embarrassed. 

When I was in Vietnam, I was an inexperienced, freshly minted second lieutenant in a logistics company. On one of my early assignments, I was detached to work with a unit on the coast.  Landing craft would come up from Cam Ranh Bay loaded with 5000 gallon tank trailers full of gasoline.  When they arrived on the beach, the contents of the tankers would be pumped into other tankers that then took the product to the troops.  Pumping the gasoline from one trailer to another was time consuming.  I was observing the operation (that’s what officers do) with the lieutenant colonel in charge and made the comment, “Sir, wouldn’t it be easier just to exchange tankers?  We pull the loaded tankers off with the tractors, put the empty ones on the LST, and send them back to Cam Ranh Bay to be refilled.”  He looked at me, and I expected him to say that was dumbest thing he had ever heard, but instead he said, “That might just work.”  I am sure that we violated some regulations by the change, but it became standard procedure on that beach and saved a lot of time.

I was not so fortunate on another occasion.  I was involved in a planning team with the executive director of a denominational judicatory I served.  We had been encouraged to be open and honest about ways to improve the way the organization worked.  Another member of the team and I suggested some ways that the executive office could communicate more effectively with members of the organization.  The response from the rest of the team was silence and a disapproving look from the executive officer.  Needless to say, our suggestions were never implemented.

What are the lessons here?  For the person who is “telling the truth” as he or she sees it, the motivation to speak must be a desire to make things better for all concerned without seeking personal gain. Second, care must be taken to address the process and not a person.  When it appears that the focus of concern is on a person, defenses go up.  Third, no matter how good you feel that your idea may be, it will not necessarily be accepted.  Fourth, begin honest has consequences and they are not always good ones!

There are some lessons for the hearer—the recipient of the message--as well.  First, assume that the person making the suggestion wants to make things better for everyone, including you.  Second, try to suspend judgment on the suggestion (and the speaker) and consider the possibilities that result from pursuing their idea.  Third, don’t take it personally.  If you really care about your organization and want to provide effective leadership, you need to hear other points of view.

There is always some risk involved in providing another point of view to someone in position of power.  The person may feel threatened or offended and may choose to reject both the idea and the messenger.  The bottom line is, “Do you want to work for an organization that won’t even consider other options?”  If not, find a place where your creativity and initiative will be encouraged and rewarded.

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